The dean of UC Irvine’s School of Medicine will step down next summer, according to an internal email that officials sent to faculty the night before Thanksgiving.

Chancellor Michael Drake and Provost Howard Gillman did not say why Dr. Ralph Clayman, an expert in minimally-invasive surgery, had suddenly decided to step down after serving four years as dean.

Article Tab: Dr. Ralph Clayman, dean of UC Irvine's School of Medicine, speaks to medical students on Match Day in 2012.
Dr. Ralph Clayman, dean of UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, speaks to medical students on Match Day in 2012.

Through his assistant, Clayman declined a request for an interview this week.

In a letter to faculty, Clayman said he planned to take a six-month sabbatical, before returning to UCI in early 2015 to teach as a professor in the urology department and care for patients.

“For me, this time has been exhilarating and all-consuming; it is time for me to close this chapter in my professional life and leave it to another to continue to build upon the reputation and national renown of the UC Irvine School of Medicine,” he wrote.

As dean, Clayman helped oversee an aggressive construction campaign and the opening of nearly a million square feet of new medical and research space, including the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, where UCI doctors plan to collaborate with industry.

Clayman also succeeded in increasing applications to the medical school by 25 percent to an all-time high, according to the university.

But the medical center and its faculty have continued to confront internal problems, including patient safety issues. In March, the university paid $1.2 million to settle claims by federal prosecutors that it routinely allowed residents to administer anesthesia with no supervision, but then billed Medicare as if an attending physician had been present.

In May Dr. William Barron, the university’s chief medical officer, abruptly resigned after just two years of overseeing patient safety.

Dr. Clayman is known in global medicine for his pioneering work in minimally-invasive surgery. He has invented numerous medical devices and surgical instruments. He receives royalties from several companies that are now selling products that he patented. And he has often helped promote new technologies for companies.

The Register detailed in September how Clayman and another UCI professor, Thomas Ahlering, played a prominent and early role in promoting the use of a surgical robot called the da Vinci. Before becoming dean, Clayman turned UCI into one of the country’s biggest training centers for robotic surgery. Intuitive Surgical, the manufacturer of the da Vinci, has paid UCI nearly $1.5 million, mostly to reimburse it for teaching hundreds of surgeons from around the country to use its device.

But a rising number of reports of injuries and deaths in robotic surgeries have raised questions whether the brief five-day training courses that Clayman, the company, and other surgeons have long advocated for is enough to keep patients safe.

Cathy Lawhon, a university spokesperson, said deans generally serve for five years and can be reappointed. She said Clayman’s early announcement of his resignation will give UCI time to form a search committee and find a new dean.

In his letter, Clayman said he would use his sabbatical to continue his interests, ranging from the invention of more medical devices to creative writing.