SUNDAY EDITION | A career ‘fixer,’ Greg Postel takes on biggest job yet at University of Louisville
Dr. Gregory Postel thought he would practice medicine his whole career. Instead, he's been thrust into one leadership role after another over 23 years at the University of Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When Dr. Gregory Postel officially became the University of Louisville’s interim vice president for health affairs last year, his boss at the time – then-U of L President James Ramsey – told Postel to essentially ignore his “interim” tag and “embrace the role” as if it would be his permanent job.
“The University does not need a caretaker during this interim period,” Ramsey wrote to Postel in a March 2016 letter. “We need a leader who can accelerate the momentum” of the downtown medical campus.
Less than a year later, Postel would take Ramsey’s advice to heart as he stepped into an even bigger role -- replacing Ramsey as interim president of the university.
Ramsey’s 14-year tenure at U of L came to an abrupt end last July when he was pressured to take a buyout. The university’s interim provost, Neville Pinto, then stepped into the top job only to leave in February to become president of the University of Cincinnati.
That left Postel, a neuro-radiologist and 23-year veteran of the university, as the only high-ranking administrator willing to commit to leading U of L for a year or two until a permanent successor is named.
“I don’t think he was aspiring to this role, but when the opportunity came up, he was willing to lean in and step up,” said U of L medical school dean Dr. Toni Ganzel, a longtime colleague of Postel’s.
Such has been the arc of Postel’s career at U of L – a series of administrative promotions driven more by circumstances than by his own ambitions.
“I like to fix things,” Postel said in a recent interview in his office at U of L’s Grawemeyer Hall. “That’s been, sort of, my job since I came to the University of Louisville.”
Postel said he started at the university in 1994 “thinking I was going to practice medicine for my whole career.” In fact, he’s been an administrator for 20 years.
Postel, 55, now confronts the biggest fixing job of his career.
U of L has very few permanent leaders with the departure of Ramsey; Pinto; David Dunn, the former health vice president that Postel replaced; and Harlan Sands, the former chief financial and administrative officer, among others. Even the university’s interim chief administrative officer announced his departure earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the university is trying to get off probation with its accrediting agency while dealing with financial problems that weren’t fully recognized during the Ramsey era.
It’s also weighing litigation over its free-spending nonprofit foundation and fighting the NCAA on severe penalties that were handed down earlier this month after a prostitution scandal in the men’s basketball program.
While playing a key role in all those issues, Postel hasn’t been able to hand off management of the medical campus.
He still serves as U of L’s interim vice president for health affairs, a role that includes overseeing U of L’s transition to managing University Hospital and the James Graham Brown Center after KentuckyOne Health gives up the facilities on July 1.
“He’s done an outstanding job under extremely difficult circumstances,” said J. David Grissom, chairman of U of L’s board of trustees.
Postel said he tries to keep the myriad of issues U of L faces in context.
“Physicians are used to crisis,” he said.
While the university’s challenges are serious, Postel said, no one is “bleeding to death.”
Stepping in when needed
A native of Canton, Ohio, Postel’s first trial by fire in leadership came in 1997, when he said he was “thrown into” becoming chairman of U of L’s department of radiology only three years after joining the medical school after his final post-graduate fellowship.
At the time, the department was plagued by debt, high turnover and substandard facilities, Postel said.
“The dean was retiring and, sort of as a Hail Mary on his way out the door, asked this 35-year-old kid if he wanted to be chair,” Postel said. “I had no idea what that entailed. But I was here, I was part of the company at that point and I wanted to do what was needed.”
Postel would go on to run the radiology department for two decades while later serving as CEO of University of Louisville Physicians, the umbrella practice group for U of L doctors, and as vice dean of clinical affairs.
“He has always stepped in wherever he is needed, and that is why he is where he is today,” said Dr. Kelly McMasters, chairman of U of L’s surgery department and longtime friend of Postel’s.
Since he stepped into the university presidency in late January, Postel’s routine has meant splitting time between U of L’s main Belknap Campus and the Health Sciences Center downtown.
He said he starts most days with email at 5:30 a.m., is in the office around 7 a.m. and tries to leave by 6 p.m. to be home for dinner with his wife, Sally, and 6-year-old twin boys Chris and Alex.
“I don’t want to miss watching them grow up,” he said.
Postel’s longtime colleagues cited his intellect, command of minute details, unassuming attitude and personal integrity as factors helping him juggle the high-profile roles.
“He is usually the smartest guy in the room, but he is not somebody who is going to let you know that,” said McMasters, the godfather of one of Postel’s sons. “He is never condescending, he is never off-putting, he is never arrogant – never has any of the qualities that might create conflict.”
