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UAMS names new vice chancellor of Northwest Region

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The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has announced Ryan Cork will be the next vice chancellor for their Northwest Arkansas region. Cork will take over the position on Sept. 1. He's originally from Alabama, served in the Navy and has spent 24 years in health care administration. We spoke over Zoom yesterday, and he said he was drawn to Northwest Arkansas because the South of the U.S. is home for him.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Ryan Cork: So I looked at what opportunities were in the US that were in the Southeastern United States specifically and where growth was abound. So you look at North Alabama and Huntsville and Madison, and they're growing, but also you look at US News rankings for the top 10 growing cities, and we were right there in Northwest Arkansas. Looking at what we were doing in health care, they aren't doing in North Alabama, they aren't doing in places in North Carolina and others that were on that space, but they are doing those in the state of Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas. So, trying to get a perfect trifecta of being in the Southeastern United States, being in the city and a region in the state that was growing and someone that was producing good high-quality outcomes in health care it was Arkansas.

Matthew Moore: What is it about health care that drew you to that space and continues to keep you in that space? 

RC: A long time ago, out of high school, my first job was in the service, but it was a Navy Corpsman. And granted, we’re, you know, talking about some advanced life support stuff but not in an operating room, but I got the opportunity to provide care to the Marines that I served with, and it was just something I fell in love with. I wanted to continue to be in that space, and so ultimately got off of active duty and got an undergraduate and then thought for a second at least that maybe I could look at going to med school or, you know, APP type of route, being a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. I didn't do any of those, I ended up getting a health care administration degree to at least tether me into the health care field and be around those folks that I look up to. I think our doctors, our nurses, our researchers are some of the most brilliant minds in our world. I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with these individuals, and so it's kept me in health care and kept me engaged for the past 20-plus years.

MM: Can you describe a little bit of the distinction between working in the health care field as a nurse practitioner or a doctor and from the administrative side. What sort of skills do you offer to differentiate yourself from, say, someone who is a practicing doctor taking on this sort of work?

RC: Cleveland Clinic is a physician-led institution. Our chancellor, Dr. Patterson, is a physician. I think physicians are excellent leaders, excellent administrators, as well as nurses, both nurse practitioners and registered nurses. My difference is this has been my career for 24 years now of just honing my skill set in and around the not so much, you know, fun stuff in medicine — the finance, the administration, the budgets, policies and procedures, and so I think any of anyone that's coming from a health care background that has the passion to be in health care can absolutely make a great leader our skill sets just being different. Dr. Patterson learned to practice medicine and then, you know, follow it up and learn— not that he didn’t learn before — but learned the MBA side of things. My route was just minus the learning of the medicine route and then directly into the master’s route. Just a different path, but I think all leaders that are serving in that capacity that come from having delivered patient care bedside you know to the top of the organizations that he or she serves I think lead with a passion and compassion for not only the patients but the employees.

MM: Well, speaking of policy, you've done some work. You're currently working with the Northwest Arkansas Council based in Bentonville can you talk a little bit about how your experience working with the council has prepared you for this role at UAMS? 

RC: The council organizationally has been phenomenal. I think they’re phenomenal community partner, phenomenal to me both inside and outside of work, and I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to serve there. Nelson Peacock, who's our president and CEO, is phenomenal.

Inside of a hospital — and maybe it's like this in your world or others — but, you have a job or a lane: I'm doing patient care, I'm doing finance, I'm doing x y or z, and your lanes don't really cross over much. So, that opportunity to learn about something else doesn't really exist because that belongs to someone else. At the council, I was able to learn across each differently. So, Rob Smith in economic development, I can work with Rob and learn about economic development about policies, and you know, work with Joe Rollins on workforce development. Stacey Sturner, who works in healthcare with me, is a lawyer by training as well as background and teaching. So, having the ability to work outside of your normal, ‘I do finance and administration,’ has been tremendous.

You said policy, working with our state elected officials. At Cleveland Clinic and at the Ohio State University — much like at UAMS, there are sections within the organization, and he or she deals with the policies or politicians or elected officials — and you just don't do that in that that world. In this world, I've gotten to have that professional education, if you will, of meeting and learning what it is like to interact with those lawmakers and it's been absolutely phenomenal and so I'm so grateful and thankful for the opportunity I had and I think it helps me be a better leader in my career.

UAMS has Mr. Andy Davis, who does a wonderful job — and I will never be Andy, and I will never pretend to be — but at least I feel like I know now what he does. You meet people, and they're like, ‘Oh, I'm a government relations rep,’ and you're like, okay, what's that really mean? But now I know, I've seen it. I’ve done a small fraction of it, but I just understand and so I believe it makes me a better and more capable leader.

MM: Well, I think your resume really points to the value of this intersectionality of your work and that you have become a better leader, it would seem, because of this crossing of paths of other spaces that allows you to enter into this new role as the vice-chancellor, which certainly has its lane but is very intersectional in the work that it does. 

