It’s All in the Family

A lifelong association with the Dugoni School family gives our #9 dean a very strong start.

Dr. Nader A. Nadershahi ’94, the new dean, remembers things. He remembers that the annual alumni-hosted Cioppino Dinner for entering first-year students began in 1991, the summer he matriculated. He remembers that Dr. Arthur Dugoni’s predecessor, Dr. Dale Redig, became dean only 14 years out of dental school. He even remembers that the dean in 1952 was Dr. Frank Inskipp. Nadershahi knows these things as comfortably as he knows the school’s current operating budget and its department heads. To say that the new dean knows the Dugoni School—its history, its patterns, its strengths, proclivities and quirks—is like saying Spielberg knows storytelling or Clapton knows blues.

“Proudly, Nader is one of us—he was born in and grew up in our dental family—[a product of] our humanistic model of education,” said Dean Emeritus Arthur A. Dugoni ’48 at a June 13, 2016, event honoring the new dean. “He is passionate about it, and he understands it is the engine that drives our greatness. He lives our core values and knows why they exist—he helped author them.”

“I’ve done almost everything here,” Dean Nadershahi admits, “from welcoming guests to taking out the trash. I’ve even been a patient.”

Nadershahi really did grow up with the Dugoni School. As a six- or seven-year-old newly arrived in San Mateo, California, before his family found a private dentist, he became a patient at the dental school’s Pediatric Dentistry Clinic on Webster Street; he returned as a teenager to the Oral Surgery Clinic to have his wisdom teeth removed.

Nadershahi was inspired to explore a career in dentistry when his older brother, Dr. Navid Nadershahi Knight ’89, entered dental school at the Dugoni School of Dentistry. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, studying integrative biology and visual arts, the dean remembers a visit from Navid, who, knowing Nader’s enthusiasm for sculpture, invited him to model a molar out of wax.

“It really piqued my interest,” he says.

“I’ve done almost everything here,” Dean Nadershahi admits, “from welcoming guests to taking out the trash. I’ve even been a patient.”

Nadershahi became a part-time, pre-clinical instructor in his first year after completing his general practice residency at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital. A year later he expanded into clinical teaching and soon became a course director and group practice administrator, then professor and chair of the Department of Dental Practice.  By the time he gave up private practice in 2010, Nadershahi was already associate dean for Academic Affairs and serving as acting dean.

“I liked practice,” he says. “I liked problem solving, and I liked helping people. The school just offers a bigger picture, a bigger way to make an impact.” Describing the impact dental school faculty and administration can have on students and the community, Nadershahi says, “I became excited about the opportunity to create an environment to inspire quality, ethical treatment.”

Nadershahi went on to earn two graduate degrees from University of the Pacific—a master’s degree in business administration and a doctorate in professional education and leadership—and assumed practically every administrative position possible at the dental school: associate dean, acting dean, executive associate dean and interim dean.

In fact, Nadershahi has achieved a first in the history of the dental school. Of three acting (temporary or transitional) deans, including Dr. Fred West in 1953, Dr. Leroy Cagnone in 1978 and Nadershahi in 2010—all alumni—only Nadershahi went on to assume the deanship on a permanent basis.

“Wouldn’t it be great to give 10 free tuitions?” he says.
“Can you imagine the impact?”

“Nader is exceptionally well qualified to be dean,” Dugoni says, as if marking off a checklist for the ideal applicant. “He is very intelligent, hardworking and industrious. He has a strong capacity for emotional intelligence. His ethics and principles are at the highest level. He understands the principles of the multiplier. He makes people better and smarter.”

While his thoughtfulness makes him unassuming, Nadershahi is perhaps the most deeply connected, best-prepared entering dean in the school’s history. In getting to this place, he has absorbed, to an uncommon degree, the Dugoni School of Dentistry’s traditions, its ethos and its deeply ingrained sense of community.

“Nader understands the culture of the dental school,” Dugoni says. “He lives and breathes its humanistic and family model.”

Indeed, as Nadershahi said in remarks prepared for the dean’s search open forum on May 21, “Our humanistic culture is a defining characteristic that creates our sustainable competitive advantage. Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Sitting in the lobby of the Hermosa Inn in Paradise Valley, Arizona, just before an alumni dinner, Nadershahi looks fresh and relaxed. Relaxed and engaged. Engaged and focused. He is wearing a gray suit, a pink shirt with an open collar and pink striped socks, as if to blend organization man integrity with an independent creative streak. He listens intently and speaks softly, with an enthusiasm bordering on urgency. He leans forward as he talks, briskly returning an anecdote, a memory, a connecting point of reference, tacking from what-is to what-if without a pause. He’s quick to smile. (“I promise,” he said in his open forum talking points, “to keep my sense of humor.”)

“I just read a book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” he says. “It talks about what’s good in life, what’s better and what’s best. It’s about setting priorities, cutting out distractions and focusing on what’s really important.”

“Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Three broad priorities that Nadershahi has publicly identified are: 1) excellent educational experience, 2) excellent educational outcomes and 3) lower cost of education. In the service of those objectives, he has set out to strengthen ties and foster relationships.

“One of my challenges has been and will be to rebuild the sense of family in our school,” he said at the dean’s search open forum.

“We need to stay in touch with each other,” he says today.

By both training and temperament, Nadershahi is a unifier, a consensus builder.  He holds open office hours and fosters an informal monthly morning get-together called “Coffee with the Cabinet” to encourage dialogue among faculty, students and staff.

