Dr. Roger Strasser
It is almost impossible to get Dr. Roger Strasser, aka the founding dean of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, to talk about himself.
The Australian medical educator has been in Sudbury since 2002. But despite his high profile as architect and overseer of the school which specializes in rural and remote medicine, and despite being sought out around the world for his expertise, he is modest and unassuming.
He has announced he will retire in June 2019 but will continue to be a member of the faculty.
“I have some leave. So I will get out of the way of my successor and make myself scarce for a while. I want to be involved with the school in the future but not in a way that is intrusive.”
A search committee is looking for someone to replace him. What sort of characteristics does he think his replacement should possess?
“It’s not for me to say,” he laughs. “I certainly hope my successor is someone who shares a passion for delivering on social accountability to really improve the health of people in Northern Ontario. NOSM is off to a good start with the programs we have and high quality graduates.”
What about the qualities he thinks he has that his replacement should have?
“They should be innovative. We designed a made-in-Northern Ontario model, called distributed community engaged learning, so it was not thinking outside the box; we didn’t have a box at all. So I hope my successor will provide leadership that is about being creative and innovative.
“I hope my successor will engage with the communities and the wider sectors − NOSM is not just a medical school, it is a government strategy about health and economic development. I hope my successor does not have a narrow view of what a medical school should be.”
Strasser’s office at the Sudbury campus of the medical school looks like a control centre: there are several large computer screens, two desks and a round conference table. It is utilitarian but equipped with technology that allows him to work with colleagues around the world.
He famously rarely wears a suit and tie and still has one that was a gift from a reporter years ago. Mick Lowe was amused (and impressed) the new medical school dean did not wear a tie when he first addressed Sudbury’s chamber of commerce.
Strasser is not a stuffy bureaucrat. Does this have something to do with being Australian?
“Australia started as a penal colony. There is definitely an ethos that is framed as a healthy disregard for authority. It is accepted and acceptable that when you look at a situation, it does not matter what the rules say, you see what is the right thing to do and you do it.
“Canada is a rules-based society. They follow the rules and authority,” and this can result in a resistance to change, he says.
Strasser points to this example: A few years ago when some Canadians who had lived in the country for most of their lives discovered they were not actual citizens and could not get passports. “There was a wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. It took a year for regulations to change. In Australia, the minister would have intervened and just handed out passports.”
His Aussie attitude of “just getting it done” has served him well.
“When I arrived I did not know what I didn’t not know, I did not know that things I wanted to do were impossible, so I just did them. That is not just being Australian but it is from being from away.”
Strasser’s wife, Sarah, is a rural doctor and an academic who was involved in the early days of NOSM. She is currently working in Australia as head of the Rural Clinical School with the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Queensland. The couple have five children; two are working in medicine in the Land Down Under.
Strasser is a lucky man. He is doing the thing he always wanted to do.
“It goes back to when I was in Grade 9, we did career projects, and the two I looked at were medicine and education, and that is what I am doing. Even as a medical student I was interested in the education side of things.”
Strasser studied at Monash University in Melbourne and specialized in rural medicine. Prior to coming to Sudbury, he was professor and head of the Monash University School of Rural Health. He did such a good job that they named the Roger Strasser Auditorium at the Latrobe Regional Hospital after him.
The opportunity that came in 2002 to start a new medical school specializing in rural medicine in Ontario was “a chance of a lifetime” that he could not pass up. NOSM opened in 2005, and was the first new medical school in Canada in 30 years.
While he turns our conversation away from his accomplishments, preferring to speak about NOSM’s successes, as the interview ends, Strasser tells me he is proud of the school’s graduates, many who are “academic leaders” at the medical school.
As part of the convocation ceremony, which took place at the end of May, graduates received doctoral hoods from another doctor who could be a family member, a friend or a mentor, he says.
“Some of our graduates who are members of the faculty were asked to do the hooding. It gave me a very warm feeling.”