Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the Medical Center's newly selected vice chancellor, has taken over from a man old enough to be her father but not too old to be her friend.
After serving for more than five years as the institution's leader, Dr. James Keeton, stepped down March 1 in favor of his second-in-command and the first woman to ever sit in that chair. Keeton will continue to serve the Medical Center in an advisory capacity.
"He has been a wonderful friend and an amazing mentor, and I've learned a lot from him," said Woodward. "Working with him has been tremendously helpful for me."
For his part, Keeton said, "I could not have done my almost six years in this job without our partnership. Because it has been a partnership, and it's been fun."
With the appointment of Woodward, announced Feb. 18 by Dr. Dan Jones, University of Mississippi chancellor, the Carroll County native is poised to make history, if not major changes.
"I don't see any crashing of programs," said Woodward, who will still be able to call on Keeton in his new advisory role.
"I believe we're on the right track with all our missions. But I would like to see this institution put its foot on the gas and accelerate.
"Of course, we'll always need to reassess, but the general direction we're headed in is very good."
Woodward, an emergency medicine physician, has been a part of UMMC's academic administration since 2003 and has served in the vice chancellor's office with Keeton since 2009. Since then, she has been vice dean of the medical school as well.
"I believe the leadership team in the School of Medicine, and in the whole organization, is as strong as it's ever been," she said. "The leaders here are strong and dedicated people."
With her rise to the Medical Center's top post, "two of the most powerful advocates for the health of Mississippians are women," said Keeton, referring also to Dr. Mary Currier, state health officer, who, like Keeton and Woodward, earned her medical degree at UMMC.
The new vice chancellor, basically the CEO of the Medical Center, is responsible for 9,300 employees, 3,000 students, four teaching hospitals, two community hospitals, five health professions schools and an annual operating budget of $1.6 billion.
Jones announced his choice of Woodward following a meeting of the board of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, which affirmed the selection.
"She has earned a national reputation in medical education and has contributed greatly to our medical school's recognition as one of the very best in the country," Jones said.
Woodward chairs the subcommittee on international relations for the accrediting body for U.S. and Canadian medical schools: the Liaison Committee on Medical Education. During the past few years, she has directed the expansion of the medical school class and the successful 2012 re-accreditation of its academic programs.
"Dr. Woodward's years of experience with the University of Mississippi Medical Center make her the perfect choice to lead the institution," said Aubrey Patterson, president of the IHL board. "She understands every aspect of the UMMC mission and will provide leadership to expand the Medical Center's service to its patients, its students and the state."
The selection was the culmination of a national search that began around July 2014, when Keeton announced his intention to step down.
Among the elected officials praising the decision were Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Lynn Fitch, state treasurer, who noted its historic significance. Fitch, the first Republican woman, and only the second woman ever, to hold her current office, said, "I trust (Woodward) will continue to be an inspiration to us all."
Woodward said that, although she is the first female vice chancellor, "I won't be the last."
The other finalist was Dr. Stephen J. Spann, a family medicine physician and chief medical officer for the Johns Hopkins Medicine-affiliated hospital in the United Arab Emirates.
Jones commended Morris Stocks, University of Mississippi provost, and the Vice Chancellor Search Committee for their work in the selection process.
"The only thing that could have improved it," Woodward said with a laugh, "was it could have been a little faster."