Haas brings dental knowledge, administrative experience, big-picture thinking
By GREG HACK
The UMKC School of Dentistry has a long history of clinical excellence, and the school’s new dean, Steven E. Haas, D.M.D., J.D., M.B.A., is eager to use his broad base of experience and knowledge to carry on that tradition.
That experience includes years in private prosthodontics practice, a law degree, an MBA, work on dental legislation and regulation, and several academic administrative posts, most recently as associate dean for clinical affairs at the University of Nebraska College of Dentistry.
“It’s great coming to a school that dates back a century,” said Haas, only the school’s ninth permanent dean. “The school has such a deep history of accomplishment, and you can feel that in everything from the Rinehart Foundation’s support to the alumni’s commitment to continuing that success.”
Haas, in interviews in August and September, talked about his own education and experiences and how they prepared him for the challenges ahead of him as dean. He conveys a sense of confidence but not ego — of faith in others and trust in sound practices, whether in clinic or the executive suite.
In his first few weeks on the job, Haas focused on fact finding and getting to know the faculty, students and other administrators. He likes what he sees.
“There are so many good people here, a good team,” he said. “When you get to know each other, get comfortable and start to mesh, you have each other’s back. And then you’re really a team.”
And what does he hope to bring as the leader of that team? Good management processes and practices, Haas said, which may not sound exciting but are essential.
“Getting my law degree taught me a different way of thinking, of being comfortable with gray areas where there’s no ‘right answer,’ ” Haas said. “And my MBA gave me a ton of skills I use to this day, not only in leadership style, but in change management and conflict resolution, things that any administrator has to be able to do well.”
New dean continues long line of impressive leadership at the helm of the School of Dentistry.
“Any administrator needs a leadership style that foundationally you can always refer back to that helps you deal with people.”
— STEVEN E. HAAS, D.M.D., J.D., M.B.A.
Path to Dentistry
In bringing along the next generation of dentists, Haas thinks about how he came to dentistry and dental education. He’s grateful for the people and experiences that shaped him.
In high school, he explored health care careers as a volunteer at Long
During his studies, he particularly appreciated the mentorship of his group leaders, Dr. David Garber and Dr. Harold Baumgarten. Most of all, he remembers Dr. Morton Amsterdam, whose deep knowledge of periodontic prosthetics and love for teaching rubbed off.
gather our information, we look at signs and symptoms, we follow that through with a diagnosis and a course of treatment.”
That was interesting to Haas throughout dental school, residency and specialty training. But he also wanted to know how to think in
“At the top, it’s not pushing people to make needed changes. It’s assembling your leadership team, realizing what the changes are that we all need to make, and then letting them guide the change.”
— STEVEN E. HAAS, D.M.D., J.D., M.B.A.
Island Jewish Hospital. Medicine did not capture his imagination, he said, but seeing resident dentists work on trauma patients did. “One resident took me under his wing and invited me to come at night and take calls with him. He dealt with the dental emergencies that stem from motorcycle accidents, gun wounds, knife wounds. He so enjoyed the challenges, and I said, ‘This is for me.’ ”
His parents encouraged that shadowing and then supported him when he was off to the University of Pennsylvania to study dentistry. Shortly after he started those studies, his father, a New York City cab driver, died unexpectedly. Though the family had little savings and no life insurance on his father, Haas’ mother kept him on course.
“I thought about dropping out of dental school, driving a cab for a year or two to get us on more stable financial footing,” Haas said. But his mother was having none of that, insisting he stay in school because there was no guarantee he would return. “Somehow, she got me and my brother through dental school,” Haas said.
Haas specifically remembers an advanced seminar with Amsterdam where he accepted about 40 classmates to participate. It was difficult to fit the class into a dental student’s busy schedule, and by the last session, everyone but Haas and his roommate had dropped out.
“I thought Dr. Amsterdam might say, ‘Only two of you left. Let’s just skip it.’ But instead he said, ‘What if I prepare a day’s worth of material and we spend the whole day together?’ And we did,” Haas recalled. “Here’s a world-renowned authority, and we were nobody — two dental students he might never see again. He bought us breakfast. He bought us lunch. And he presented 8 hours of great lessons. He loved teaching that much.”
Connecting the Dots
Haas may credit Amsterdam for his interest in teaching and academia, but his own love of learning and desire to understand how systems and people work seem very much a part of him.
“The attraction for me has always been the thought process,” Haas said. “So in the health care professions, we tend to think more linearly in that we ambiguous situations involving complex human interactions. He thought studying law could help with that, especially when he became involved with advising on New York state legislation affecting dentistry.
“Law teaches you something very different: how to think when there’s no distinct right answer,” he said. “You need to be nimble enough on your feet to be able to see other arguments and to be able to formulate the best arguments for each side. So it really opens your mind to other ways of thinking.”
As he took on other management tasks, overseeing clinics in New York and then academic programs after a move to Florida, Haas knew he needed more leadership skills. So he returned to school and got his MBA.
“Any administrator needs a leadership style that foundationally you can always refer back to that helps you deal with people,” Haas said. “I favor situational leadership. Other styles focus on the leader; situational leadership focuses on the follower.”
So if someone is clearly competent and confident about the tasks at hand, the leader delegates and watches the person succeed. If there are new duties someone might not be fully ready for, the leader teaches or provides training and mentorship.
Goals and values don’t have to change, Haas said, but each person gets what’s needed to succeed and grow. And with a comfortable, productive team, a leader’s other big challenges — managing change and conflict — are met more easily.
“At the top, it’s not pushing people to make needed changes,” he said. “It’s assembling your leadership team, realizing what the changes are that we all need to make, and then letting them guide the change.”
Haas added, “You also have to think of change as dropping a pebble in a pond. Beyond the initial change, you have to anticipate all the ripples that emanate and manage for those, too.”
The same values hold true when there’s conflict, he said.
“Any manager has to make some tough decisions, and everyone isn’t going to agree,” Haas said. “But that just shows that people really care. And there’s a much greater chance that stakeholders will get on board once a decision is made if they are really listened to and feel heard.”
Getting Settled; Looking Ahead
By mid-September, the dean’s office was looking inviting. Diplomas and certificates filled two walls, “and I want to get a big screen on another wall so we can hold video conferences,” Haas said.
Something else big also is missing from everyday life — Haas’ family. His wife, Luana Oliveira, and their two children, 7 and 10 years old, are in Florida, where she is in the Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at the University of Florida
– Hialeah. They met when he joined the faculty at Nova Southeastern University and, at least by his account, it was love at first sight.
“She’s a dentist, too, from Brazil and has a lot of experience in academia,” Haas said. “But she’s still learning a lot in this program and wants to get her American dental degree.”
Haas is looking forward to her completing the program so the family can reunite full-time, but in the meantime, video calls and frequent trips back and forth will have to do. And Haas has no shortage of work at the dental school to occupy him.
For Haas, Leadership Comes in Many Forms.
High on his priority list is the UMKC-wide goal of increasing diversity and inclusion. The school’s special partnerships with Kuwait and Hawaii help diversify the student body, and reduced-tuition arrangements with Kansas and some other states help, too.
But Haas would like to see students drawn from even wider geographic and demographic areas, and the faculty to have diversity to match the student body. “Having teachers who look like you can be an important support,” Haas said.
As Haas learns more about the school and its operations, he remains optimistic. He was thinking recently, after looking at the portraits of past deans outside his office, of how the dean from a century ago must be laughing.
“That dean got the school through a pandemic, too,” Haas said. “I think we will get through what we face now.” •