Animal Farm or Animal


Leonard Zwelling

         I have two types of friends from MD Anderson.

         One group, let me call them the Animal Farm group, are
appalled by the transition that has occurred at Anderson particularly over the
last three plus years. They view the current leadership as a cross between the
tyrannical and the incompetent. They see arbitrary decisions about resources,
information system installations, support for faculty, and the longevity of any
given faculty leader as undermining morale. They also describe a real tug-of-war
between the clinical faculty and those classified employees assigned to support
them, particularly the nursing staff with a war of “writing each other up” reaching
the proportions usually seen only in a 3rd grade classroom with spit
balls. All of this takes place in an environment in which the volume of
clinical activity being requested of the faculty grows.

         The other group, I shall call them the Animal House group,
sees the struggles of today’s faculty and its associated morale decline as
nothing new. Faculty will be faculty especially at a cancer center, they
believe. By definition oncologists are unsatisfied with the way things are and
that includes the manner in which they are being led. Faculty grumble as sure as John
Belushi drinks in Animal House, the film. Faculty beat themselves up as surely
as Blutto crushed beer cans with his head.

         But let’s remember, the fraternity boys of Faber College did
rebel and did so successfully so I am not sure how long the analogy will hold
on Holcombe. In fact, it hasn’t.

         The Animal Farm world has “all animals being equal, but some
are more equal than others.” In the Animal House scenario, the leadership
deludes itself into thinking it is in charge and recruits the militaristic
fraternity boys to try to keep the outliers in line. It all fails.

         I am not sure which of my two groups of friends is correct.

         To me, who used to be more in the traditional MD Anderson as Animal
House camp, MD Anderson today resembles the Soviet Union with power and
resources in the hands of the few and the rest of the Farm kept on a short
leash. Public pronouncements of loyalty are expected if a leader is to keep his
or her job. Disagreement with the party line will not be tolerated. Misbehavior
by the leadership has become expected. And if an animal strays, he or she is
likely to find him or herself in the slaughterhouse the next day.

         Animal Farm is not a joyful place. It’s oppressive. There is
no trust among the animals and whatever sense of lightness or light that used
to pervade the psyche of the Anderson faculty is gone. I wonder how busy the
therapists serving the Faculty Assistance Program are now.

         Animal House was a lot more fun, even if it had no order at

         To me both of my groups of friends are correct. MD Anderson
once was Animal House. Heck, the only thing missing was the togas at the PRS
Prom every spring and Otis Day and the Knights playing instead of the Bob Smith
Orchestra. Whatever one could think of doing, could be done and there were no
rules. One thing more—it worked.

         Today’s MD Anderson is more like Animal Farm with strong-armed
leadership, layers of administrative bureaucratic toadies, pounds of regulations from DC to Houston, and the constant threat of being thrown off the Farm or
worse if there is any expression of dissent.

         There’s one thing more. The animals in the Animal House
chose to live the way they did. They really didn’t care all that much about
those who did not share their philosophy of life that included road trips, toga
parties and food fights. These were the cinematic equivalence of travel to
scientific meetings, black tie faculty dinners and the usual backbiting of
academia. (I remember my first presentation to the Leukemia Service as being a
food fight with me in the middle.)

         The animals on the Farm have very few choices. Either they
support the autocracy or they leave. It’s not an inclusive farm. It’s not a
farm run by benevolence. It’s not one where bravery, courage, integrity,
discovery or caring is rewarded.

         Most of the current animals on the Farm would say they have
no choice. But, they do. They have chosen to be shackled by the largesse and
the pork of the leadership for those who fall in line. They will wake up some
day to find the cuffs have no keys. They have bet the ranch on the Farm and the
dangling from their wrists are the golden handcuffs of high salary, good
benefits and little academic freedom.

DePinho has a farm. E-I-E-I-O!

Leonard Zwelling