TAMPA — Dr. Stephen Klasko used to say he couldn't put the University of South Florida's medical school on the map unless he first put a hospital on its campus.
Now, USF's longest serving medical school dean is finally poised to lead a hospital system — only he's leaving to do it.
Klasko, 59, announced Thursday that he is resigning after nine years at USF to become the president of Philadelphia-based Thomas Jefferson University and president and CEO of the university-affiliated hospital system.
He will begin in September. USF president Judy Genshaft said a national search to replace him will soon get under way.
Klasko has led ambitious, sometimes controversial, efforts to rebrand USF as a statewide medical school, forging unlikely partnerships and embarking on wide-ranging new ventures. The new job in Philadelphia will give him the chance to lead a nearly 200-year-old university — which is focused solely on health sciences and includes a highly ranked medical school — as well as its three affiliate hospitals.
"It honestly plays into my strengths," Klasko said.
At USF, Klasko's accomplishments include the construction of a nearly $40 million training center in downtown Tampa to help doctors from around the world master the latest high-tech procedures. He also secured $7 million in planning funds for a new heart institute and recruited prominent researchers to USF. He reorganized the university's health education and services as USF Health, and was named its CEO.
"Dr. Klasko did not just bring a transformative philosophy about what health care should and could be to the Tampa Bay region, but put his ideas into action," Genshaft said in a message Thursday to faculty and students.
But his efforts have sometimes left him at odds with community providers, most notably, Tampa General Hospital, USF's primary teaching partner.
He teamed with the for-profit HCA hospital chain to run a new statewide network of trauma centers. That move was fought by some local hospitals with existing trauma units, including TGH. He also announced plans last fall to create a new health system with Lakeland Regional Medical Center as its first member, a move that has yet to come to fruition and contributed to tensions with TGH.
Tensions ran high enough between USF and Tampa General — they renewed for one year an affiliation agreement that typically lasted a decade — that Hillsborough commissioners threatened to step in and mediate. And Klasko mused in emails to Genshaft last fall that he worried about his future at USF, saying he did not think TGH's board chairman, David Straz, wanted him to stick around.
Klasko on Thursday dismissed suggestions that he had felt pressured to leave. He said Genshaft and the USF board tried to get him to stay — and he would have, but for the once-in-a-career opportunity in Philadelphia.
"The simple fact is there was absolutely no push," he said. "Things couldn't be better at USF."
Straz on Thursday called Klasko " a great visionary" even though he disagreed with some of his initiatives, especially the trauma unit partnership with HCA. Asked if he thought Klasko's departure was good for the university's relationship with TGH, Straz said only, "I believe he made the right decision."
It was not a surprising one. Last week, Klasko officially dropped out of the running to be chancellor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He said in recent months, he's received inquiries from institutions looking for new leaders. He got an initial offer from Thomas Jefferson about a month ago, but it was not finalized until that university's board approved it Thursday.
Klasko helped secure a $20 million donation, the largest in USF history, from philanthropists Frank and Carol Morsani to the college of medicine. Frank Morsani said Thursday that Klasko had set USF on a new and better path.
"I think the community has been well served with his outstanding leadership," he said. He was not surprised, however, that Klasko had chosen to go.
"There's not a man for all seasons," Morsani said.
Looking back over the last decade, Klasko said he was proudest of some of the entrepreneurial initiatives, including the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation in downtown Tampa. He has also overseen the creation of the largest single site public health study for seniors at the Villages.
As for that USF hospital for which he used to pine? Klasko said USF has shown it doesn't need it. With the changes in health care, he said, building a new hospital is not necessarily a smart financial move. And he said USF has found other ways to do innovative research, such as the work at the Villages.
"We were able to create a new model," he said.