With his boxes packed and a picture of his golden retriever on the computer screen, David Forbes is already dreaming of life’s next chapter, one that will allow time for golf and a trip to Europe with an uncertain return date.
Forbes, dean of the University of Montana’s College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, will retire at the end of this month, marking the end of a 26-year career.
It’s been a wild ride for a guy who attended a one-room school in rural Wisconsin and realized his dreams through higher education.
“To be able to come to a university and travel to other universities around the country and in Europe, to work with competent and first-rate people, I wouldn’t have gotten to do that if not for higher education,” Forbes said. “I’ve tried to do my best along the way.”
During his tenure, Forbes helped save the School of Pharmacy and gave faculty members within the college room to spearhead many new programs, including the Family Medicine Residency Program of Western Montana and the new Neural Injury Center.
For Forbes, the journey at UM officially began July 1, 1988, the day he met former dean Frank Pettinato at a Missoula hotel for breakfast. Pettinato handed Forbes control of a program in need of care and direction.
“I found out the next week the (Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education) had placed our program on published probation,” Forbes said. “It was the only program in the country that had that negative distinction.”
Two years after Forbes became dean, George Dennison took the helm as UM’s new president. In 1991, the Montana Legislature made a small investment in the troubled program – money Dennison matched.
The moves helped shore up the School of Pharmacy and its lagging accreditation. Well-known philanthropist Sam Skaggs also invested in the program. The Skaggs Building was created in phases with $28 million – just $5 million coming from state funds. It now houses multiple programs within the larger college.
“We had good people here, but the pharmacy program had been neglected by the campus,” Forbes said. “Accreditation would normally only have to raise its eyebrows and things would happen, but things hadn’t happened here before that.”
Seated in his corner office in the Skaggs Building, a view of the campus breaking through the trees, Forbes looked back upon those challenging days with a sense of achievement.
In 1995, the college’s physical therapy program grew to offer a master’s degree. In 1996, the college created a doctoral degree in pharmacy and conferred its first Ph.D. the following year.
By 2001, the college added a pharmacy residency program at Community Medical Center, with a second residency coming to St. Patrick Hospital in 2007. Between those years, the Skaggs School of Pharmacy achieved a top 10 ranking in funding from the National Institutes of Health.
Yet for every success, Forbes has endured his share of tests. That, he said, is the nature of a university and the challenge of deans who oversee the various colleges.
“For the most part, the university is a place of scarce resources,” he said. “Most people look at the university and think there’s a lot of money lying around, but there’s not. The challenges are finding the best faculty and staff you can, knowing full well you don’t have a lot of money to throw around.”
Despite the college’s limited resources, Forbes said, it has built a strong reputation and a team of dedicated faculty and staff members. For the most part, the college hasn’t been raided by the pharmaceutical industry or other universities with money to spend.
The college also has grown in new areas. The Family Medicine Residency will help place more doctors in the state’s rural reaches. The Neural Injury Center opened this year and will study traumatic brain injuries.
“We have a lot of talented faculty and staff on this campus that could be other places,” Forbes said. “We’ve done better than I ever dreamt we would.”
The trash can outside Forbes’ office is filled with defunct files and papers, and the boxes are nearly packed. They include hard hats from the construction of the Skaggs Building and a diploma harkening back to his own days as a licensed pharmacist.
Nearly 70 years old, Forbes reflects on his father and the Wisconsin farm he owned during the Great Depression. Those hard times never left his father’s memory and, in a roundabout way, it helped direct Forbes to his current profession.
“A lot of families there lost their farms,” he said. “After the Depression, the first person in our town to build a new house was the pharmacist.”
Forbes’ father suggested he explore a similar career, and Forbes took the advice to heart. He made trips to the University of Wisconsin and confronted the profession through continuing education programs.
Years later, Forbes walked away with a Ph.D. in hand and now, after 26 years as dean, he says UM still reminds him of the University of Wisconsin where it all began.
But even a well-intentioned pharmacist can’t outrun the workings of time. Forbes said he’s looking to slow down and tend to his other goals.
“I have other things I want to do,” he said. “I want to work with my dogs more, and I know I could be a better golfer. I’ve got a lot of books I want to read. Missoula is home, and the university has been a great opportunity for me.”