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Dr. Carol A. Aschenbrener

Year of Birth / Death

b. 1944

Medical School

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine


District of Columbia

Career Path

Administration: Medical school deans
Diagnostic and therapeutic services: Pathology
Dr. Carol A. Aschenbrener


Dr. Carol Aschenbrener is the first woman to chair the National Board of Medical Examiners.
Dr. Carol Aschenbrener is the first woman to be elected chair of the board of the Iowa Medical Society.


Since age 9, I "knew" I should be a doctor. There were no family role models, not even any community models of women in medicine. But my interest never wavered. In retrospect, part of the draw was the fascination with how the body works, part the attraction to wholeness and the desire to be in proximity to the possibility of healing. I have always considered medicine a calling rather than a profession and so interpret the early and deep and abiding attraction as a call. I can't imagine myself being anything else in the world.


Carol Aschenbrener, M.D., brings new perspectives to medical education through her creative approach to helping professional associations build better strategies and develop more effective medical curricula. A fascination with how things work is an undercurrent in Dr. Carol Aschenbrener's career. It underlies her professional interests and expertise in such areas as curriculum development, program evaluation, epidemiology and treatment of brain tumors, organizational culture, leadership development, and management of change.

Dr. Aschenbrener's executive experience includes nine years in various deans' office positions at The University of Iowa College of Medicine and several years as chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. As chancellor, she was responsible for four health colleges. She has considerable experience in strategic and capital planning, faculty recruiting, conflict management, leadership development, and general administration.

She has served on a variety of professional and civic boards and governmental task forces and has held elected positions in organized medicine at the state and national level, including chair of the Iowa Medical Society and member of the American Medical Association's Council on Medical Education. She also served on the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the Accreditation Committee for Continuing Medical Education, the Accreditation Committee for Graduate Medical Education, and the Board of Directors of the Association of Academic Health Centers. In 1995 she served on the Institute of Medicine Task Force on Research in Women's Health, and from 1995 to 1998 she was on the National Institutes of Health's Advisory Committee on Research in Women's Health. In 1999 she was elected to her first two-year term as chair of the National Board of Medical Examiners.

Her numerous honors and awards include an honorary doctor of humanities degree from Clarke College, outstanding alumna awards from the University of North Carolina and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, as well as the Association of American Medical Colleges' leadership award for women in academic medicine. Her many academic and professional presentations focus on changes in the health care environment, transformational leadership, conflict management, the implications of generational differences, the relationship of organizational culture to leadership, and the management of change. She has been a member of the faculty for the Association of American Medical Colleges Professional Development Seminars for Women in Academic Medicine since 1987. While chancellor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, she instituted an in-house leadership development program for faculty and professional managers.

In 1997, Dr. Aschenbrener spent eight months as senior scholar in residence at the Association of Academic Health Centers. She formed her own consulting practice in July 1999, specializing in the design of strategy and development of human resources. Her work for academic health center, higher education, foundation and professional association clients includes strategy development, conflict management, leadership development, change management, and executive coaching. She is also a clinical professor of pathology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Question and Answer

What was your biggest obstacle?

There were challenges but not obstacles. Being the first to go to college, I had support but not knowing encouragement from family. They would have preferred a safer role for me, one that would have kept me closer to home. But they believed in me, enabling me to believe in myself and to see "obstacles" as hurdles to be bested. This helped me persist when some colleagues expressed belief that women, including me, had no place in medicine. Challenges included learning to manage time, working part-time through college and the first three years of medical school and making trade-offs between family and professional and social life. The biggest challenge is continually learning to define myself, rather than let others do it.

How do I make a difference?

Of the many experiences in my career, I think those most likely to have some significance beyond the moment involve working with people who want to develop as leaders in medicine. This has been part of my work since the late 1970s, and always the part that brings great joy. Earlier in life, this was done through mentoring and teaching, now the work continues through my own modeling as a leader and executive coaching with current and rising executives in medicine. I hope that my work encourages people—especially women and people of color—to trust their instincts and persist in looking for ways to use their gifts in medicine.

Who was my mentor?

Only in retrospect did I recognize mentors. Three were significant. Sister Howard Dignan, chair of psychology at Clarke College, taught me the importance of working toward my own particular competencies rather than to an external standard. And she convinced me to skip an honors assembly to hear Victor Frankl, a man whose work has influenced my entire life. Second was Dr. George D. Penick, my teacher and later my boss. He believed in me, valued the effort I wanted to bring to teaching, and modeled integration of values with work. Finally, Dr. John Eckstein, friend, role model and dean par excellence. He gave me an exquisite model of servant leadership, though he might not call it that, and nurtured my development as a leader. All three also shared ways in which the integrated spirituality with their work.

How has my career evolved over time?

The fascination with how things work led me to psychology, then to medicine and to a career as a faculty member. Early interest in teaching brought me to roles as a course director and the chair of a curriculum committee, and director of a pathology service. Later, the desire to contribute to a larger field helped me to say "yes" to opportunities in medical college administration—first in curriculum and student affairs, then as executive associate dean. The support and encouragement of colleagues at Iowa and across the country enabled me to say "yes" to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position at Nebraska. Six years ago, I returned to my "primary" role as a teacher and now have the joy of bringing many past experiences to bear in my private consulting practice. For me, consulting is teaching about life and health and healing, in an organizational rather than clinical setting. I now work with individuals and health care organizations who want to create places where people can and want to do their best.