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Nice is the key to excellence for new UMB president Perman

Pediatrician's goals to take on childhood obesity, other big problems are rooted in teamwork

By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Jay Perman preaches the gospel of nice.

Employees follow the incoming president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore from job to job because they so enjoy working with him.

Medical students at the University of Kentucky remember their pleasant shock at hearing the dean say they couldn't be good doctors if they weren't good people first.

"I wear it as a badge of honor," says Perman, who began his new job Thursday. "There's not enough nice in health care. Nice is what the public demands."

Some might question whether a guy who's known for his collegial demeanor is the right choice to lead a university that endured a turbulent spring because of lax controls over a former law dean's salary. But Perman, a pediatrician by trade, rejects the notion that nice is antithetical to firm.

At Kentucky, if he heard that a star doctor had a reputation for nastiness among colleagues, he'd call the offender in for coffee. He'd lay out his expectations for decent behavior and if, after a few months, he heard that his words had no effect, he'd fire the cantankerous doctor.

"If there's a concern that one of his people has done something inappropriate, he will look into it," says Elsie Stines, a Silver Spring nurse practitioner who commuted from Maryland to Kentucky every week so she could work with Perman. "He always addresses it and says, 'This is what I've done. These are the steps we've taken to fix it.' He's always direct. He does not like for things to fester."

"I'm the president of a university," Perman says. "I have the bully pulpit. Who says nice doesn't get you further than not nice?"

Nice had a lot to do with Perman becoming a pediatrician. As a medical student at Northwestern University, he thought he'd be a gynecologist. But every time he entered the operating room, he realized that his real interest lay with the baby being born.

Nice led him to administration. He felt deeply satisfied when one of his hires was published in the New England Journal of Medicine or won a big grant from the National Institutes of Health, so he sought that feeling on a grander and grander scale.

Even Perman's grand ideas tend to have nice at their core. He wants his university to take on big problems, like childhood obesity, but he figures that can't happen if the scientists at the medical school don't fully appreciate and collaborate with the law students who shape public policy.

Back to Baltimore

Perman's hiring at University of Maryland is a homecoming. He made his reputation as a top pediatric researcher at the Johns Hopkins University and then chaired the pediatrics department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He raised his four children in Baltimore, coached youth sports and served on the board at Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills.

He says his new job might be the only one that would have lured him from Kentucky, where he established school-based programs to combat obesity and pushed initiatives to steer doctors back to their medically underserved rural hometowns.

"I think the setting is perfect for him," says Stines, who will continue to work as Perman's nurse and hopes to set up programs to help Baltimore students reach medical school and to train nurses from Haiti.

Perman, 63, is a first-generation American, born and raised in Chicago. His parents are Ukrainian. He attended undergraduate and medical school at Northwestern and harbored no greater ambition than to practice pediatrics in his home city for the rest of his life. But he ran into a question he could not shake: Why did so many infants have gastrointestinal problems that defied treatment?

"I was frustrated that we didn't have any way to get them better and fascinated that we did not know how to address this problem," Perman says. "Those were the seeds of my academic interest."

Unable to find the answers he sought in the Midwest, Perman moved east to Harvard University, where he learned to do heavy-duty research. From there, he went to the University of California, San Francisco and, in 1984, to Hopkins, where he established a full-blown program in pediatric gastroenterology.