Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, April 29, 2013

Wright welcomes challenge of establishing school of biopharmacy

Elizabeth "Buff" Wright

The only commonality among Elizabeth "Buff" Wright's career job descriptions has been "other duties as assigned."

Now assistant vice president and secretary to the board of trustees of Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in Claremont, California, the 1981 La Follette alum is helping to establish a school of biopharmacy that will prepare pharmacists to work in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries as well as in modern pharmacy practice.

"The practice of pharmacy is undergoing a dramatic change," Wright says. "Today, pharmacists are increasingly asked to match drugs and therapies to a particular patient or strain of illness, as well as translate their clinical expertise into drug discovery for industry. KGI's School of Biopharmacy, which will open in 2014 pending accreditation, will reorient the pharmacy degree to reflect crucial developments in pharmacogenomics as well as the trend toward increased specialization in pharmacy practice."

The biopharmacy school will more than double the programming at KGI, a graduate school and bioscience research institution that combines applied life sciences, bioengineering, bioethics and business management.

Wright has no background in pharmacy, business or science. However, the 1981 alum says her public affairs training at the University of Wisconsin in Madison prepared her well to meet any challenge that has come along during her career in higher education administration.

"The planning and analysis skills and the ability to think things through from multiple perspectives that I learned at UW have been immensely important," Wright says.

Wright has worked in higher education administration since completing her dual degree in law and public affairs, except for two years as an attorney with a labor law and civil rights firm in Milwaukee right after she graduated.

She joined the University of Wisconsin System as an academic planner and then became executive assistant to the system's executive vice president. She filled in as interim dean for the two-year UW campus in Rock County, later accepting an appointment as special assistant to the chancellor for the UW Colleges, the system's statewide network of two-year campuses.

The months in Janesville as interim dean were gratifying, Wright says. "I enjoyed being head of the campus and using all I had learned as an assistant to academic leaders. The position responsibilities ranged from academic planning to fund-raising to facilities management. That winter we had an enormous snow storm requiring me to close campus. We clearly needed a bigger snowplow, so I arranged to buy a used dump truck from UW–Madison. It never occurred to me that my assignments would include that one!"

Wright returned to the UW System as special assistant to the executive vice president before heading west to Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington in 1998.

"At UW System, I led a major study of academic staff that resulted in changes to job titling and security," Wright says. "It was a big project that involved input from across the UW System and resulted in meaningful change."

During Wright's 11 years in Bellingham as executive assistant to the president, she worked on many projects. "The last and most interesting assignment was planning to expand the campus to a space on the waterfront on Puget Sound," Wright says. "The Georgia Pacific paper company had pulled out of Bellingham Bay, leaving behind a big industrial space, so WWU had the opportunity to collaborate with the Port of Bellingham to construct a campus as an anchoring property. I worked with planners, architects, and people across the university. It was a stimulating, creative process. Lamentably, the project, a public-private partnership, stalled in the declining economy."

Wright has been member and chair of the board of the National Association for Presidential Assistants in Higher Education, an affiliate of the Association of the American Council on Education. She received NAPAHE's Distinguished Service Award in 2006. She was a member of the Whatcom museum board in Bellingham. As a Rotarian, she participates in local and international service projects.

Wright moved to southern California in December 2009 as assistant vice president and secretary to the board of trustees at KGI. As secretary she oversees board operations, plans meetings, recruits members and helps board members be effective stewards of the university. As assistant vice president, she led 2011's strategic planning effort, plus she handles intellectual property matters for faculty who hold patents. "I am a liaison between faculty and the lawyers," Wright says. "Most of the inventions relate to health, such as a process to create cardiac stem cells, and various medical devices."

Wright anticipated being in just such a situation when she was planning her graduate education and decided on the dual degree in public affairs and law. Her plan always was to work in higher education. "I never intended to practice law," Wright says. "I added the law degree because I wanted to be able to analyze and consider and draft what I needed to do without having to consult a lawyer all the time. Situations have different legal and policy considerations, and one interpretation is not the true one—you can always move between different positions, and the policy and legal training helps me see the options."

"I love public policy issues, and the analysis, researching and writing skills I gained in Wisconsin are invaluable," Wright says. "Overall, the study of public policy is an important education on how to be part of the wider society. Even though KGI is private, our biopharmacy school has a public policy angle. It will have an impact on the pharmacy profession and health care reform."

The planning process at KGI is similar to public-sector decision-making. "We look at needs in society, deciding whether we have a good justification to move forward," she says. "The analyses are much the same as in the public sector."

Noting that KGI is her first private-sector position, Wright says she appreciates that, unlike in the public sector, decisions at KGI can be made quickly and action taken right away. "We can come up with a bright idea and proceed on it without multiple layers of approval," Wright says.

One need KGI has identified is helping scientists with doctorates learn what it takes to obtain jobs with private industry. "We created a one-year master's degree program for scientists in post-doctoral positions to gain skills and knowledge about how biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries work," Wright says. "The degree enables postdocs to take positions in industry to translate their science into practice. The president had the idea in the spring and we enrolled students in the fall. And our initial graduates are employed. It was fast — we did the homework, made sure people would benefit and enroll. And of course, the program has to fund itself."

The broad perspectives Wright explored at the UW–Madison through the public affairs and law programs have given her deeper insight into the usefulness of pharmacy training at the doctoral level for private industry. "Both are interdisciplinary programs," Wright says. "Wisconsin's joint law and policy programs' perspective on producing graduates who can envision jobs outside of law firms and government helped me recognize that it is important to design the program so that pharmacists can use their education for far more than work at a community or institutional pharmacy (even in public policy). What we are crafting at KGI is a good base education for other careers, just as I experienced with law and public policy at UW–Madison."

"You don't have to do what is expected," Wright adds. "A measure of success of the law and public affairs program is that not everyone becomes a legislative policy analyst for the state. La Follette School alumni have gone into so many fields. I hope the same is true with our school of biopharmacy."