Rechelle Jackson, D2
In July 2015, Meharry welcomed its 12th President as James E.K. Hildreth returned to Meharry’s campus to begin what he hopes to be the last job of his professional career. The Arkansas native has attended prestigious colleges/universities such as: Harvard, Oxford and Johns Hopkins and considers Meharry Medical College to be his 4th historic institution. “If you identify a health professional, there is a good chance that that person is either directly or by some limited degrees of separation connected to Meharry,” he stated.
The Pulse was able to converse with Dr. Hildreth and gain a closer look at who he is outside of the big office. We explored why he chose medicine, why he returned to Meharry, and asked about his future plans for the institution.
Dr. Hildreth admits that he would not have even become a doctor if it was not for his father’s untimely death. Growing up in the 1960s with the harsh effects of racism and segregation looming, the 11 year old Hildreth could not understand why his father with a recent diagnosis of cancer could not receive access to quality healthcare. “The quality of care provided to poor people of color was different,” said Dr. Hildreth while thinking back to the vast amount of healthcare disparities that existed. After witnessing his father’s passing, something sparked in him. He wanted to help people even more. After recognizing that medicine was overwhelmed with unsolved etiologies, he entered the field of medicine with the opportunity to explore stimulating research ideas that in many ways would better the outcome of patients in similar situations as his father.
In 1982 while entering his first year at Johns Hopkins, Hildreth’s daughter Sophia whom he affectionately calls “Peanut” was born. He attributes having her and his wife, who was in law school at the time, as his main driving force in medical school. “Having (my family) to come home to everyday made it motivational for me and gave me an advantage since medical school can be so stressful,” he said.
Because Dr. Hildreth received his PhD before medical school, he had a different vantage point on school and was in the minority not only by race, but age as well. However, Dr. Hildreth made it clear that he did not forget his roots, stating “I never cut myself off from who I was, it strikes me as very sad when people do that,” he confessed. He experienced medical school around many who did not look like or come from the same places as he did.
Dr. Hildreth ultimately decided to become a physician because he was amazed at the marvelous machine of the human body. He always enjoyed anatomy because he was able to examine the intricacies of the body. He recalls his interest in HIV beginning after seeing one of his first patients, a black woman with HIV. The woman had just had a baby, who was also HIV positive. Dr. Hildreth remembers that there were no drugs available in those times and that they could only treat the symptoms. After watching them suffer and die, he realized then what a huge problem this was for the world. It would be this worldwide epidemic that brought him to Meharry in 2005 as an HIV researcher and professor.
When asked why he chose to return to Meharry as the role of President after originally leaving in 2011, he responded with a simple “I don’t understand why people wouldn’t come back to this place.” He was particularly impressed with the story of Meharry’s humble beginnings and thought back to the famous salt wagon story. “The real players in the story are the former slaves’ names, whom we don’t know, but without them there would be no us,” he reminisced. He expressed that just as those former slaves are sometimes lost in anonymity, it parallels with how Meharry is sometimes viewed. Although Meharry is small, to some unknown and without much recognition, the school has undoubtedly changed the face of medicine.
“We can do things and make an impact that few other institutions can have because of our history,” he said.
Dr. Hildreth prides himself on being visible while on campus and states that he enjoys interacting with the students and faculty. He mentioned that being around students who have a spirit of service and an abundance of energy has made him into a proud “Chief Cheerleader of Meharry,” a self-coined title for himself. “I get to touch the future by training students,” he said. In fact, every Wednesday the President chooses a spot on campus at random to explore and immerse himself in. Students have reported seeing him in their respective labs, classrooms, or just grabbing some coffee at Metz Café.
It was on one of those Wednesdays that he was disheartened upon entering a classroom to find that only about 18 students out of the 105 enrollees present in class. As a result, he deemed it necessary to implement mandatory class attendance. Dr. Hildreth says that he did not do this to punish students, but to help them become better healthcare professionals. “When people encounter Meharry trained students there should be no question that the student is competent and confident in all those things they were trained to do.” He urges students to be engaged and receive the best education that is offered to them.
However, Dr.Hildreth realizes that there is much work to be done not only with the students, but with faculty and staff alike. “We can’t wait for others to solve the problems we have for us, we have to solve them ourselves, there are downfalls in the system, but there is hope.”
Throughout all of his achievements, awards and accolades, Dr. Hildreth remains humble and relatable. He attributes that to his relationship with God. “My humility is an amazing form of arrogance,” he began. “I understand that my destiny is in the hands of God so why should I worry about trying to impress others when God is the one controlling my destiny? I can be much more effective for people to see what I am doing rather than hear the words I say.”
Dr. Hildreth is overall very excited about the future of Meharry and says he is ready for the transformation. In 2026 Meharry will be celebrating its 150th birthday and he is confident that the school will meet all of its future goals, while still holding on to its core values. Dr. Hildreth knows that he is exactly where he is supposed to be and looks forward to serving the Meharry family.
“One of the greatest blessings I received was my ability to be comfortable in my own skin,” he said. “I’ve never wanted to be anything other than who and what I am. Perhaps my whole life has been preparing me for this moment.”