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Moran Eye Center CEO Randall J Olson Celebrates 40 Years at the Helm

Randall J Olson, MD, in 1979.
Randall J Olson, MD, in 1979.

The University of Utah Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences Chair and John A. Moran Eye Center CEO built a world-class institution from the ground up starting 40 years ago this June—and continues to lead it toward a bold new future.

Luckily, Randall J Olson, MD, is an optimist.

His career at the University of Utah began with a 1979 cold-call to then-chair of surgery Frank Moody, MD. Olson had heard the single neuro-ophthalmologist constituting the school’s ophthalmology division was leaving.

Moody told him there wouldn’t be a replacement. Instead, the university was eliminating the ophthalmology program. Olson persisted.

Ophthalmology class of 1979-1980, including Drs. Mano Swartz (front left), Randall J Olson (front third from left), and George Sanborn (front right).
Ophthalmology class of 1979-1980, including Drs. Mano Swartz (front left), Randall J Olson (front third from left), and George Sanborn (front right).

"I talked him into letting me come for an interview and then spent the day convincing him there was an opportunity," Olson recalled. "He said, ‘I’ll give you a shot, but don’t expect any support.’

"It turns out the division was $80,000 in debt. My recruitment package was that they would forgive the debt and give me some working capital—essentially a loan. That was it."

Olson turned down a fellowship at Harvard University and a full-time position at the University of California, Los Angeles, for the chance to build something new in his hometown of Salt Lake City. And over four decades, he’s grown a one-person program into one of the world’s top vision institutes conducting cutting-edge research and providing comprehensive care in nearly all ophthalmic subspecialties.

Building a World-Class Institution

At a young age, Olson quickly understood the difference vision makes in a person’s life. He got his first pair of glasses as a first-grader and has a string of stories about dropping and searching for his glasses in the Utah snowbanks, rivers, and mountains he loves to explore. Following a two-week elective at the end of medical school, Olson knew ophthalmology would be his career. Even before he had officially started his position at the U, Olson recruited retina specialist Mano Swartz, MD, to join him. There was just one hitch.

"I had nothing to promise," said Olson. "We agreed on a salary, and I said I didn’t know if we could necessarily pay it or not. But he accepted on those terms."

Working out of a few exam rooms in the School of Medicine, Olson barely made his budget the first year. Swartz recalls it as a time of putting in hard work to achieve a dream as the pair drove throughout the Mountain West in a 1973 Chevrolet, introducing themselves to other ophthalmologists who might refer patients.

Moran’s growing faculty in 1989.
Moran’s growing faculty in 1989.

"Great institutions start with taking an opportunity," said Swartz. "We had an opportunity, we saw the potential, and neither of us was afraid to work to build it. We started getting a few referrals, hoping that good results would sell themselves, and they did. We started to grow."

A wave of recruitments followed that included Moran’s senior vice chair and director of glaucoma and cataract, Alan S. Crandall, MD. From the beginning, Crandall said, Olson built Moran by seeking to hire the best in the field.

"To me, he’s the ultimate chairman because he does what’s best for ophthalmology, for Moran," said Crandall.

First Moran Eye Center completed.
The first Moran Eye Center completed.

Olson allowed his physicians to do what they were best at. For example, he supported Crandall in establishing an international outreach program at Moran and in taking prominent roles in industry organizations that ate into his clinical care time. Perhaps most important, said Crandall, Olson encouraged innovation.

"We were one of the first academic programs to do phacoemulsification and to use intraocular lens implants (IOLs), which are now the standard for cataract surgery," said Crandall. "That put us in the cataract spotlight 10 to 15 years earlier than most universities."

As the age of IOLs dawned, Olson pioneered the field of IOL and cataract surgery research—inventing new devices along the way.

John A. Moran, center, holds scissors at the 2006 ribbon-cutting ceremony.
John A. Moran, center, holds scissors at the 2006 ribbon-cutting ceremony.

As Olson hired talented researchers and clinicians as fast as he could, space constraints for the growing department made collaboration difficult. Relying on the help of friends and donors, including longtime university supporter John A. Moran, Olson opened the first Moran Eye Center building in 1993 and later improved upon it with the construction of today’s center. Neither project used state or federal funds.

Moran Executive Director Wayne Imbrescia helped Olson build both centers and has worked with him for more than 30 years.

"Randy has an amazing ability to make people feel comfortable and valued," said Imbrescia. "I would say that’s the most endearing part of his personality that gets everything else to fall into place. It’s kind of the secret sauce."

Olson is a particularly successful leader, said Imbrescia, because he has a strong will to achieve, paired with the humility to focus first and foremost on the institution.

"It’s a pretty amazing adventure when you think about him as the one and only chairman in the history of the Department of Ophthalmology and all that’s been done on his watch. It’s impressive."

Wayne Imbrescia, Moran executive director

Those are qualities management author and researcher Jim Collins has described as inherent in the most successful organizational leaders, notes Imbrescia.

"I asked him once, ‘Randy, do you ever have a bad day? I’ve never seen you have a bad day in the 36 years I’ve known you,’ " said Imbrescia. "And he said, ‘I have bad days. I just don’t wear them on my sleeve. I don’t bring it to work. I don’t let it influence the positive beat of the organization and the
positive culture.’ "

The attitude has carried Olson to a notable achievement: he is believed to be the longest-serving chair of any academic ophthalmology department in the country.

What the Future Holds

When Olson thinks about the future of an institution now employing more than 500 people, he thinks about personalized medicine—the ability to deliver therapies based on a patient’s genetic makeup. He cites Moran’s current approach to developing genetic-based therapies for age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

"My vision as we move along is that we expand where we are and try to use the same overall approach in other important diseases," said Olson. "Some patients have had long-standing diabetes and don’t ever seem to get diabetic retinopathy. Why? We have a unique resource for this type of research in the
Utah Population Database [UPD]."

The UPD provides researchers with more than 22 million public health and clinical records, linked with family histories—and researchers have a responsibility to tap it, said Olson. He also sees Moran as a leader in embracing new technologies.

"I see us, with our strength in bioengineering, really being leaders in looking at new technology approaches," he said. "We want to be a leader in understanding how teleophthalmology and apps are going to be providing more and more care, and we should embrace that and not be afraid of it."

He’s confident the best is yet to come.

The Rosenblatt Prize ceremony at the University of Utah.
The Rosenblatt Prize ceremony at the University of Utah.

A Career of Top Honors

Randall J Olson, MD, is a world-renowned expert in cataract and intraocular lens surgery and a researcher who has authored more than 300 professional publications. He has received many of the field’s top recognitions, including:

  • 2012 American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery Binkhorst Medal
  • 2014 University of Utah Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence
  • 2014 American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) Kelman Award
  • 2015 AAO Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2016 International Intra-Ocular Implant Club Jan Worst Medal
  • 2019 Governor's Medal for Science and Technology - Academic/Research