Chief During Turmoil at Children’s Hospital May Be Next UNC President

As the University of North Carolina begins its formal search for a permanent president, a likely top candidate is the former head of the state-owned medical system, which is now being investigated over turmoil at its children’s hospital during his tenure.

Dr. William L. Roper, who since January has been interim president of the university, was chief executive of UNC Health Care when doctors at the institution’s Chapel Hill children’s hospital warned administrators that their young heart patients seemed to be dying at higher-than-expected rates or faring poorly after surgery.

An investigation published in May by The New York Times gave a detailed look inside the institution in 2016 and 2017, when cardiologists — captured on secret audio recordings provided to The Times — grappled with whether to keep sending patients to their own hospital for surgery and pressed administrators to provide mortality data they said they had not been able to get for several years. Since the article ran, UNC Health Care has temporarily suspended the most complex heart surgeries at the hospital — a measure some of the doctors urged years earlier.

Dr. Roper, 71, said in a recent interview with The News & Observer in Raleigh that he and other top-ranking hospital officials had been “very much involved” in an internal investigation of the pediatric heart surgery program in 2016. UNC Health Care has said it determined at the time that the doctors’ concerns were “unfounded.” Dr. Roper has repeatedly declined to speak to The Times.

Harry Smith Jr., chairman of the university’s board of governors, which chooses the president, said in an interview the group would “certainly encourage” Dr. Roper to apply for the university’s top position. He noted that Dr. Roper had done a “great job” as interim president and had had a “very robust career.”

Last month, UNC Health Care said that as part of its effort to “restore confidence” in the heart surgery program, it would create an external advisory group, made up of experts from several medical institutions, that would report to the medical system’s board of directors. Dr. Roper sits on the board.

UNC Health Care also released data showing that the mortality rate for children undergoing heart surgery at the hospital rose in the years after Dr. Roper and other administrators say they did an investigation. The death rate was especially high among children with the most complex heart conditions — nearly 50 percent. The health system had previously fought to keep the mortality data hidden, and released it after a yearlong legal battle with The Times.

The medical system is facing multiple inquiries and potential lawsuits related to the pediatric heart surgery program. The state’s health secretary opened an investigation in conjunction with federal regulators from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The Joint Commission, an accreditation body, recently visited the hospital as part of its own investigation. The results of both reviews are pending.

The parents of several children who died or suffered complications after heart surgery at UNC have said in interviews that they are meeting with lawyers to determine whether they have a legal claim against the hospital.

While Dr. Roper has not said whether he is vying for the job that would solidify his place at the helm of the entire UNC system — which has 17 campuses with nearly 250,000 students and affiliated medical institutions — he is expected to be in the running given his long tenure at UNC and his strong ties in Republican circles. The state’s Republican-controlled legislature elects the two dozen members of the university’s board of governors, who in turn select the UNC president. The board voted last month to begin the search process.

Dr. Roper joined UNC’s Chapel Hill campus in 1997 as dean of the school of public health. In 2004 he became chief executive of UNC Health Care, dean of the medical school and vice chancellor for medical affairs — positions he held until assuming his current temporary post this year.

Dr. Roper previously had a senior role at Prudential Health Care and led The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the early 1990s. He was director of the White House Office of Policy Development under President George H. W. Bush, after overseeing Medicare and Medicaid during the Reagan administration.

Dr. Wesley Burks, who replaced Dr. Roper as head of the UNC health system and dean of the medical school, has said the children’s hospital will resume the most complex pediatric heart surgeries only after regulators and the external advisory board agree it is appropriate.

Dr. Burks, who serves with Dr. Roper on the medical system’s board, was also involved in the 2016 internal investigation of the heart surgery program, Dr. Roper told the Raleigh newspaper. At the time, Dr. Burks held senior positions at the medical school and in the health system. He has also declined to speak with The Times.

Charlie Owen, chairman of the UNC Health Care board, declined to comment on Dr. Roper’s and Dr. Burks’s involvement in either the 2016 investigation or the current inquiry.

In an email, Mr. Owen said the board would “be waiting on the external review of the program” from the advisory board.

UNC administrators denied that there were any problems affecting patient care at the children’s hospital in 2016 and 2017, saying only that there were difficult team dynamics at the time of the doctors’ warnings, and that those problems were resolved by staffing and leadership changes.