Words and Deeds and Rolled-Up Newspapers

By

Leonard Zwelling

            It’s a
little harder to take the temperature of the faculty from the Montrose than it
was from South Campus. A lot of that is due to no longer having an MD Anderson
email account so I cannot see what the 20th floor is sending out to
you to annoy you even further.

            My sources
are telling me that both the Chancellor and the Executive Vice Chancellor are
deeply concerned about what they discern is a rising fever when they took the
faculty’s temperature both during their house call and after.  The email traffic to the UT System leadership
has been brisk and remarkably, responded to by the UT System leadership. Let’s
give the Chancellor and Vice some due credit. 
They get that they have a problem and the word on the street is that
they have conveyed their displeasure to Dr. DePinho.

            Those guys
seem to get it. Does Dr. DePinho?

            I have also
heard that Dr. Ron himself has consulted with many of the wiser and greyer heads
at Anderson with regard to his on-going problem best characterized as clinical
cluelessness, ethical ineptitude, arrogance and the absence of listening
apparati. This will now be known as DePinho’s Syndrome, a variant of Longo’s
Syndrome named after my NCI colleague Dan Longo who first discovered, diagnosed
and named the condition. Longo’s Syndrome is microcephaly with arrogance.
Sequencing the genes of both phenotypes is to begin shortly to identify key
aberrant loci and mutated alleles for targeted therapy. This may require an extra
moon shot, but clearly would be gratifying if a target for therapy of either
DePinho’s or Longo’s could be unearthed and a magic bullet developed. The cure
could be used on Capitol Hill as well as at Anderson (and the NIH for that
matter).

            What is unclear
yet is does Dr. DePinho grasp his intrinsic deficits to the extent needed to
right the ship? His words suggest yes. His deeds scream no.

            Time after
time we have heard the words about walkabouts as if his occasional visits to
sites of patient care give him any insight into the psyche of a world-class,
overworked cancer doctor. He has apologized for the poor morale but has not
owned any particular behavior on his part that contributed to the discontent.
He has not plotted or at least articulated a new course to deal with the poor
morale—or his multiple conflicts of interest, his dalliance with nepotism, or
the possible fallout from his appearance on CNBC (we know you apologized to us,
what about to the shareholders who bought Aveo stock following your recommendation)?

            For a long
time now, MD Anderson has been the subject of two conflicting forces. The first,
a force for good, has been the superlative care and clinical research emanating
from its unique faculty. This has been recognized with grant and contract
funds, numerous publications and awards to the faculty and some real progress
in the care of cancer patients. The second force has been lackluster leadership
undermined further by moral relativism and frank unethical behavior suggesting
the first force for good occurred not because of the leadership but in spite of
it. An organization like Anderson does not need any adverse publicity due to
the poor behavior of some high profile individuals whether or not it affects
the research and clinical productivity. And who is to say it hasn’t? Every
faculty member who left Anderson to do great things elsewhere may well have
done their work here had he or she felt more satisfied.

            My
suggestion is that the folks in Austin employ the “bad dog strategy”. The Bad
Dog Strategy is simple. Even the best of canine pets gets out of line once in a
while. In the old days, a poorly behaving hound might be dealt with using a rolled-up newspaper. This was sufficient to get Fido’s attention, but
not to really hurt the dog. Now, as my son Andrew has taught me with his
splendid pooch Onyx, you just speak firmly to the dog and she will get the
message. There is never a need to hit a dog. Ever.

So I guess the question is whether
or not all those folks, both from Austin to our own faculty, who have
interacted with Dr. DePInho and made suggestions to him and his fellow
executives about how to improve things have gotten through. All I know is whether
you use the old rolled-up newspaper method or the more modern and acceptable
stern talking-to trick, the only way you know if doggie got the message is how
doggie behaves from then on. It’s not how doggie barks.

And, oh yes. Make no mistake. This IS
your dog!

Leonard Zwelling