RC: I agree, and I appreciate and respect everyone's lane. My goal is to understand their lane and so I can better provide support. I'm not going to see a patient, I'm not doing their job, but if I understand their job maybe I can help them with something that they need — an asset or a resource to better do their job. My career has taken me from the Middle East, building hospitals and just building connections with people. One of my large accomplishments in the Middle East was recruiting a western-trained medical staff and getting families to move 9000 miles away to somewhere that they'd really never even heard of, and so people, in general, are very skeptical of doing that or making those roles, and so I had the opportunity to really connect with folks and their families and get them to eventually look at the opportunity and they did move over. My point being is the connection that that we have and being able to sit and talk and have a conversation is extremely powerful. If I can understand your job enough that I understand your jargon and what you're saying, and I'm able to connect with you and sit and talk and listen, those have helped me, and I believe it will help me in this role as the next vice-chancellor.

MM: What intimidates you the most about this next job? 

RC: Not being able to help everyone. I want to do everything 100% for 100% of the people. I know it's not possible, and I know it's not feasible, but I feel everyone deserves that from me. I want to be able to show up, and I want to be able to make a difference, and I want UAMS to rise, and I want Northwest Arkansas to rise, and I want our state to rise, but I also understand, there's a military saying I have: ‘I just need to make it the breakfast.’ I can't do everything all at once, and it's intimidating. It can be overwhelming, but having that passion is key and that drive for me in order to be the best that I can.

MM: One of the things that I think about a lot is that I'm raising a family here in Arkansas. This concern of ‘brain drain’ that we have people who live in Arkansas who are getting degrees and then they're moving to bigger spaces: they're moving to Nashville or they're moving to bigger metropolitan areas. What sort of work do you think you can do — I mean, you've talked about this a little bit with your work in the Middle East recruiting people to come and work in hospitals thousands of miles away — what sort of work do you think you can do to keep intelligent smart compassionate people inside of our state lines?

RC: Make sure that we provide excellent job resources and training for jobs. Make sure that we provide excellent healthcare. Schools for raising young families, school is obviously important. We're doing those things and continue to do those things. Be it Northwest Arkansas and the hip hideaways that that we talk about in the mountain biking.

Not everyone's going to move to Northwest Arkansas, and so to ensure, in my role as vice chancellor, that yes, we can highlight Bentonville, Springdale, Rogers, and Fayetteville, but we also need to highlight our other cities and towns and counties that are around us that we all grow and that we're all attractive. The truth is if you get a million people to live in downtown Bentonville, no one's going to want to live there, because you can't do anything, you'll be on top of everyone. So we have to have — not urban sprawl per se — but we have to have some growth across the region that's equitable from a population standpoint.

I think my job and where I can help hopefully is to say, ‘Look you know, Matthew, maybe you're in Dallas and you're looking at a different career. Come to Northwest Arkansas. We have jobs for your spouse, we have great schools for your children we have wonderful healthcare outcomes. The same that you would find in Dallas or Houston or Oklahoma City or Nashville and it's all here either back in your home state and or this new state that you can adopt.’

Really telling our story through the lens and voice of UAMS as being a destination place to work, to receive care, to receive an education, and also in part of a destination state to relocate and move because every single one of those individuals in Nashville and Dallas now what is becoming in North Alabama and Huntsville, they're living an hour sometimes outside of the city to afford to be able to live there. What made those places great is quickly falling off.

I was driving through Nashville the other day, and between construction and traffic, that love for Nashville and the feel that ‘oh it's such a cool laid back city’ was kind of gone. 65 North was packed and everybody was blinking and saying nice choice words to each other with their horns, it just wasn’t very nice, you miss back home. So, I think being able to tell our story but just that we're also doing the same exact thing — I would argue better — than a Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, or Nashville. So, Arkansas is where you should be.

MM: You've been doing this sort of work for the last 24 years. You said where do you hope to be 24 years from now? Do you hope to have a legacy? Do you hope to have a way that the impact will be felt by your work in your determination?

RC: Yes to legacy. It’s not a “Ryan Cork” legacy, but if you and I got together and did this 24 years down the road, I could honestly say that through the work with my colleagues at Washington Regional, at Mercy, obviously at UAMS, the University of Arkansas Community Clinic, Arkansas Children's Northwest, the Heartland Whole Health, Northwest health and Highlands Oncology that are providing care in Northwest Arkansas now, if I could look and say I was part of the equation that grew and took where we were and what we were doing from 500,000 residents to be able to treat effectively a million residents. Plus, be able to educate nurses, doctors, mid-level ancillaries, all of these so that we have a robust, sustainable workforce staffing model, and then also have some in and around fair reimbursements as what our hospitals are making and getting paid for services they're delivering … that would be a legacy. I don't need anyone to know my name. That's not important. But if I know that your kids are going to grow up in a space where they get better, more affordable, and higher quality health care by locally trained providers that are from our home state of Arkansas, that's a legacy for me. I'm happy with that.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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