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David Starkweather, hospital administration visionary and acclaimed professor of public health, dies at 87

David Starkweather MS, PhD, an expert in health services administration and hospital mergers, professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and cofounder of UC Berkeley’s MPH/MBA degree program, died unexpectedly in his sleep at home in Park Ridge, Illinois, on March 11, 2021.

Starkweather joined the Berkeley Public Health faculty in 1967 as an assistant professor of hospital administration. He had previously been the youngest ever administrative director of Stanford Hospital, but left to pursue his PhD in Health Policy and Management at UCLA. While at UCLA, he studied under Dr. Milton Roemer, one of the nation’s leading analysts of health care systems and advocate for public health care systems.

His time working in a hospital setting gave him a practical point of view that extended to his teaching philosophy at UC Berkeley.

“He had a big influence on my career,” said Mary Pittman, MPH, MCP, DrPH. Now president and CEO at the Public Health Institute, Pittman studied under Starkweather when working on her DrPH at Berkeley Public Health.

“When I was taking classes from him, the thing he always tried to do was to combine theory with what was happening in the real world,” Pittman said. “He would take examples from hospital management or health systems design and would give you very practical examples and bring in people from the field.”

And not just any people from the field; Starkweather brought the heavy hitters to work with his students.

“We got to meet with the president of Kaiser and the head of the Alameda County Health Department,” said Jeffrey Oxendine, MBA, MPH, who also studied under Starkweather and is now CEO of OXS Consulting and a lecturer at Berkeley Public Health. “We could have these small group conversations with them. We all got assigned a [professional] mentor outside the school.”

Starkweather published a number of seminal papers in the early 1970s on hospital organizational complexity and performance.

“He was an administrator of a hospital and studied hospital administration in the 1960s, when hospitals in the U.S. were growing in size and developing much more complex structures,” said friend and colleague Thomas Rundall, Ph.D., Henry J. Kaiser Professor at Berkeley Public Health. “Lines of authority were developing in quite different ways and these became very complex organizations. Dave wrote some of the early research papers about this increasing complexity. He pushed the field forward in our understanding of what we now know to be the most complicated organizations ever created.”

But his major contribution to the field was his work on hospital merger analysis. In his 1981 book, Hospital Mergers in the Making, Starkweather provided six case studies of efforts to merge hospitals and a synthesis of the opportunities, constraints, and barriers for hospital mergers and what that meant for public policy and managers.

Starkweather cofounded UC Berkeley’s MBA/MPH program with James M. Carman, a professor at the Haas School of Business, in 1984 and served as its director from 1989 until 1994, when he retired.  During his tenure as director, he became known nationally for developing a computer-based hospital financial management simulation game to teach students how financial decisions affect hospital performance. It was used many years at UC Berkeley and other schools around the country.

“I worked with Dave on that simulation for many, many years,” said Pittman “I helped him with the research to put the variables in the program.”

This was during the days of dial-up Internet, leading to one memorable occasion for Pittman. She and Starkweather were a in a national competition, held in Colorado, that required Pittman to transmit data over a landline.

“We had a couple of times where the phone line would not transmit the data back to the computer in Berkeley and I’d be up all night long,” said Pittman. “I remember I was pulling my hair out but finally got connected and the data came out. I was just exhausted. We were meeting in Denver and the whole day was over at one in the afternoon and Dave said, “OK now we’re going for a hike”—a 10-mile hike. I was so exhausted, I could hardly move. He had so much energy, he could run circles around me.”

Starkweather was awarded a Berkeley Citation in 1994. The citation is given annually to just one recipient whose contributions to UC Berkeley go beyond the call of duty and whose achievements exceed the standards of excellence in their fields.

His former colleagues and students remember him as an impressive human as well as an impressive teacher. “He was one of those outstanding people,” Pittman said. “He was brilliant, he was humble, he was very down to earth.”

A passion for nature

After retirement, Starkweather remained in the East Bay City of Orinda for some years, where was very active in other pursuits and hobbies. He was an active member of the Orinda Community Church, a passionate home winemaker, an avid scuba diver and backpacker, and an active member of the Boy Scouts of America.

“He was a lot of fun, had a great sense of humor, and put his passion into things he cared about, like the Sierra Club,” said Oxendine.

Starkweather “was absolutely, hugely passionate about backpacking in the Sierras,” said his son, Brad Starkweather. “He had a group of friends that he did an annual trip with right up to age 82. It was a big part of his life and a passion of his for sure.”

“Our primary hobby together was scuba diving,” said Brad. “I have 300 dives under my belt, all through trips with him to places like the Great Barrier Reef, Belize, and Turks and Caicos.”

David Starkweather and his wife, Faye, left Orinda, California, in 2013 to be closer to Brad and his family, first moving to Colorado and then the Chicago area.

Starkweather was born in Newton, Massachusetts, to John (Jack) and Ellen Starkweather. He received his BA in sociology from Bowdoin College and his MS from Columbia in hospital management before attending UCLA.

Starkweather is survived by son Brad Starkweather, daughter-in-law Barbara Marra, and grandchildren Anna, Siena, and Jack, all of Dana Point, California.