Elmhurst College In Depth

A Walking Advertisement for Elmhurst

Four decades ago, the College gave Dennis Patterson his start on a stellar career in health care. Now, his energy and generosity is driving the Science and Health Initiative, the largest capital effort in Elmhurst’s history.

Dennis Patterson was no ordinary candidate for a doctorate. At 62, he was older than nearly every member of the faculty committee that reviewed his dissertation. What’s more, he knew his academic subject from personal experience in a way few graduate students, or even seasoned professionals, ever do.
Patterson’s dissertation studied the correlation between the personality traits of hospital chief executives and their ability to control their institution’s labor costs. He submitted his work to the faculty committee last summer as he moved toward completing his doctorate in education at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

The topic was a natural for him. By the time he started his doctoral studies, Patterson had built a distinguished career as a hospital executive and health-care consultant in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. He had earned a master’s degree in hospital administration at George Washington University. He had served as vice chairman of GW’s medical center, as a fellow of the Manchester University Health Unit in England, and as an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia. He had lectured internationally on health-care issues, and had written a book, Indexing Managed Care, a guide to interpreting market data for hospital administrators, published in 1997 by McGraw-Hill.

Beginning in the 1980s, Patterson specialized in turning around faltering hospitals and helping health-care executives achieve outstanding professional performance. When it came time to do his academic research, he was able to tap 
a network of hospital CEOs who for decades had known and respected his work. “If some young researcher sends a questionnaire to a CEO, in most cases it’s going to end up in the trash,” Patterson says. “In my case it was, ‘Sure, Denny, I’d be glad to.’”

Patterson worked on the dissertation for almost three years: researching, writing, revising and struggling to interpret the obscure comments his advisers made on his draft chapters. What he learned from his research, he jokes, is that “I’m not very much into research.” It was an experience unlike anything he’d known in a long and useful professional life. As a chief executive, he was accustomed to solving problems intuitively and moving quickly to the next crisis. In his doctoral work, he had to work on more esoteric issues and to take a more methodical approach to them.

Given the long record of achievement that Patterson brought to Pepperdine, the question needs to be asked: Why did he go for the degree at all? When he had little left to prove, why face such a daunting intellectual challenge so late in his career?

 “I did it because I had promised myself I would,” Patterson says.

It seems that as a student at Elmhurst College more than four decades ago, Patterson had made three resolutions:  He would write a book. He would make a good living. And he would earn a doctorate. The degree, he says, “was the last thing left on my bucket list.”

One day in the 1960s, not long after he had left his parents’ home in New Jersey and had arrived at Elmhurst College, Denny Patterson indulged his emerging practice of setting goals for himself.

Walking along Chicago’s lakefront, he noticed a glassy, modernist black skyscraper with a graceful, eccentric shape. It was Lake Point Tower, one of the city’s more desirable addresses. Patterson decided that he would live someday in Lake Point Tower.

Less than a decade later, he was living there. When he sets out to do something, Patterson says matter-of-factly, he usually finds a way to do it.

In many ways, the latest Patterson enterprise is the most ambitious and forward looking of his career. He wants to help transform the way the sciences and health professions are taught at his alma mater, which he has served as a trustee since 2006.

In October, Patterson pledged $2 million to the Science and Health Initiative, the largest capital project in the College’s 140-year history. The gift is one of the largest ever received by the College. It will support the transformation of the Arthur J. Schaible Science Center, an aging campus workhorse, into a state-of-the-art facility for research, teaching and learning.

The $46 million Science and Health Initiative aims to enhance and enlarge Schaible to accommodate the swelling number of Elmhurst students choosing to major in the sciences and health-related fields, and to support new and emerging styles of academic and professional preparation. About one in three Elmhurst students currently majors in a science or healthrelated discipline. Over the past five years, the number of students majoring in those areas has grown by more than 20 percent.

 “Our goal is to create a first-rate facility that not only meets student demand but also embraces innovation and anticipates new pedagogies,” says President S. Alan Ray. “We intend to integrate the science and health disciplines in excellent spaces where students can easily put together their academic instruction with their eventual practice of service to patients. Dennis Patterson shares our dream, and his generosity will help to make it a reality.”

The College has named one of its most inventive academic units in Patterson’s honor. The Dr. Dennis J. Patterson Center for the Health Professions is a resource center for students intending to pursue careers in health-related fields. The Patterson Center cuts across organizational lines, bringing together students, faculty and working professionals from an array of disciplines: from biochemistry and molecular biology to neuroscience and nursing. It provides academic advising to students in a range of health fields, and provides them with connections to labs, clinics, hospitals and internships in the Chicago area and beyond.

 “Dennis Patterson has dedicated his life to the service of excellence in the delivery of health care,” says President Ray. “He continues to lead the way to excellence through his example of philanthropy at the highest level. It’s fitting that a vital center of the College’s intellectual life and student service will bear his name.”

Elmhurst’s ambitious blueprint for a new science center is a product of the strategic planning process that began to occupy the campus soon after the arrival of President Ray in 2008. The plan clearly struck an early chord with Patterson. It includes new labs, classrooms, an advanced nursing simulation laboratory, and dramatically increased space for faculty-student collaborative research. The idea is to create more hands-on experiences that will allow students to fully integrate classroom learning and clinical practice.

 “I like what Elmhurst is trying to do with science and the health professions,” says Patterson. After decades spent on the front lines of the famously dynamic health-care world, he is impressed by the College’s focus on undergraduate research, pedagogical innovation and professional teamwork. It all resonates with the philosophies that for years have guided his work with health-care organizations.  

