It was 1995. Val Kilmer was Batman in the top grossing film, Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise was the Number 1 song, and the criminal trial for O.J. Simpson was the biggest news event.
It was also the year that David Johnsen ('73 MS, '73 PEDOS) became dean of the University of Iowa College of Dentistry. Johnsen served as dean for 26 years, stepping down from the role in 2021. His 26 years as dean make him the longest serving dean in the history of the College of Dentistry, and his years as dean account for almost 20% of total number of years for the entire college. It is exceedingly rare for anyone to serve as long or as successfully as Johnsen did.
One afternoon shortly after Johnsen had stepped down as dean. I ran into him walking home, and I mentioned that I was writing this article. Johnsen quickly reiterated to me, as he had done numerous times previously, that the accomplishments of the past 26 years are not his, but they belong to the people who make up the college—the faculty, staff, residents, students, and alumni. He calls them our “together accomplishments.”
“With Dean Johnsen what you see is what you get. He is humble and has never sought to be in the spotlight or to receive accolades for himself. It has always been about our college and its people,” said Ana Diaz-Arnold ('87 MS), professor in the Department of Family Dentistry.
Diaz-Arnold served on the dean’s search committee that ultimately selected Johnsen. The aim of the search committee was to bring in someone with a proven record of national leadership in each of the core areas: administration, research, education, and patient-centered care. The committee wanted someone at the peak of his or her career and aware of and able to communicate the central role that dentistry plays in overall patient health.
“Dean Johnsen checked all boxes and was perhaps our easiest interview,” said Diaz-Arnold. She added, “He was genuine and forthcoming with ideas, and he knew Iowa and the values that Iowa represents. His interest in our patients and students was sincere and he has held true during his tenure at Iowa.”
Accomplishments in Teaching and Learning
Over the past 26 years, the college has cemented its legacy as a premier dental school, educating the next generation of dentists for Iowa and the world. Since 1995, around 2,000 students have graduated from the University of Iowa with their DDS degrees, and several hundred more have earned advanced certificates in dental specialties.
The number of hours that Iowa dental students spend in clinics is unique among top-flight dental schools, consistently ranking among the top 5 dental schools and the top-ranked Big 10 dental college. This kind of training has made a difference in the dental education that Iowa students receive and is one reason that Iowa graduates regularly score above the national average in the clinical portion of their national board exams.
This focus at Iowa has made a difference for countless alumni who regularly speak to how competent and ready they were to enter the dental workforce.
Dan Kegler (’75 DDS) credits this success to the excellent faculty at Iowa who “thirst for knowledge” and “desire to the best in their field.” He added, “Their mindset challenges our students to find the best within themselves on a daily basis.”
The faculty have this mindset, in part, because of the example that Johnsen set.
“David Johnsen cares about each of the students as individuals; they are all important to him,” explained Kegler.
Prioritizing dental education has long been a feature of Iowa’s program, and Johnsen’s leadership in the field of dental education has been felt across the nation.
Five of the deans of Big 10 dental colleges are from Iowa, and Johnsen has served as a mentor to many of them.
Clark Stanford (’84 BS, ’87 DDS, ’92 Prosth, ’92 PhD), dean of the University of Illinois Chicago College of Dentistry, highlighted this feature of Johnsen’s leadership.
“Dean David Johnsen’s impact on the dental education includes coaching/mentorship of a wide cadre of current leaders in education, including multiple deans, to his thoughtful guidance on critical thinking and defining outcomes for the educational process,” Stanford said.
Keith Mays (’94 MS/Prosth), dean of the University of Minnesota, also spoke of Johnsen’s influence in dental education. Since Mays had left Iowa just as Johnsen arrived, Mays first met Johnsen about a decade ago at an ADEA event. They hit it off when Johnsen found out that Mays was a graduate of Iowa, and Mays’ echoed Stanford’s sentiments.
“I have been fortunate enough to benefit from his wisdom as a member of the Big Ten Dental Deans. I love David's energy, smile, wisdom, kindness, pragmatism, and warmth. His presence will be missed on many levels from the circle of dental deans,” said Mays.
Over the past quarter century, Iowa has continued to be a leader in the dental education. This legacy has had a lasting impact on Iowa, providing excellent and well-trained dentists to benefit the entire state.
