When Mark Latta, DMD, MS, made the uncommon decision in 1995 to leave industry and join academia, he told his family he would try it for three years, serving as associate dean for research at the Creighton School of Dentistry.
Twenty-five years later, as he prepares to step down as dean of the dental school on July 31, 2021, and take a 12-month sabbatical, he can look back on a tenure that may safely be described as historic.
After serving 16 years as research dean, Latta was named dean in 2011, just in time to lead the school through the first of two in-depth accreditation visits from the Commission on Dental Accreditation and oversee the creation of a strategic plan that had as its centerpiece construction of an $84.5 million dental facility that today sits at 21st and Cuming streets after opening in 2018.
Not only did Latta’s leadership ensure completion of the new 267,000-square-foot dental building and the 30% increase in student enrollment that ensued, he also led efforts to raise $52.5 million of the cost by promoting the need to preserve excellence at the school and the importance of expanding its longstanding role providing dental care to lower-income residents of Omaha and Douglas County.
Under Latta’s guidance, the student affairs function separated from admissions, a development Latta credits with enhancing student involvement in the affairs of the school and creating a stronger environment of support. He developed a hiring plan to manage increased enrollment, and even found time to develop a relationship with Nihon University, a private research university in Tokyo, members of whose dental faculty for the past 10 years have spent between 12 and 18 months on Creighton’s campus learning the latest in Western dentistry.
“I am grateful for the outstanding service and leadership Dr. Latta has provided the School of Dentistry and its students, along with the University overall,” said Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, in announcing Dr. Latta’s decision to step down as dean. “He is a respected and visionary administrator who has significantly advanced our academic mission and strategic priorities in his time as dean.”
“The influence of Mark Latta on the School of Dentistry and the entire Creighton community is profound,” says Colette O’Meara McKinney, EdD, associate dean with the dental school’s Office of Student Affairs.
“Many point to the beautiful, state-of-the-art facility which he envisioned and saw through to completion,” she says. “But Dr. Latta’s legacy is much more. He has a demonstrated ability to balance decisive leadership with compassionate concern for the well-being of faculty, staff and students. He is deeply committed to the formation of health professionals grounded in Ignatian values and in the technical demands of dentistry.”
Neil Norton, PhD, professor and associate dean for admissions at the dental school, says Latta was the right dean at the right time.
“He always had a vision, and as dean was persistent in making a new building for the dental school a reality,” he says. “He worked countless hours, spoke with numerous donors and worked with the University administration to create an amazing facility. When applicants visit our school, they are amazed.”
And, Norton says, Latta proved an agent of wider change.
“Our faculty, students and staff have grown in number, and he worked to address gender equality and diversity,” Norton says. “Under his leadership, the first women and persons of color were named as both associate deans and endowed chairs in the school. When he became dean, there were no full professors that were women — now there are seven.”
Latta was living in York, Pennsylvania, in 1995, working as a clinical research dentist for Dentsply, a global manufacturer of dental equipment. While there, he earned a graduate degree in oral biology with a specialty in biomaterials, earned several promotions and was eventually given responsibility for placing research studies at universities. And that is how, courtesy of Wayne Barkmeier, DDS, MS, Latta encountered Creighton University.
“Dr. Barkmeier was dean at the time and had a specialty in dental biomaterials,” Latta says. “I would come out probably three or four times a year to work with him on behalf of the company. Through that relationship, I developed an appreciation for Creighton, its mission and its clinical focus.”
In 1995, when Barkmeier was promoted to dean, he asked Latta to fill his now-vacated position as associate dean for research. Thus did Latta begin his long and fruitful association with Creighton.
Certainly, the outstanding event of Latta’s deanship will merit a chapter in the history of the University — the creation of the new dental school building, which continues to draw plaudits for its sophistication and technology.
It was becoming obvious, Latta says, even before he was appointed dean in 2011, that the Dr. Harry N. and Maude Boyne School of Dental Science building at 28th and Burt streets, which had served as Creighton’s dental school since 1973, was nearing the end of its useful life. The dilemma was whether to renovate Boyne or build new.
As it turned out, he says, the high cost of renovation was comparable to the cost of building a new school. The anticipated time required to complete a renovation was four years, during which time the public clinic would have to operate amid the noise. And, he says, when the dust settled, the school would increase its freshman capacity by just 10%.
A new building, for approximately the same cost, could be completed in 22 months, would be thoroughly modern and would allow for a freshman class increase of 30%, to 115 students. A new building it would be.
“We raised the funds for the new building around our case statement, which had two legs,” Latta says.
“The first was the modernization of the dental program in order to maintain the excellence that we had reputationally. The equally important case was providing services to the community. We treat thousands of patients in Omaha and Douglas County, many of whom otherwise would not have access to dental care.”
Modernization drew generous support from dental alumni, Latta says, while expanding the school’s community service drew backing from individuals, private-sector foundations and even the state of Nebraska, which chipped in $4 million to help the school expand its social
services into rural Nebraska.
As magnificent as the new building is, its purpose is to serve students and help mold them into dentists, and Latta says he takes some pride in improving student support programs.
“We had a combined office for admissions and student support, but with more than 2,000 applications every year, it was too much for just one administrative office, so we formed, as most professional schools do, a student affairs office,” he says.
“This was the first time the dental school had that as a separate entity. It was clear to me that we needed a leader focused exclusively on student success. That occurred when I hired the first person with the exclusive responsibility for student affairs in 2016.”
“Oh, joy, oh joy!” Latta says, when recalling the two accreditation visits from the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which occurred in 2012 and 2019. The visits, which occur every seven years, are of paramount importance since everything the School of Dentistry does would be moot without accreditation.
“It’s an 18- to 24-month process that culminates with a 2 ½-day visit from a site visit team, and I don’t think it’s too much to compare it to an in-depth medical exam,” he says. “In both 2012 and 2019 we did this, and we are now fully accredited.”
And then came COVID.
“I cannot adequately express how pleased and proud I am of our faculty and staff and the hard work they are putting in to provide the best opportunities for our students and the highest level of patient care to the people we serve,” he says.
“We were among the first dental schools to reopen after the health directives in Nebraska were lifted. We operated in the summer without a break. We expanded our clinic sessions to make up for lost time for our clinical students. We migrated quickly to providing as much quality online education as we could.
“Overarching all this was our commitment to safety, assuring our patients and our students, faculty and staff that we were operating at as much capacity as possible, with the commitment to safety being first and foremost.”
Latta says he intends to spend his sabbatical teaching, writing and researching the latest developments in dentistry, the better to enhance Creighton’s dental program. He will do this in Japan, Germany and at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. “Those are three things that, COVID notwithstanding, I am looking forward to, assuming that travel is possible after this summer,” he says.
1. Dean Latta waiting to congratulate a student at the School of Dentistry Hooding Ceremony in May 2018. 2. Dean Latta leads a group on a tour as part of a community partners dental gathering at the new dental building. 3. Dean Latta collaborating on research with Stephen Gross, PhD, professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences. 4. Dean Latta and dean emeritus Wayne Barkmeier, DDS, MS, at the beam-signing for the new School of Dentistry building. 5. Dean Latta holds Itsuki Andrew Takamizawa, who was visiting Omaha from Tokyo with his family. Itsuki — who was given Latta’s middle name as a tribute to the dean — was born in Omaha while his father was a visiting professor and researcher at Creighton. 6. Dean Latta with Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, at the official opening ceremony of the new dental school building.