In 1966, when Denny Patterson arrived as a freshman at Elmhurst, the Schaible Science Center had just opened on the south end of campus. Patterson hailed from Lindenwold, a small, working-class community in southern New 
Jersey. His father, Joseph, was a machinist at RCA who had married his high school sweet-heart. Neither Joseph nor Dorothy Patterson had attended college, but they were proud when Denny’s fifth-grade teacher told them that their son clearly was college material. He applied to Elmhurst on the recommendation of a high school counselor and, though he also was accepted at Villanova and Tulane universities, he chose Elmhurst without ever visiting. It offered the best package of financial aid.

When he finally got a glimpse of the campus, Patterson was impressed. “I had an idea of what a college was supposed to look like from movies and magazines,” he says. “Elmhurst looked  like that.” The actual experience of college “was stunning to me. It was entirely different from anything I’d known.”

Amid the stately lawns and red-brick buildings, some executed in colonial style, one building stood out. To Patterson, the Science Center’s modern lines looked positively space age. A political science major, he took only one course there, in industrial psychology.

Patterson’s eventual career in health care grew, serendipitously, out of his undergraduate interest in politics. After his sophomore year, he landed an internship with the office of Richard B. Ogilvie, the president of the Cook County Board and a future governor of Illinois. Working for the human resources department, Patterson often visited the offices of various county agencies. What he saw at the county hospitals caught his attention. “The people who worked there seemed to be excited to come to work,” he says. “They knew they were doing something that people needed.”  Patterson tagged along with orderlies and walked the halls of Cook County Hospital to get a feel for life 
in the wards. After graduation, he took a job in the president’s office at Oak Forest Hospital, a county facility in the south suburbs.

 “That’s how I got interested in hospital administration,” he says simply. “At every turn, the College opened doors for me, doors I never would have opened for myself.”

Patterson’s early executive experiences came in large teaching hospitals in Canada. Later, as  a partner in Ernst and Young’s London office, he oversaw the consultancy’s health-care operations in the U.K. In 1999, he helped launch the hospital management firm Wellspring Partners, which was sold in 2007 to Chicago-based Huron Consulting. Two years ago, he co-founded the Collaborative for Leadership Excellence, a firm that coaches senior executive teams in creating high-performance hospitals.  

Turning around troubled hospitals became a Patterson specialty. At Wellspring, he helped save Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, a mainstay of health care on Chicago’s South Side. Mercy is the oldest hospital in the city; it treated Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 after he was shot in Milwaukee. Following a period of mismanagement in the 1990s, Mercy was struggling to survive. Patterson cut costs and eliminated jobs to help restore the institution’s financial health. When community leaders from the surrounding neighborhoods voiced their dismay about the loss of badly needed jobs, Patterson took the time to describe to them in detail the hospital’s predicament. The situation was so dire, he said, that if the hospital failed to eliminate 40 jobs in the short term, the community would lose 1,000 jobs in the long term. “They came to see my dilemma,” he says.

Fran Brunelle has known Patterson for a quarter-century. Together, the two launched the Collaborative for Leadership Excellence, which Brunelle now serves as president. “Denny is compelling in his ability to convince others of the merits of a desirable project,” Brunelle says. “He also is indefatigable.”

Ask Patterson about his latest ventures and he will talk about replacing internal competitiveness—a feature of the consulting partnerships in which he spent much of his career—with a more collaborative approach. His staff is required to share information about client contacts, documents created for presentations, even their calendars. “It’s a learning organization,” he says. “Anybody in the organization can have access to all the knowledge of the organization.” It’s an approach Patterson says he’s wanted to implement for years; now, information technology has made it practical and affordable.

Two years ago, Patterson’s diverse experiences made him a natural choice to co-chair the Science and Health Initiative, along with his fellow trustee Jean Sander ’74, the associate dean of student affairs at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State. “Elmhurst offers the kind of personal education that builds the confidence of students and prepares them to take on the world,” Patterson says. “The new Science Center will allow us to offer state-of-the-art equipment and the seamless, interdisciplinary approach to learning that’s necessary for success in today’s world. I see the initiative as a critical step in the College’s march to the forefront of the nation’s liberal arts colleges.”

The new Science Center is to be built in three phases. Patterson’s gift is an opening salvo on the required fundraising. He hopes his gift not only will move the Science Center project toward a successful conclusion but also will help to establish an enlarged culture of philanthropy among Elmhurst’s 23,000 alumni.

On just about any weekday, a visitor to the current Science Center will find clusters of students pouring out of its labs and classrooms to meet in improvised study spaces. It’s not unusual to see students take a seat on the floor along an unclaimed stretch of hallway. Demand for lab space is high. In a typical term, more than 1,400 students take classes in nursing, psychology and the physical sciences, totaling some 8,500 credit hours. The Science and Health Initiative will create a new 70,000- square-foot building to accommodate their work. More than 10,000 square feet will be devoted to teaching labs; some 4,500 square feet will be devoted to student-faculty research collaborations.

Those who know Patterson well call him a tireless promoter of his alma mater. Brunelle says that he had never heard of the College before meeting Patterson; now he is extremely well versed in Elmhurst lore. “Dennis has tremendous pride in Elmhurst and loves to talk about the quality of the education it provides,” Brunelle says. “He’s a walking advertisement for Elmhurst.”

Patterson has a simple explanation for his enthusiasm. “Elmhurst gave me a lifetime of opportunity,” he says, “and it’s doing the same for today’s students. I felt it was time to give something back to the place that gave me so much. I hope my gift challenges others to do the same.”

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