A Love Letter to the Faculty Senate


Leonard Zwelling

do love MD Anderson. I believe in its mission and I believe in its faculty and
staff. I have seen first-hand the exemplary care given by our physicians,
nurses and ancillary personnel. I have been privileged to oversee the clinical
research infrastructure of what I believe is the single greatest such
enterprise in the world. Of all the jobs I have ever had, that one gave me the
most pride for in that position I felt that by supporting the faculty and the
research they were doing, I was making a real impact on the cancer problem—far
more than I ever had as a clinician or laboratory investigator. And only at MD
Anderson would I have had such an opportunity and only here would the gracious
support of so many clinical investigators gotten me through my earliest days on
a job for which I was barely qualified.

at MD Anderson could I be fired from an executive position and find myself a
year later on Capitol Hill on sabbatical learning about the politics of health
care at the most crucial of times in the on-going debate to create some sort of
American health care system. And learn I did, though it was as painful as my
Duke internship and often just as demeaning.

all of that in mind, I would like to use the blog for a brief moment to send
the Faculty Senate a love letter. Everyone needs a little love and this faculty
and the Senate haven’t had very much lately.

Senate has had a very up and down history of success with its goal of improving
professional and personal life for the faculty. Many advances have been made,
but of late, some ground has been lost in the Senate’s participatory
administrative role (so-called shared governance) and this has led to some
serious frustration on the part of the Senate and its executive leadership.
Understandably so. No one wants to feel politically marginalized let alone
functionally ignored, but I fear the Senate, through no fault of its own, is
there at present. What to do about it?

the last place you would think to look is the real Senate in Washington where I
was on the staff of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Congress appears both toothless and unprincipled. But that is not quite true.
They have one principle they always follow. Get elected. If they are doing such
a terrible job (and about 90% of Americans think they are), how do they keep
getting elected?

key is this. The first thing every member of Congress does every morning is
read his or her own hometown or state newspaper looking for the answer to the
following question made popular by New York City Mayor Ed Koch. How am I doing?

Lyndon Johnson walked the halls of Congress, he fostered relationships with
every single member and his power emanated from those relationships even as he
ascended to the Presidency. He had to be doing well with them to retain his
position as Majority Leader and control the legislative agenda.

the age of modern jet travel, members of Congress don’t hang around with each
other in quite the same way. They work at most a 3 or 4 day week usually
smelling jet fuel by lunch Thursday and heading to Reagan airport to get home to meet with constituents, especially those who vote and those who write checks.
That’s how you get elected. You have to convince those with the power to get
you elected that you represent their interests. And, as Tip O’Neill taught us
all those years ago, “all politics is local”.

as Congressmen and Senators cannot get re-elected using email or snail mail or
teleconferencing, members of the Faculty Senate cannot convince the rank and
file faculty that the Senate represents them by meeting in executive session
once a week and leaving the messaging to random encounters by faculty senators
with various degrees of experience reporting to their colleagues at
departmental meetings. I have recently had experienced faculty members of the
Senate deny that they were “politicians”. Sorry. You got elected. You’re in a
political body, the Faculty Senate. You are a politician.

here is my suggestion to the Faculty Senate and its leadership:

1.     Forget
about fighting for reconciliation with the administration. Until you convince
them that you really are the voice of the faculty, they can ignore you without

2.     Every
week, the ECFS should craft a message that is disseminated to all senators. At
every divisional and departmental meeting both the senators from that academic
entity and at least one member of the ECFS should attend and report out on the
message of the week and the progress being made on any key issues.

3.     These
issues should be prioritize by both the ECFS and the Senate at-large and
remain items on the Senate’s agenda and that of every relevant department or
division until they are resolved.

4.     Spend
the year consolidating real power not by doing surveys of morale and expecting
anyone in the administration to respond, but by ascertaining what the faculty
would really like to see happen, then prioritizing these “asks”, and develop
positive ways to accomplish the goals which would then be presented to the
administration in a public forum.

5.     Stop
considering the administration your friends. You are in a political struggle
and you are the loyal opposition. That does not mean that you and the
administration cannot work toward common goals. It does mean that you should
never assume that your goals and those of the administration overlap.

6.     Stop
negotiating with yourselves. Forget about what’s wrong. There’s plenty. What
would RIGHT look like?

many years ago, I was sent by my Faculty Assistance Program-assigned doctor to
a multiday therapy session in Arizona. The therapy employed horses. Horses live
in the present moment and unless you are present too, you cannot get them to do

day my task was to move the therapy horse with one finger. By concentrating on
that horse and the ring we co-occupied in that moment in time and really being
there with this massive animal, I thought of the person at work with whom I had
the most difficulty. I raised my right index finger and pointed to the horse’s
chest and moved toward him. He retreated.

Senate, I love you, too. Get your act together. Act in concert with the people
you represent. Move that horse!

Leonard Zwelling