Peter Butler Graduating From Rush

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Q&A with this year’s Rush University Commencement speaker

By Anthony Giornalista

Peter Butler, president of Rush University Medical Center and chairman of the Department of Health Systems Management at Rush University, will be the honorary degree recipient and speaker at the Rush University Commencement ceremony May 26. His more than four decades of experience with teaching hospitals and health care systems includes an accomplished run at Rush that started in 1982 and spans two separate tenures.

In February, Rush announced that Butler will retire from his role as president on June 30. He will continue to chair the Department of Health Systems Management.

Butler recently talked about several topics, including his career path, how much Rush has grown over the years and the importance of helping people develop as leaders.

What was it about the health care field that drew you in?

Peter Butler: A mentor helped me get a summer job in a hospital when I was in college, and that exposed me to health care. I knew I had good business skills, but I sensed that a traditional career in business would not be as satisfying as one in health care — where I could use my skills but in a way that would impact people’s lives. 

You were with Rush in the 1980s, left for roughly 10 years and came back in 2002. How much has Rush grown over the years?

Rush has come a long way since the 1980s, as has health care overall. I was at Rush when the Atrium Building opened in 1982 with great fanfare. We were the envy of many of our competitors at the time. That repeated itself in 2012, when we opened the Tower. Seeing the differences between the two buildings now gives one a sense of how far Rush has come.

Of course, the changes are not limited to facilities. The growth and maturation of the University is equally impressive. The workforce pipeline bears little resemblance to those receiving degrees 30 years ago. The University has doubled its enrollment in the last 10 years and is producing graduates in many of the fields that will be in the greatest demand in the years ahead.

You have helped the College of Health Sciences’ Health Systems Management program become one of the best in the nation. How satisfying has it been to see that program evolve?

Yes, we are now ranked fifth in the country by U.S. News & World Report — ahead of more brand-name places such as Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Ohio State. It is gratifying because the rankings are based on a survey completed by the leaders of the programs, so it is our peers acknowledging the progress we have made. What is just as gratifying as the ranking for me personally is the incredible leadership of the department’s associate chairmen, Tricia Johnson and Andy Garman, the other core faculty and the large practitioner faculty. Together they have created the excellence and reputation nationally that I think is well-deserved.

You will retain your role as chair of the Health Systems Management department even though you are retiring as president of Rush University Medical Center. Why do you feel so strongly about staying on in that capacity?

There are somewhere around 95 accredited master’s programs in health care administration in the country. Many are housed in universities that have exceptional reputations. Yet the university’s brand may not be a good indicator of the quality of the program inside the university.

Most programs are relatively small and their quality is highly dependent on their leadership and core faculty, along with their relationship to a health system that may be affiliated with the program. The strength of our program, given that Rush University is not as well known outside of health care, would be dependent disproportionately on word of mouth without the high ranking. Of course, we want to do even better and are also considering ambitious plans to expand the scope of what we offer and what we do.

How much of a hand have you had in guiding some of Rush’s community initiatives? Our students are heavily involved helping the underserved. How important is it for our students to volunteer?

As a senior leader at Rush, I have been deeply involved in our community relations efforts. Our students in the Health Systems Management program, along with almost all of Rush University students, are active in community efforts that go beyond the formal curriculum. Those who take over the leadership mantle at non-profit health care organizations have, in fact, a fiduciary responsibility to serve the community. It is what makes the career especially gratifying.

You’ve been a part of the leadership team at Rush and other medical centers for a long time and have a lot of experience overseeing people and growing people into leaders in their own right. Can you comment a bit on the importance of developing leaders and giving people a chance to grow?

If you are progressing up the management ranks, at some point you realize that your success is not based on your individual performance; it is based on how well you recruit, develop and retain others, because it takes a team to deliver results. The heart of your job is to develop others.

In a sense, you’re “graduating” from Rush just like some of our students will be at commencement. Looking back, what will you take away from your time at Rush in terms of what you learned and how it helped you grow?

From a career standpoint, Rush has been a candy store from which I have been allowed to help myself to many choices. That has given me, and hopefully others, enough guidance coupled with enough flexibility to pursue a path where I felt rewarded and could thrive. 

The environment has permitted me to teach what I practice and practice what I teach. That combination has kept me energized and more thoughtful when I approach the problems Rush has needed to face over the years.

Without giving too much away, what do you have planned for your speech at commencement?

I think Rush University is an adolescent of sorts. It may be 45 years old, but it is still at a growing phase — finding its way toward becoming a national leader in creating the workforce for the future. I think graduation represents a visible validation of the achievement of competencies required to contribute to the profession one has chosen. 

On the other hand, the health care world ahead will expect all of us to work in new ways, as teams, focused on not only curing the diseases that come our way but improving the health of the communities we serve.