OHSU President Joe Robertson to Retire, Cites MS Diagnosis

Though he intends to begin collecting PERS this fall, Robertson says he will work unpaid for the rest of the academic year, as a search for his successor is launched.

OHSU President Joe Robertson will retire at the end of the month, but plans to continue working in a slightly scaled back capacity, as he begins treatment following a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, he announced this week.

Robertson will begin receiving payments under the Public Employees Retirement System in November, but told The Lund Report that he will also work unpaid as OHSU president for the rest of the academic year – ending his tenure years earlier than he had hoped.

“My mild MS case and slow progression to date are good factors,” Robertson said, noting that since receiving his diagnosis six weeks ago he has identified minor MS symptoms that date back seven years. “If you look at patients and follow them over the long term, those who make the appropriate changes in their lifestyle and take treatment as prescribed – which I don’t think can be done at the 125 percent of effort required to do this job – they do better over the long-term than those who choose to live their lives the way they did before diagnosis.”

OHSU’s governing board will convene next week to begin a months-long search process for his replacement. Maria Pope, OHSU board chairwoman, declined to speculate on how long the process might take – but did not dispute the possibility that it could take beyond Robertson’s departure at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year to hire his successor.

“As we look forward, we are going to make sure that the process is inclusive, that it’s representative of all Oregonians, and serves the best interests of our citizens,” Pope said. “The search process will take a while. We have not had a chance yet to discuss this as a board and hear from the experts in the process. We will do that in October and will move ahead from there.”

Robertson, a retinal surgeon who joined the OHSU faculty in 1985, became president in 2006. Under his tenure, the university expanded along Portland’s south waterfront, added an aerial tram between the waterfront and its Marquam Hill campus, raised $1.2 billion under its Knight Cancer Challenge, and established numerous partnerships with educators and healthcare institutions across the state. Though employment is up by 4,500 since Robertson’s hiring, OHSU has also weathered tight budgets at times, and has seen faculty express disgruntlement during his tenure.

As he reflected on at a number of efforts still underway, Robertson said he has no regrets about deciding to retire earlier than planned – even if it means he will not get to see all to completion.

“While there is a lot going on at OHSU and there are a lot of important projects, that’s really no different than at any time at OHSU if you go back into its history,” he said, noting that at any time he chose to retire this would have been the case.

Robertson’s diagnosis with MS at age 65 is unusual. Most people are diagnosed at a younger age.

He said he expects to miss committee meetings and hand off some paperwork, but that he will stick with most of his commitments through the end of his time as president.

“I am still capable of doing this job, I probably need to be a bit more selective about what I do, but I think I’m fully capable,” he said. “My symptoms are mild enough that we have the luxury of making this a transition over a period of a few months, but I do need to commit to making the change.”

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