Nancy Howell Agee (BSN `79) and fellow honoree Marion Weiss (a graduate of the School of Architecture in 1979) each experienced an early and strong affinity for their respective fields. From opposite coasts, each chose the University of Virginia as the place they would build the foundation for rewarding careers, reaching levels of leadership where few women are found even now, 45 years after they arrived on Grounds.
As CEO of Roanoke-based Carilion Clinic, Agee, who earned her BSN from the School of Nursing in 1979, is among the 13% of U.S. hospital CEOs who are women.
As co-founder and partner at WEISS/MANFREDI Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, Weiss, who graduated from the School of Architecture, also in 1979, crafts vital public spaces that embrace infrastructure as well as nature in their designs, earning her equally rare prominence in her field.
The Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center announced this week that it will honor Agee and Weiss as the 2020 winners of the University’s Distinguished Alumnae Award, which recognizes alumnae who have used their talents as a force for positive change. The formal ceremony will be held later this year.
This year marks two significant anniversaries for women at UVA: the 100th anniversary of the Board of Visitors’ 1920 resolution to allow some women to seek degrees in the graduate and professional schools, and 50 years since the transition to full coeducation across Grounds.
As the Women’s Center and the Alumni Association work together to bring to light the full history of women on Grounds in this milestone year, the center found it fitting to break with its own tradition and honor not one, but two distinguished alumnae, said Abby Palko, director of the Women’s Center.
In reviewing the nominations made by each school’s dean, Palko said the award selection committee was particularly struck by the level of distinction Agee and Weiss have achieved and their significant impact on the communities where they work.
Weiss, the first recipient from the School of Architecture, has made “architectural contributions [that] have not only been acknowledged for their aesthetic and experiential distinction, but for their enormous positive societal and civic impact,” Dean Ila Berman, Edward E. Elson Professor of Architecture, said.
Agee was instrumental in co-leading Carilion’s transformation from a collection of hospitals to a patient-centered, physician-led health care system with more than 1,000 physicians, seven hospitals, and related services such as home health, imaging, pharmacies, and urgent care serving more than 1 million people in Virginia and West Virginia. Carilion is Virginia’s largest private employer west of Richmond and has a $1 billion annual payroll.
Pam Cipriano, Sadie Heath Cabaniss Professor of Nursing and dean of the School of Nursing, said Agee’s election as chair of the Board of Directors of the American Hospital Association (the member association for the nation’s 5,000 hospitals) is evidence that, in addition to being one of very few nurses to rise to hospital CEO, her service within the ranks of hospital leaders has “earned the respect, trust and admiration of a community that continues to be dominated by men.”
Discovering the Joy at UVA
In her teens, Agee affirmed her childhood inclination toward nursing by volunteering as a candy striper in Roanoke and became the first person in her family to graduate from high school, as well as college. The University’s tradition of excellence in educating nurses met with Agee’s interest in Virginia history and the beauty of the place to create a sense of connection that she did not find at other schools, she said.
Agee recalled foundational lessons learned at UVA that informed the leadership they have gone on to provide in their respective fields, and has vivid memories of confronting ethical dilemmas as a nursing student through reading Victor Fuchs’ “Who Shall Live?” This text went on to become a classic over the years, but was at the time a new work that revealed fundamental issues with health care costs and access by applying economic theory in novel ways.
Agee said her professors emphasized intellectual curiosity, encouraging students to question the status quo and keep pushing to know more. Curiosity led Agee to obtain a master’s degree in nursing from Emory University, to gain a range of experiences from research to administration, and to pursue post-graduate studies at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
When she became CEO in 2011 and led Carilion through the process of defining its core values, curiosity emerged as an important characteristic that the workforce and its leader have in common. Compassion, which she also learned about at UVA, is another Carilion value, she said. Agee takes pride in the School of Nursing’s leadership on this front, saying that compassion “differentiates nursing as a profession.”
She said she is proud of all Carilion does to “support people in their compassionate work” by providing the means for care providers to keep making the deeply rewarding human connections that initially drew them to the field.
Nancy Agee said her UVA Nursing professors emphasized intellectual curiosity, as well as compassion. As prestigious awards, firm achievements and career impact have accrued, Weiss continues to see each project with the fresh eyes that allow her to find the opportunity for “something unprecedented, something that could exist nowhere else,” she said.
Opening Avenues for Others to Learn
Today, Agee is consistently recognized as an influential leader by Modern Healthcare and awarded health care’s high honors such as the National Center for Healthcare Leadership’s Gail L. Warden Leadership Excellence Award. She leads Carilion in earning similar accolades from Becker’s Hospital Review, Truven and U.S. News & World Report.
But her greatest impact may lie in the future well-being of the Roanoke region’s people and its economy. Long before becoming CEO, she championed transformative public-private partnerships aimed at addressing several of the area’s interrelated challenges. The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech-Carilion are now engaging community members, educating practitioners, improving care and attracting research funding. According to studies conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Carilion Clinic contributed more than $3.2 billion to the state’s economy in 2018 and the effect of the Virginia Tech Carilion health sciences campus on the state’s economy is projected to grow from $214 million to $465.2 million annually over the decade from 2017 to 2026.
Continuing to Lead
As 400,000 previously uninsured Virginians are now covered by Medicaid, Agee’s advocacy is making a difference for those who lacked access to care in the past. She sees the need and the possibility for a system that meets Americans’ everyday health needs as well as the U.S. system has traditionally delivered acute care. Agee said caring for an aging population and addressing chronic illnesses are challenges to be confronted by addressing health disparities that are long-standing, but currently made more glaring by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nancy Agee was honored with School of Architecture graduate Marion Weiss, co-founder and partner at WEISS/MANFREDI Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism. In her work, Weiss crafts vital public spaces that embrace infrastructure as well as nature in their designs, earning her equally rare prominence in her field. Read the full story here.