An alum heads a university with a mission to combat health disparities.
When Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles needed a new leader, taking on the role was a no-brainer for David M. Carlisle, PhD MD’81.
The historically black university, known as CDU, established its medical school to care for underserved populations following the 1965 Watts riots, when more than 30 people were killed in the South Los Angeles neighborhood while protesting allegations of police brutality against a black resident.
“We’re in the middle of a community where health disparities are incredibly important,” Carlisle says. “We train health professionals who intend to combat those disparities.”
Carlisle’s commitment to caring for underserved communities isn’t just professional—it’s personal. His family is from South Los Angeles, and he grew up in the View Park neighborhood, one of the dozens of predominantly African-American neighborhoods that make up the region.
“I’ve seen what happens to relatives or friends when they don’t have access to mainstream medical care, and it’s particularly frustrating when you know it’s available right around the corner,” Carlisle says.
CDU students perform a rotation at the Venice Family Clinic, the largest free clinic in the nation, which provides health care to more than 25,000 patients in Los Angeles County each year. Carlisle volunteered at the clinic for many years and now sits on its board.
“A resident of Watts deserves the same high-quality health care as a resident of Beverly Hills,” he says.
Carlisle became president of CDU in July 2011, a tumultuous time for the university. It was facing serious financial problems; two years earlier, it had nearly lost its accreditation.
He credits the intervention of community members and local agencies with helping to turn things around, and he says he was “humbled” to be chosen as the university’s president. After he took over, enrollment at CDU increased, as did federal funding for research. Recently, the university expanded its undergraduate program.
Prior to joining CDU, Carlisle was the director of California’s Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, serving for 11 years under the administrations of three different governors. He has been an adjunct professor in the Department of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA since 1992. He is also a professor in the College of Medicine at CDU.
Reflecting on his time at Brown, Carlisle credits the Medical School’s “exceptional” clinical training environment and its proximity to major teaching hospitals for his ability to expertly care for critically ill patients.
He transferred from the Stanford University School of Medicine to Brown to join his wife, Sylvia Gates Carlisle, MBA MD’82, a senior medical director for Aetna Better Health who is also a board-certified internal medicine specialist and geriatrician. The couple has two grown children: David, a public defender in Oakland, CA, and Aimee, a public defender in the Bronx.
“The thing that makes me proudest is having conversations with our students and feeling motivated and inspired by the young people on campus who are dedicated to achieving the same mission as the university,” Carlisle says.