Catherine Gilliss, RN, PhD ’83 : Returning home as dean
Former department chair Catherine Gilliss returned to UCSF last fall as dean, her third deanship at a top U.S. nursing school.
Here’s what the nationally recognized expert in family nursing has to say about where the profession is going and how UCSF will help it get there.
You have achieved an academic nursing three-peat, serving as dean at Yale, Duke, and now UCSF. What do you love about being dean?
My friends are calling me Dean Again, but philosophically, the attraction is about giving back to the place that launched my professional life. Coming back to UCSF after 20 years, I feel like I’m returning home. And I like working. I find being a dean satisfying because I’m fascinated by complex organizations, and I’m quite committed to reform. I have always chosen to be where change was expected; that has been true throughout my career.
Over your five decades in nursing, how has the field evolved?
Nursing has always been about helping people get what they need to be healthy – both care and information. That has not changed, but the practice of nursing has changed dramatically. There’s a much faster pace of progress in the science that underlies care and the technology that’s used to deliver it. For instance, our partners at the VA [San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center] tell me they now expect their registered nurses not only to be technically competent at bedside, but also to understand population health care. At UCSF, we want to ensure that we are preparing our graduates with the skills needed for today and tomorrow.
What is your vision for the School of Nursing?
UCSF has always been a leader in science and education for clinical care. I expect that we will increase our use of technology in delivering educational programs and provide more opportunities for our students to use technologies, such as telehealth, for monitoring and delivering care. With the opening of our Center for Physiologic Research, I also envision that we will advance the science of health monitoring, using new instrumentation and large data sets to better understand patterns of health and illness.
What other opportunities does technology present?
Most of our students are licensed as registered nurses, and many of them are working. We have to develop easier access to our educational programs for the working student. One possibility is online offerings: Many other schools have moved toward that, even for high-touch programs. We also have the opportunity to repurpose elements of our degree offerings for high-quality continuing education for working health professionals, who must engage in lifelong learning to stay current.
Do you think of yourself as a nurse or a leader?
Both. I spent 2015 as a fellow at Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute and was planning to study leadership but moved in a different direction. I turned toward courses that refreshed old interests – one in writing memoirs and another in American song. The experience reminded me that I was a nurse – and more. Nursing has been at my core for a long, long time. And I love creating, organizing, enabling, reforming. I hope to be remembered for those qualities.