“Students, faculty, staff, alumni, the Foundation and fundraising groups,” he says, “are all connected organically.” He places himself, Dugoni-like, in a variety of settings that help him take the profession’s temperature. He is, for example, a delegate to the House of Delegates of both the American Dental Association and the American Dental Education Association, and he chaired the ADA Reference Committee on Education, Science and Related Matters.

Dean Nadershahi knows the numbers, knows the curriculum and knows the politics, but at heart his plan for moving the school forward depends on knowing the people. Alumni are particularly important. He’s conscious of his own status as an alumnus, of course, as well as that of his brother, his sister-in-law Nahid Fazeli-Knight ’97 and his wife, Nilou ’91. Nadershahi has planned a round of alumni visits, like this one to Phoenix, and to Los Angeles, San Diego, Stockton, Portland, Hawii, Marin, Seattle and Dallas.

We were thinking of calling these Dugoni Family Dinners,” he says. “People enjoy reconnecting, and I love hearing people reminisce. The stories may be different depending on who your faculty were, but the warmth is the same.”

The dean is a people person, affable and gregarious, and his native goodwill gets returned in spades. In Phoenix, alumni gather to greet him, forming a line in front of him like fans waiting for autographs. “Every step of the way,” he says of his ascent to the deanship, “people have been wonderful.”

As a teacher, Nadershahi is first a student, and he acknowledges the tutelage that informs his outlook. “I have two mentors,” he says. ”One is Art Dugoni. I watched Art. I took note of what he did that made him successful.” And the other? “My mom. Both Art and my mom care for others and help others achieve.”

Nadershahi aims to project that mindset forward. He is ambitious, but his is a collective ambition, the kind that mentors have for protégés, that parents have for their kids. The kind that casts a wide net.

Nadershahi is perhaps the most deeply-connected, best-prepared entering dean in the school’s history.

“Internally, my role is to inspire students, faculty and staff to achieve more than they thought possible,” he says. “Externally, I connect with donors, organized dentistry and the community to help support the school and its educational mission.”

“He is ambitious first and foremost for our vision, our mission and our work—not for himself—and he has the will, the passion and experience to lead us, and to make good on that ambition,” said Dugoni. “Nader wants our school to be the best—it is in his DNA.”

Best, of course, is a moving target. “Most dental schools, like everything else in life, fall somewhere between mediocre and good,” Dugoni added. “Few are great—we are—but greatness is an inherently dynamic process, not an end point. Nader understands that!”

What’s more, the process itself involves less a continuous acceleration than the starts and stops of busy traffic. Sensitive leadership demands balance and timing. “You have to understand when to put your foot on the gas and when to coast for a while and let people catch their breath,” Nadershahi says.

The school is currently re-examining its clinical education model and competencies. “We are about to experience a historic transformation in health care,” Nadershahi said in the open forum. “Clinicians will be able to predict, prevent and treat disease before it impacts the quality of life.” Given those eventualities, he asks, where is dentistry going? What skills will our graduates need?

Recent advances are encouraging. The new graduate program in endodontics has graduated its first residents. The school recently announced two named endowed positions: Dr. Cindy Lyon became the first James R. Pride, DDS, and Carolyn L. Pride Endowed Chair for Practice Management, and Dr. Sheldon Baumrind the Dr. Arthur A. Dugoni Endowed Professor of Orthodontics. The clinic has become much more efficient, rendering more care for the community and a better experience for students.

But even an efficient clinic can be improved if the administration can develop ways to offset costs, perhaps through accessing medical reimbursements or attracting grants. “There aren’t many people in higher education,” Nadershahi concedes, “who understand that we are running the equivalent of our own hospital in the middle of a teaching program.” He would like to find money for scholarships; the high cost of education weighs heavily. “Wouldn’t it be great to give 10 free tuitions?” he says. “Can you imagine the impact?”

For the past 120 years, the Dugoni School of Dentistry has always offered very strong clinical training. “Clinical skills are a hallmark of our education,” the dean notes. Any calculation for the future has to preserve Pacific’s humanistic culture, its connection with people and its clinical excellence. But Nadershahi envisions a wider role. Dentists should be leaders in health care, in determining both how it’s rendered and how it’s compensated.

“Most people and institutions wait to see what will happen,” he says. “Rather, I would like us to take the lead in oral healthcare delivery. The challenge before us, the one that nags at me, is how the Dugoni School can become a leader. Our school should be shaping the future.”

Dentists should be leaders in health care, in determining both how it’s rendered and how it’s compensated.

Ambition is a dance with the future. You know the moves, but your partner is moody and unpredictable. You take a step, and the future takes one of its own. You’re trying to lead, but you never know when the future will pull left just as you are sliding right. You never know when it will step on your toe. So every success brings a new challenge, every answer a fresh question—although some questions, it turns out, are one continuous loop. “I have to constantly ask myself, ‘How can I make dental education and the profession better? The students more prepared? The school more inviting?’” Nadershahi says.

High energy, careful planning, adaptability, sensitivity, a sharp memory, an agile imagination, a talented team and supportive alumni and friends: the new dean brings an impressive array of strengths to bear in moving the Dugoni School of Dentistry forward.

“The best way to predict the future,” he wrote to the Dean Search Committee when he applied for the job, “is to play a key role in shaping that future.” Every moment is an opportunity to change what lies ahead, and for Nader Nadershahi, every moment counts.

Eric K. Curtis ’85, DDS, of Safford, Arizona, is a contributor to Contact Point and is the author of A Century of Smiles, a historical book covering the dental school’s first 100 years.