Accomplishments in Research
Excellence in dental education at Iowa is closely connected to the research mission of the college. For any dental college, a successful research enterprise is a delicate matter that requires sustained and consistent commitment over time, including a commitment to recruiting and retaining a critical mass of promising junior and mid-career researchers, providing excellent facilities and technology to meet the research needs of those faculty, developing statistical and grant support infrastructure, cultivating a grass-roots culture of collaboration among faculty and other colleges on campus, and incorporating a broad mixture of basic science, translational, and clinical research into the overall research mission of the college. Each of these elements are crucial to the health and vitality of the research mission here at Iowa, and over the course of the past 26 years, the college has made remarkable progress.
David Drake, professor in the Iowa Institute for Oral Health Research, has been at the College of Dentistry throughout Johnsen’s entire tenure.
According to Drake, “The research mission has grown considerably under Dean [Emeritus] Johnsen. His leadership has led to greater interaction amongst basic science and clinical scholars, and he has been an avid supporter of faculty pursuing NIH grants.”
The results speak for themselves. For 2020, the University of Iowa was ranked 10th in the country for the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) funding, and 2nd in the Big 10, with over $6.4M in grant funding.
These successes are also likely to continue given the trajectory of research at the college. The recent P3-to-P50 grant, a Public-Private Partnership (P3) grant to develop the infrastructure needed for a P50 oral cancer research-center grant application with National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, would make a second NIDCR-supported center grant adding to the on-going one in craniofacial biology. Additionally, the college’s new seed grant program, which began again in 2020, supports innovative projects from early career investigators so that they can be competitive for peer-reviewed grants from national funding agencies. Both initiatives point to greater research success on the horizon.
Iowa not only has a reputation as a global leader in oral and craniofacial research, but research is also seamlessly integrated into the overall approach to dental education. The college has one of the nation’s strongest dental student research programs with one of the greatest participation rates among U.S. dental schools. This program, which Johnsen speaks of with great pride, provides opportunities for students to learn about cutting-edge research in the oral sciences, so that they can draw on those research skills in a clinical setting. Most Iowa dental graduates will practice in Iowa, and this research focus ensures that Iowa dental graduates have the skills to learn about and evaluate new treatments and procedures so that they can always provide the best, cutting-edge care available throughout their careers.
Facilities and Infrastructure Improvements
One of the reasons that Iowa has established itself as a global leader in oral and craniofacial research is because of sustained investment in updating and transforming the facilities and infrastructure at the college. In 1998 three years after Johnsen began, the $4 million Simulation Clinic was completed.
From 2005 to 2016, the Dental Science Building underwent a $65 million transformation that was completed on time and under budget. This project included a 35,000-square-foot addition; renovation/transformation of all of the clinics; renovation of the research areas; and upgrades to infrastructure (e.g., heating and cooling).
These building and infrastructure improvements are a result of the commitments of Johnsen, the dental administration, faculty, staff, alumni, the University of Iowa, and the State of Iowa. Each invested in the oral health of Iowans by ensuring that the state has a first-rate dental college.
As an alumnus, Dan Kegler was proud to have been a part of this saying that Johnsen left the college “with facilities and systems that are second to none” transforming the college “into a 21st Century beacon of light that will carry us forward for many years into the future.”
Accolades for Johnsen
During his time serving as dean of the College of Dentistry, Johnsen has also earned numerous prestigious awards highlighting his contributions to teaching, research, and service. In 1996, Johnsen received a Distinguished Service Award, the most prestigious award given from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recognizing individuals who have made a major national or international contribution to the improvement of children’s health. In 2010, Johnsen earned the Jack Hein Public Service Award from the American Association for Dental Research to recognize his exemplary service in the area of public affairs on behalf of oral health research.
Early this year, Johnsen was presented with the 2021 American Dental Education Association Distinguished Service Award recognizing his significant contributions to ADEA through teaching, research, and service. Over his career, Dean Johnsen has been a fierce advocate for dental educators and an innovator in teaching and assessing critical thinking in dental education. Each of these awards speak to Johnsen’s lasting impact on the profession, whether in his own field of pediatric dentistry, public advocacy for oral health research generally, or in the wider field of dental education.
Making a Difference
When Johnsen was named dean in 1996, the hope was for him to serve the college and the state with excellence in administration, research, education, and patient-centered care. The past 26 years have been a testament to the lasting influence of our “together accomplishments” during Johnsen’s tenure as dean. As Johnsen steps down from his role as dean, he leaves Iowa’s only dental college and thus the profession of dentistry in Iowa in capable hands with a proud legacy and bright future.
The print version of the original article is contained in the Fall 2021 Dental Link.