It’s hard to imagine the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine finding a more credentialed interim dean than Dr. Lawrence Harkless to establish its nascent school of podiatry.
It’s hard to imagine the university finding a more memorable interim dean either.
Harkless was in his office at the school of medicine Friday, working on the school’s professional accreditation eligibility application.
At 69, with a long and prestigious career in his wake, Harkless finds himself coaxed out of retirement to get UTRGV’s podiatry school off the ground. It’ll be the first of its kind in Texas and the 10th in the nation.
Harkless is a dynamo. He talks like a hurricane, pouring out anecdotes about 50 years of experience in medicine and academia in an almost lyrical East Texas drawl, with the speed of a gale force wind and the conviction of a biblical prophet.
He’ll mix together tales of backroom dealings made to get academic legislation passed during the John Conley administration with folksy farm anecdotes and verbatim quotes from Ecclesiastes and the Gospel, peppering the harangue with medical terms like hemoglobin A1C and comorbidity and nitric oxide.
Harkless has been working with the university for a little over a year and that work is starting to bear fruit.
The university announced last month that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the university’s request to create the school last month, and other accreditations are still pending.
The first students are expected to start studying medical and surgical care of the foot and ankle at the school in the fall of 2022.
For Dr. Harkless, two years is no time at all. He’s been watching the UT system inch toward founding a school of podiatry for a little less than half a century.
“It’s been great,” he said Friday. “It’s a dream come true, and I really think that we’ll be one of the leading schools, because we’ll be part of a university where you have to publish and do research and all the things that’s required to have a program of that excellence.”
Harkless grew up on a farm in Tatum, a little less than an hour west of the Louisiana border. After the town passed a bond issue for its segregated Black school, two men drove through town shooting at people’s homes.
“Somebody shot at my grandmother’s house and she was on her knees praying, and she had one of those beds with those long posts, and it hit one of those posts and ricocheted off,” he said.
A teenager, dancing to the jukebox at a barbecue joint down the road, wasn’t so lucky. He was hit and killed.
Not a fan of farm life, Harkless went on to study medicine in San Francisco. After that he interned under Dr. Louis T. Bogy, the founding chair of the Podiatry Residency Training Program at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio and Harkless’ soon-to-be mentor.
Bogy also wrangled the state legislature into requiring the creation of a school of podiatry in the UT system in 1973, Harkless said, a requirement UTRGV is finally fulfilling.
“That was a law. The people here knew nothing about that when they decided they were starting a podiatry school, and that just blows me away,” he said.
Harkless would go on to serve as the division chair and residency program director at UT San Antonio’s Health Science Center, training hundreds of students and fighting to put podiatry on an equal footing with other disciplines.
At the peak, he says he had 16 residents, two fellows and about eight full-time podiatries seeing between 23 and 25,000 patients a year.
“And UT didn’t give me a cent — the money Bogy got was $200,000, that’s all the state was spending on podiatry. And they cut that, matter of fact they eliminated it in ’17. So, with the RGV starting this, it’s almost crazy,” Harkless said.
After three decades in San Antonio, Harkless went on to become the founding dean for the College of Podiatric Medicine in Pomona. He’s been presented with the Outstanding Educator in Diabetes Award, appointed to serve as a member and the chair of the Texas Diabetes Council, authored a book on foot medicine and give countless seminars on podiatric medicine and diabetes.
The man knows feet and the man knows diabetes, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Harkless got a call in 2017 informing him that UTRGV was feeling out the possibility of a podiatry school and they’d be looking for a dean.
“I said ‘Sir, I’m retired, I’m not looking for no job,” he said.
He was eventually talked into the position, and while he doesn’t intend to stay out of retirement for long, he certainly has his work cut out for him.
“I don’t really want to run the school, I really want to raise a $100 million endowment — really, to get $50 million, because if I get $50 million I’ll have about $5 million a year to invest in the things that we need to be excellent,” he said.
Harkless says he’s confident in his ability to do that. He knows the politicians and programs and people drive higher education in the state, and he learned how to work with them after then-Gov. George Bush appointed him to that diabetes board in the ’90s.
“I was trying to get the sodas out of the schools, get P.E. back in the schools, I had all this stuff that we wanted to do. And guess what? I got my tail kicked, because everybody was telling me we had unfunded mandates,” he said. “So once I understood that, then I started meeting with all these people and developing coalitions, and after that I got everything I wanted done.”
No matter how long he stays, UTRGV’s podiatry school is likely to bear Harkless’ stamp. That’ll mean a focus on interdisciplinary medicine, a brand of podiatry Harkless conveys through a series of maxims and alliterative rules.
“The biggest aspect of this school is the opportunity to educate everybody interprofessionally on any curriculum on the foot and ankle, and so I’m not hiring any faculty that ain’t passionate about doing that,” he said.
Harkless says he expects the program to have a large impact in the Valley. He expects it to stimulate the economy and buttress sports medicine programs and, most importantly, to help treat the Valley’s most pressing health issue: diabetes.
“The medical school and the work we’re doing here will help that, because the prevalence of diabetes here is about 20, 25%, and a major complication is the foot if people don’t take good care of themselves because of blood flow, and every complication with diabetes is related to blood flow,” he said. “That’s where I fit in the most, I know as much about diabetes as any endocrinologist or anybody.”
Although Harkless might not still be the dean when the podiatry school graduates its first doctors, he says he’s eager to see it happen.
“I’ll be on my stick probably, if I’m still living, but I’ll be watching,” he said.