By Rebecca Renshaw
Note: Since the publication of this article, Dr. Kevin Dorsey has assumed the role of interim president for the SIU system as of July 30, 2018.
If you talk to Dr. Kevin Dorsey for more than a few minutes, you’ll recognize that his life passion is reflected within the mission of SIU School of Medicine, which he led for 14 years. That mission is “to assist the people of central and southern Illinois in meeting their health care needs through education, patient care, research and service to the community.”
Dorsey, who has been with the school since the early 1970s, says it was founded to improve the health of central and southern Illinois residents.
“We recruit and admit students from those regions, educate them and hope that, after they complete their training, they will return back to central or southern Illinois because the people in those areas need physicians,” he says.
Dorsey’s other commitment is to total community health.
“I’m pretty passionate about community health and service,” he says. “It’s just not enough to create physicians to go back to our Illinois communities. We must get out into the community to improve poverty and education and housing. Social determinants of health are critically important.”
He says the new generation of doctors will make a difference.
“Our students are great,” he says. “They are more committed to social justice, they have a strong conscience and they want to do good in the world. We need to enable their success, which is why I decided to initiate the SIU School of Medicine ‘Alumni Class Challenge.’ ”
As his parting act as dean and provost of the School of Medicine, Dorsey issued an SIU School of Medicine “Alumni Class Challenge” in 2015. He challenged each class to collectively raise at least $25,000 to endow a scholarship in honor of their class. Matching grant funds totaling $500,000 would be available to double the gifts or pledges received by Dec. 31, 2015.
The result was a resounding success. Most notably, gifts in honor of Dorsey’s leadership established the J. Kevin Dorsey Endowed Scholarship. This is the School of Medicine’s largest endowed scholarship fund, and it will assist several students each year for generations to come.
The need for the scholarships might be a surprise to some, but not to Dorsey.
“One thing you must understand about our students is that, coming from central and southern Illinois, they are in the lower parental income brackets,” he says. “However, medical students across the nation tend to be from the top 20 percent in parental income.
“When you look at the average indebtedness of an SIU School of Medicine graduate, he or she comes out with an average accrual of roughly $180,000 in debt. That figure is significantly higher compared to other medical schools that can offer huge scholarships to students. The Alumni Class Challenge will help more students with more scholarships to assist them in their medical studies.”
Dorsey came to SIU School of Medicine as one of its founding faculty members, arriving with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and teaching the first two classes in the school’s history. Dorsey then became a student in the third class and obtained an M.D. degree from SIU. He completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in rheumatology at the University of Iowa before returning to southern Illinois to practice rheumatology.
“While I had obtained a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin and a postdoctoral fellowship in cell biology at Johns Hopkins a few years before, I recognized that a career in bench research just wasn’t going to do it for me,” he says. “I wanted to directly and immediately make a difference in people’s lives.”
As the end of his tenure as dean and provost in December 2015, more than 2,600 medical students had graduated from the School of Medicine.
The school offers an M.D., a master’s degree and doctoral degree in various biomedical sciences, including a master’s degree for physician assistant students, as well as advanced training in clinical specialties (17 residencies and 13 fellowships). There also is a small number of SIU students each year who pursue combined degree programs in law and medicine, or in medicine and public health.
When asked what he wants his legacy to be, his answer is simple: “I tried to fulfill the mission.”
Reflecting on his parting gift as dean and how others could contribute, Dorsey says, “Whatever anyone can contribute – whether it is time, talent or resources – all of it is valuable and important.”