A Vision to Build the Best Pharmacy School in the World

From his first day as dean of the School, Bob Blouin aimed to take us to the top

Story by Zach Read| Published February 21, 2023

In summer 2003, Bob Blouin began his tenure as dean of the UNC School of Pharmacy. The transition to Chapel Hill followed more than two decades of faculty and administrative roles at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy.

“I saw the potential for the UNC School of Pharmacy at that moment in its lifecycle,” recalls Bob as he shares why he joined Carolina 20 years ago. “There was a lot of great work that was being done across UNC, and because of the university’s very strong national reputation in all aspects of academic life, I envisioned advancing the school to even greater heights.”

On his first day on the job, however, he was met with a surprise. Beard Hall, where the dean’s office had been located throughout the school’s history, was undergoing renovations.

“I came to look for my office and they said, ‘You mean no one told you? We’ll show you where your office is,’” Bob says as he laughs. “So, we walked out of the building to a parking lot next to the school. There was this 35-year-old, dilapidated double-wide trailer, and that’s where my office was…. It was supposed to be for nine months; it ended up taking a little over two years. The good news was no one complained to me about their space.”

From that first day forward, Bob focused on his vision for leading the School of Pharmacy to national and international prominence. He recognized the core strengths of the school’s faculty with respect to educating and training future pharmacists and encouraged continued emphasis on them as part of the school’s commitment to serve the state of North Carolina. For Bob, the greatest opportunity for growth was through expansion of the school’s research endeavors. Early in his tenure he took note of the university’s internal history of cross-disciplinary collaboration and became determined to form partnerships with UNC’s schools and centers.

“I came in with an eye toward a research agenda and wanted to do everything I could to create highly collaborative, cross-campus opportunities for the faculty within the School of Pharmacy,” Bob says. “I saw potential strengths in drug discovery, medical pharmacology, drug delivery and other areas of drug development. To me, the School of Pharmacy was the perfect partner.”

Expanding the research portfolio would be key to achieving Bob’s aspirational goal for the UNC School of Pharmacy to become best pharmacy school in the world—a goal he shared at his first meeting with the school’s faculty.

“There was some surprise in the room, and I understood that,” Bob explains. “We had a strong reputation for producing pharmacists and for our clinical program, but we were relatively unknown on our own campus. To be a great school nationally and internationally, we had to be a great school on our own campus, and we had to be great at more than one thing—we had to be great at our education mission, our service mission, and our research mission.”

During Bob’s tenure, Dhiren Thakker served as associate dean of areas including Research & Graduate Education, Entrepreneurial Development, and Global Engagement. Within Bob’s first year, Dhiren recognized the new school leader’s unique blend of academic and entrepreneurial leadership.

“He was looking for more space for research,” Dhiren remembers. “I told him, ‘Bob, we still have Kerr Hall.’ He said, ‘I know that, but I’m looking beyond that.’ That was when I knew we had the right person for the job. I thought, ‘He’s ambitious. He’s looking to expand and not to fill the space we already have. He’s looking at where we will go next.’”

Through Bob’s leadership, the school garnered support from the university and donors, including Fred Eshelman, and invested in all three components of the school’s triad mission to educate, serve, and conduct research. The school was able to retain and recruit talent with expertise in all three areas, and Bob was able to use an entrepreneurial approach to developing partnerships and accessing funding for more research space across campus, including Genetic Medicine Building, Marsico Hall, and expanding to the UNC-Asheville campus. In time, the school achieved the rank of number one on the nation according to U.S. News and World Report.

“It’s funny,” Bob says, “rankings are not something everyone believes in. But when we were ranked number two in the country, the first question for me from parents and alumni was always, ‘Who’s number one?’ That told me people do care who’s number one, and we’ve seen that our students, their parents, and their families are proud of the ranking. It’s a distinction.”

But despite the achievement, Bob looks at other areas of success to help define his tenure: the outstanding people who comprise the school’s faculty and staff, partnerships like the one with University College London and Monash University, and securing support from Fred Eshelman for the Eshelman Institute for Innovation.

In 2017, Bob moved on to serve in the Provost role for the University. He has since returned to the School in a faculty position. Although he now works with colleagues in new ways, the school’s growth from 2003 to 2017 isn’t lost on Bob’s collaborators at the university.

“Bob Blouin, from his first day in his grand suite (in a double-wide), looked to take the School of Pharmacy to the next level,” says Shelley Earp, director of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “He admired the great teaching program and service to North Carolina but felt the faculty could be more central to the whole university’s scientific endeavor. He reached out across UNC to optimize creativity at the school in partnerships that were bi-directional, always aimed at improving all participants but always elevating pharmaceutical science, ever moving the school and faculty towards national prominence. And boy did he succeed!”