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Where ingenuity, creativity and health care meet: An interview with Elisa Stephens, President of the Academy of Art University

President's Blog

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, all health care institutions faced a drastic shortage of Personal Protective Equipment. Academy of Art University students stepped up to quickly and quietly design and produce 3-D printed face shields for Saint Francis.

I had the recent opportunity to “sit down” (aka socially distanced video conference) with Elisa Stephens, president of Academy of Art University and San Francisco native, about why she is committed to Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and the health of our community.

Elisa opened our conversation graciously and plain-spoken, “I love Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, you know. I was born there! Where else?! Now, how can I help?”

Helping is exactly what the fiercely independent and strategic leader of the Academy of Art University did on Day 2 of the COVID-19 pandemic in San Francisco.

Myself (Mark Ryle):       Tell me, what you know about Saint Francis Memorial?

Elisa Stephens:       Well, as I said, I was born there so I’ve known the Hospital for a while. And my grandmother was a surgical nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital and she ran the nurses at St. Luke’s. Your hospital is in the unusual and enviable crossroads of Nob Hill, the Tenderloin, our city’s tourists and the Financial District.

Mark:   Can you describe the partnership between Saint Francis Memorial Hospital and the Academy of Art University?

Elisa:    At the beginning of the pandemic in San Francisco, our faculty and staff came together eager to help their Tenderloin community. We have more than 10,000 students living within blocks of Saint Francis. I reached out to Dr. Kathleen Jordan, SFMH Chief Medical Officer, and understood there to be an incredible shortage of personal protective equipment, particularly face shields. If Saint Francis could even find face shields to buy, they were being priced at more than 10X the normal price due to COVID. Our design faculty and staff set out to design and manufacture face shields, using our 3D printers. Within a week, our faculty and staff tested their design and began running our 3D printers 24/7, producing more than 150 shields per day at no cost to the Hospital.

Mark:   Why invest in your community like that, Elisa?

Elisa:    Your hospital, your doctors, your nurses, your Go Health Clinics, you are our hospital. The vast majority of our students live within blocks of Saint Francis. Our students have access to some of the best care in the City, a hospital that turns no one away. And it is who we are as an institution. We are committed to San Francisco and particularly the Tenderloin.

MR:      From your perspective, how important is Saint Francis’ role in our community?

ES:        I described part of your value to the Academy of Art University but even more broadly, Saint Francis really is “the City’s hospital” with the most caring and kind health care staff supported by the most advanced technology available. And without the Hospital’s mission and commitment to the most vulnerable populations, who could or would pick up that work? Or be able to do it nearly as well? This is Saint Francis’ heart and soul.

Mark:   Saint Francis Memorial Hospital committed more than $57M in charitable care just last year for unreimbursed care and outreach.

Elisa:    (nodding) Amazing. Who else does that??!

Mark:   What good do you see coming out of this crisis?

Elisa:    I see two very different outcomes: first, acceptance of technology and the increased access to education and medicine that it brings. Our virtual classrooms and our over a hundred accredited degree programs were long in place before Shelter In Place but we continue to grow and improve the pedagogical aspects of the virtual/digital environment. And, we are seeing extreme compassion and recognizing the value of human contact. I believe those new, higher levels will continue. I am committed to it.