There are at least three things immediately apparent about the chancellor of the University System of Maryland. First, Jay A. Perman might be the most modest and genuine person you will ever meet in a leadership post in higher academics. Second, he listens intently, patiently and openly, as if what you have to tell him is the most important thing in the world. And finally, there’s more than a trace of a Chicago accent when he speaks. All three of these qualities can be traced to his childhood in the Windy City, where he was raised under modest circumstances, developed his nearly lifelong interest in becoming a physician and learned the value of an education that would surely have proven unattainable had a full-ride scholarship to medical school not been offered to him.
“When something like that happens to you, when you get a medical education for free, it sort of steers how you are going to live your life,” Dr. Perman says. “It imbues you with a sense of obligation.”
Higher education has never been for the faint of heart. Juggling the needs of Maryland’s schools from Salisbury to Frostburg, along with the personalities that go along with their leadership, makes for a demanding job. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find anyone within the system who does not marvel at the skills the chancellor has displayed during his nearly two years in office. Whether it’s finding a way to better align the Baltimore-based professional schools through a strategic partnership with the state’s flagship school in College Park or supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities in their efforts to overcome discriminatory practices of the past, Dr. Perman consistently gets high marks from those who work closely with him.
Few could have predicted such a path for the only child of Ukrainian immigrants fleeing persecution, who eked out a living running a hand laundry. His father, a two-pack-a-day smoker, died of esophageal cancer when Jay was just 14. His mother was forced to sell the laundry and found work as a seamstress. Still, he dreamed of becoming a doctor, and acceptance to Northwestern University’s Class of 1968, with financial aid and work study, followed by medical school made his wish come true. He chose to become a pediatrician and then traveled to Boston to enter what was then a brand-new specialty: pediatric gastroenterology. Soon, he was deeply involved in teaching, research and taking care of patients. One thing lead to another as he became a department head and administrator with stints in San Francisco, at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and as dean at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine before his appointment in 2010 as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
And here’s the most Jay Perman thing about Jay Perman: He still conducts weekly Tuesday afternoon “President’s Clinics” at UMB, seeing pediatric patients from the University of Maryland Medical Center with a dozen students and faculty in tow (by Zoom during the pandemic). How many of the nation’s leading higher education administrators care for patients or even help foster an interdisciplinary approach to treatment, as he’s apt to be joined not just by aspiring doctors but lawyers, dentists, physical therapists and others, too? But that underscores another quality the helps define the doctor: He cares not just about student success or about nurturing research or even about how top-flight educational institutions can help Maryland prosper economically, but also about reaching out to the communities immediately adjacent to the colleges.
At UMB, he was “always looking for opportunities for the university to bring something to the community,” recalls Nancy Grasmick, the former state superintendent of schools who says Dr. Perman’s frequent outreach to city schools included dispatching a van to help provide needed medical care to students with asthma who were missing class. “I rejoiced when he came back to Maryland. Having him as chancellor has been a dream come true.”
Patricia S. Florestano, a former Maryland higher education secretary, lists one other quality vital to Dr. Perman’s success: great political instincts. It’s a critical skill to get so many four-year schools working together, to provide oversight and guidance without interfering with their day-to-day operations, and to satisfy the demands of the system’s Board of Regents and state government, which plays a significant funding role. And then, when one of the most challenging moments arrives in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, who was in the middle of how campuses dealt with a public health crisis? A full-fledged physician. That turned out to be a pretty useful background, too. His experience as a researcher, administrator and advocate are also likely to prove helpful as higher education moves forward toward a still-evolving hybrid model of on-campus and off-campus instruction and the financial implications that come with it.
“He’s a very smart and kind and decent man and that makes a difference,” Ms. Florestano says.
Jay A. Perman
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Current residence: Baltimore City
Education: B.A. in psychology, Northwestern University; M.D., Northwestern University Medical School; residency in pediatrics, Northwestern University Medical School; fellow in pediatric gastroenterology, Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital
Career highlights: Associate professor of pediatrics, University of California San Francisco; professor of pediatrics and division head, Johns Hopkins; Jessie Ball duPont Professor and Chair of Pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University; chair of pediatrics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore; dean of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine; president of UMB; and chancellor of the University System of Maryland
Civic and charitable activities: Board member: Association of American Colleges and Universities, Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, Southern Regional Education Board, National Association of System Heads, Association of Governing Boards’ Council of Presidents, University of Maryland Medical System, Greater Baltimore Committee, Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, Baltimore’s Promise, Maryland Business Roundtable for Education; chair, Maryland Life Sciences Advisory Board; incoming chair, Archdiocese of Baltimore Independent Review Board;
Family: Wife, Andrea; four children; nine grandchildren.