Still Breaking Ground
by Merry Sue Baum
There has never been a status quo in Dr. Stanley Bergen's 25-year tenure as UMDNJ president, and never a let-up in the enthusiastic support of his wife, Sue.
On Tuesday, July 6, 1971, the nation returned to work after a warm, cloudless holiday weekend. In spite of the ongoing energy crisis, people had flocked to beaches and mountains and back, creating enormous traffic jams. As the weekend wound down, a predictable 20-mile backup took place in the north-bound lanes of the Garden State Parkway.
The Nixon Administration announced that day that it was considering stepping up U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam, and the landmark 26th amendment was signed into law, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. Mid-summer sales began: Bamberger's featured whitewall tires for $25 each, and Florsheim shoes were reduced to $17.80. "Hair" was enjoying an SRO run on Broadway, and John Wayne was starring in "Big Jake."
Most everywhere, July 6 was merely the start of another routine work week. In Newark, however, it marked the beginning of a new era in health care and higher education in New Jersey. Dignitaries from across the state gathered on a 45-acre plot in Newark's Central Ward, where they broke ground for the newly established College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (CMDNJ).
Among those turning shovels of earth was Stanley S. Bergen, Jr., MD, CMDNJ's first president. He was new to the job. Bergen had worked at his former position - senior vice president and chief operating officer of New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation - right up until quitting time the previous Friday.
He spent the July 4th holiday with his family, and performed his first official duty under sunny skies on Tuesday morning. He recalls feeling a little harried, since he had almost no time to settle in or prepare.
Bergen had loved his job in New York. He was responsible for: 16 hospitals; 160,000 employees; all of New York city's health clinics; public in-patient acute care facilities; and in-patient psychiatric care services, including four prison units. But the idea of building a state-wide health sciences institution in his native New Jersey lured him across the Hudson. "The chemistry just clicked," he says. "I liked what I saw, with all of the challenges ahead of me."
And challenged he was. New Jersey had long suffered from a shortage of physicians and dentists. Until the mid-20th century, the state had no medical school. Young New Jerseyans were sent to other states for professional education, on the assumption that most would return home to practice.
But that strategy didn't work. By the early '50s, New Jersey's physician-patient ratio had fallen below the national average, and most internships and residencies were going unfilled each year. The Garden State was also sorely lacking in sophisticated specialty care, implementation of new techniques and equipment, and research and prevention programs geared specifically to the state's needs.
Hoping to reverse that trend, Seton Hall University, supported by the Archdiocese of Newark, established a medical and dental school at Jersey City Medical Center in 1954. But without the benefit of public funding, survival was a problem.
In 1965, the state purchased the fiscally stressed school for $4 million, changed its name to the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry and began searching for a new site to replace the deteriorating facilities. Newark, the state's largest city and one that faced some of the worst health problems in the nation, was chosen.
Moving the school and getting it on its feet, however, proved to be a monumental task. During the summer of 1967, Newark was engaged in the same scenario being played out in other cities like Washington, D.C., Detroit and Los Angeles. Poverty, high unemployment, inadequate education, poor housing and racial tension simmered in the summer heat, sparking unrest.
Many faculty members resigned; students and medical residents began seeking transfers to other institutions. NJCMD narrowly missed being disbanded and its charter relinquished by a vote of its faculty.
But state officials pressed on. They sat down with community representatives and negotiated. In exchange for the Newark site, the college agreed to accept primary responsibility for the city's public-sector health care services, step up recruitment of minority students, employ as many city residents as possible and give the community a voice in shaping the school's goals.
Known as the Newark Agreements of 1968, the social contract was a milestone in the history of medical education. Honoring the terms of the agreement was one of many challenges Bergen faced when he took the helm. Newark's hardships had made headlines, making it difficult to accomplish a number of tasks, especially the recruitment of physicians and support staff. But he was undaunted.
"We had a city that needed us to provide medical care for its citizens and aid its economic recovery," he says. "We would be creating jobs and helping to upgrade some of the health services. There was an important job to be done."
Bergen's attitude, he says, was shaped mostly by his grandfather, Elston H. Bergen, MD. They made Saturday morning house calls together in their hometown of Princeton. "He worked on the barter system if a patient couldn't pay," Bergen recalls. "He actually wrote in his ledger: John Doe, office visit, one dozen eggs or one peck of potatoes."
Close ties to his grandfather made Bergen's career choice a natural. Perhaps his desire to help heal others was deepened by a series of personal losses. Both his father, a real estate salesman and local elected official, and his beloved grandfather died when he was young. Then, when he was 34, his first wife died of a heart attack at the age of 33. Left alone with two children, he turned to his mother for help. But less than six weeks later, she too died, of previously undiagnosed metastatic pancreatic cancer.
About a year later, while with his children at a park near his Englewood home, Bergen heard a familiar voice call his name. It was Suzanne Vaughn, a nurse he had known when he was chief medical resident at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. She was also on an outing with her two children. They were married six months later, and together raised a family of five.
Bergen often observes that "the major share of the responsibility fell to my wife and best supporter, Sue."
He also proudly notes that she has made many valuable contributions to the University over the years, not the least of which was the leadership role she played in starting the Champions-UMDNJ, the Newark thrift shop, and the Robert Talley Scholarship.
Now 67 years old, Bergen still routinely puts in 12- to 14-hour days. He runs about five miles most mornings to stay in shape, but it's his work that keeps him going. "For me, energy comes from satisfaction," he says. "I love what I've been given the opportunity to do. When you enjoy your challenges, it becomes fun, and it's easier to contend with adversity."
The same drive and fortitude enabled Bergen to accomplish his goal: the creation of a state-wide institution combining educational programs with biomedical research that is rooted in a health care delivery system. He began with two medical schools, one dental school and a few graduate programs.
Today, UMDNJ - university status was granted in 1981 - is the largest free-standing public health sciences university in America. It encompasses four campuses, seven schools, some 5,000 students, about 11,000 employees and more than 100 affiliated health care institutions.
It boasts one of the largest student minority populations among medical and dental schools in the country and has implemented a long list of community service programs.
These remarkable accomplishments are a tribute to Bergen's leadership. As for the University's future, he admits it will take hard work to maintain its present stature and position in this era of rapidly changing health care. But he feels up to the task.
"UMDNJ has the people, the will and the ability to achieve that goal," he says. "We will be better and stronger than ever if we continue to be focused and determined to be the best."