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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

New chancellor envisions major turnaround for UPR’s Medical Sciences Campus

At the top of the new chancellor’s list of priority items for the Medical Sciences Campus is retaking, along with the Health Department, a leading role as a health authority on the island.

By The Star Staff

Ilka Ríos, the newly appointed University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Medical Sciences Campus (MSC) chancellor, has a handful of plans and a clear vision to turn the campus, which recently lost the accreditation of one of its programs and is enduring budget cuts, into a major hub for quality higher education.

In an interview with the STAR, Ríos, who is a dentistry professor and researcher at MSC, read a list of her ambitious plans. At the top of the list is retaking, along with the Health Department, a leading role as a health authority on the island, including the accreditation of all its academic programs and medical student residencies.

After the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) revoked the accreditation of the Neurosurgery Residency program last year, MSC opted not to appeal the decision but to create a new program and submit it for accreditation.

In response to a question from the STAR, Ríos said that personally she did not agree with the decision made by her predecessor against appealing ACGME’s decision because it will now take three years to bring the program back.

She noted that MSC had already resolved some of the issues pointed out by ACGME, including the purchasing of equipment.

“There were also attenuating circumstances, like the pandemic and Hurricane Maria, that prevented the campus from fixing some of the issues,” she said. “But it is a decision that was made and we have to work with it.”

Ríos said she is already working toward the goal of getting back the program’s accreditation as soon as possible. Without the accreditation, MSC can’t accept any students to the residency program and the campus does not have a local version of the program, or “residencia criolla” in Spanish. The resulting problem with the lack of accreditation is that it is up to the Health Department to pay for the neurosurgeons at the Río Piedras Medical Center.

“I want to put my energy into complying with all the requirements to get the program back,” Ríos said.

Ríos, who had the support of MSC’s Academic Senate and obtained the highest scores in a report to become chancellor, almost did not get the job. UPR Interim President Mayra Olavarría Cruz only wanted MSC Interim Chancellor Wanda Maldonado for the position.

Olavarría Cruz’s action was criticized by former UPR President José Saldaña, who noted Ríos’ accomplishments and qualifications. Ríos has been interim vice president at UPR; chairwoman of the Molecular Sciences Research Center Executive Board; director of the MD/PhD Partnership Program between the University of Texas Health MD Anderson Cancer Center GSBS and the UPR School of Medicine; dean of academic affairs, interim chancellor, dean of student affairs and academic senator at MCS; and consultant to the Institute of Forensic Sciences.

The UPR governing board ended up voting for Ríos despite Olavarría Cruz’s preference.

Ríos said she has a cordial relationship with the interim president.

“I have always been inclined to collaborate,” she said.

The new chancellor noted that her goal is to fulfill the best interest of MCS’s five schools and its students “as they are our institution’s reason for being.”

MCS has a budget of $106.2 million for fiscal year 2022, which began in July, and is receiving a $17 million allocation from the governing board to compensate for budget cuts.

Among her plans as chancellor are to bring out to the public the positive things that MCS is doing, which she says is a lot.

“For instance, MSC has community initiatives all across the island, but lately those have been invisible,” she said. “The things that have come out have been negative.”

MSC, through a $10 million federal allocation, is slated to provide training to various personnel in the Education Department.

There is also a high research and investigation component to the work at MSC. The campus is doing research work in conjunction with MD Anderson and the National Science Foundation that totals over $40 million in grants. This includes pioneering research in COVID-19 and the immunity provided by vaccines. In that regard, Ríos wants to reinforce the support system to allow MCS professors to enhance their research.

“Everything that we do is beneficial to the entire world,” she said.

The MSC also has combined programs with other institutions for its students. These are programs in which medical school graduates can conduct studies at other schools and their residencies, including those that go to MD Anderson, some of which return for work at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at UPR.

MCS is slated to start classes on Monday, in virtual form, but will continue to do what are called its intramural clinics, Ríos said.

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