As an example of Postel’s negotiating prowess, McMasters said it took Postel only a few weeks in late 2015 to end a years-long, “festering” dispute between the university’s medical school and Norton Healthcare over their partnership at Kosair Children’s Hospital.
Postel had worked on the issue for a long time but became fully empowered in December 2015 after Dunn was sidelined amid an FBI investigation that never resulted in charges, McMasters said.
A settlement between U of L and Norton was announced later that month.
“This was a very, very contentious issue about a lot of past grievances and things, and he was able to get to and negotiate the important points and cut out the distractions,” McMasters said.
Today, the upcoming KentuckyOne Health-University Hospital separation is “an enormous issue that alone would consume most people,” McMasters said.
But Postel is “incredibly capable of multitasking and taking on many different responsibilities at once,” he said.
But the take-charge posture Postel has assumed since taking the top job hasn’t pleased everyone on the Belknap Campus.
In his first presentation to the board of trustees in February, Postel said the university needed to quickly cut expenses to close a $48 million gap in the university’s $1.2 billion budget.
He has since ordered a number of belt-tightening measures, including a broad prohibition on filling open jobs that will last at least until October.
“This is a change in culture for us to have to shift gears and remove this amount of money so quickly from the budget of the university, but we have no alternative,” Postel told the board of trustees on June 15. “It’s prudent management. It’s what we should have been doing all along, and so we’re going to do it.”
Enid Trucios-Haynes, a law professor who represents faculty on the board of trustees, voted for Postel’s budget but said during the meeting that it’s important to appreciate that the cuts are having “a significant impact on the academic enterprise.” She did not return a request for comment for this story.
Meanwhile, some professors have bristled at what they see as Postel’s corporate-like approach, as he has said the university should be run “like a business” with a strict focus on revenues meeting expenses, and has suggested professors could be doing more work in the summer months.
David Owen, chairman of the department of philosophy, said Postel is “aggressively cleaning up the financial and administrative problems left by” Ramsey. The hiring freeze is “entirely warranted,” Owen said, even as it contributes to “deep morale problems” that pre-dated Postel.
But Owen takes issue with Postel’s business-like approach to the job.
“Running U of L as a business would distort our goals and incentives: everything we do would be about maximizing revenue,” Owen said in an email. “Such an approach, which is already seeping in at many levels, would radically undermine the very purpose and quality of a university.”
Postel, for his part, said he remains “an academic at heart” but the days in which universities “really did not have to worry as much about money and productivity” are over. State support continues to decline and tuition cannot grow infinitely, he said.
“Somehow, ends have to meet, as they do in any business,” he said.
Postel has not exempted himself from the belt-tightening he’s imposed. He sought no increase in his $950,000 annual salary to take on the interim president’s job and gave up the $100,000 per year in deferred compensation that Ramsey had promised him to take the health affairs job.
“I make a very good salary already and I would have been embarrassed, quite frankly, to ask for any more money. So it seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.
Postel also laid off seven people in the university president’s office. The office had 15 staffers under Ramsey, but now has six.
But Postel ruffled some feathers earlier this month when he was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education saying “students and the faculty are all gone for the summer, and not much happens” at U of L during the summer months.
Kimberly Kempf-Leonard, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, told Postel in a June 15 email that his comments were “upsetting” because many of faculty members are busy teaching summer classes or fulfilling their research expectations.
“My faculty and staff need to know that you understand and appreciate us,” Kempf-Leonard wrote.
Postel replied with an apology and said his comment – which was to explain why the search for a permanent president hasn’t started yet -- was “not well stated at all.”
Interest in permanent job
When Postel first accepted the interim presidency in January, he told WDRB his “guess” was that he would return to being the university’s vice president for health affairs rather than seeking to be U of L’s next permanent president.
But in May, Postel said he has enjoyed the job “actually more than I thought I would” and that he would “certainly consider” taking it permanently if asked. Later that month, he told the Chronicle of Higher Education he would be “honored and very pleased” to take the job, if asked.
In his most recent interview with WDRB, Postel said he’s “open to possibilities” and, if the trustees determine he is the right fit for the permanent presidency, “then that’s terrific.”
Susan Jarosi, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies, said Postel’s open interest in the permanent job may not be helpful for the university.
If top-notch candidates at other universities perceive that Postel has an “inside track” to the job, they might not bother applying, she said.
But Grissom, the trustees chairman, said the board will conduct a thorough, nationwide search for Ramsey’s successor. There is no chance Postel would be given the job without competing with outside candidates, he said.
“If he chooses to put his hat in the ring, that’s fine with all of us, but it’s going to be a fair and open and totally legitimate search at the national level,” Grissom said.