Member Spotlight: Thomas McGrath


AAIM Member Spotlight

Thomas McGrath

Thomas McGrath

Chief Administrative Officer
Department of Medicine
Weill Cornell Health

How long have you been a member of AAIM?

I originally joined in 1995. I started at University of Chicago in 1992 when I first became a member. I took the position at Weill Department of Medicine in July 2016.

Describe your typical day.

In my role as chief administrative officer for the department of medicine, I am responsible for a $350 million budget, supporting 400 faculty members and supporting the education programs in which we have 100 residents and 100 subspecialty fellows and 600 staff members that work in the department of medicine.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Engaging with thought leaders and scientists who are discovering the next generation of treatment. It’s super exciting to watch what they do and support what they do scientifically and clinically in an administrative way.

How has the AAIM membership been of value to you and your career?

Several years ago, while at the University of Chicago, my HR director resigned. Shortly thereafter the assistant manager comes to me and says "We have a problem. We have a post-doc whose visa has expired and the renewal application to Homeland Security that the previous director submitted was incomplete, so we have to terminate him and give him a letter that stated he no longer has authorization to stay in the country."

At the time, I had almost no clue what was involved in the visa process (and to this day, only understand the bits and pieces). But I was the head of the department so sucked it up and had a meeting with the post-doc (I’ll call him John). I gave him the letter and said "you have to go." John reacted as one might expect – with panic and anxiety and overwhelming dread. He pleaded with me not to do it and told me his wife and two kids were also here and he couldn’t go back to his home country. But I had a role to play as the administrator, so I gave him the letter, said I would look into what could be done, but he really should start preparing to leave.

There was another challenge too. John didn’t have any funding for the next year of his post-doc.

But I did as I committed to do, and reached out to Harvey Stein, the head of international affairs to learn everything I could about the visa and residency process. Harvey was the best kind of administrator--a thinker and academic himself--completely invested in doing the best for the university and its staff and faculty. It turns out Harvey was retiring in three months. I explained the situation and trekked over to his office to learn everything I could about the process – and get exposed to Harvey 101. Not only was our initial application incomplete, but it was incorrect. But because it was incomplete, it gave us a chance to resubmit after Homeland Security did its review and notified us of the missing parts. But there was no guarantee that once we made changes, that any of those be accepted and John would still result in being out of status and need to leave the country. Harvey walked me through the scenarios like a Rube Goldberg machine. "If this happens, then we need this to happen, and if that happens, then we can do this, and as long as the funding is in place, we should be ok."

Which brings us back to the funding. The same night I gave John the letter, he and his advisor camped outside my door until I came back from a late meeting. She said she would work on the funding and added "please, you can’t let John go back."

So to make a long story short, in the end, Homeland Security returned the original application which allowed us to submit the new one, which they accepted, and in the 11th hour the advisor came up with the funding. All of this took place a few months after Harvey retired, but I called him at home to let him know about John. They thanked me profusely and we both laughed in relief over what we thought was an impossible task to complete.

Years later I would pass John in the hallway and say “John”, he would smile and I would smile, and I would add "it’s so good to see you!"--meaning every word of it.

It’s one of my favorite moments because I was moving on in my own career and the last thing I wanted was to dive down a rabbit hole I knew nothing about. I could have saved months of work by washing my hands of it and moving on. But because I didn’t, it had the best outcome--for John and ultimately the institution.

What's your favorite moment of your career so far?

Right now, it’s having just graduated from the Masters Program in Health Professions Education at University of Illinois in Chicago. It took me four years.

What was your childhood dream job?

Movie star or a carpenter.

How do you spend your free time?

Right now, I spend time exploring the wonders of New York City and hanging out with my 2 ½ year old.

What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I toured with the Grateful Dead.