Why Wouldn’t The MD Anderson Faculty Take A Collective Knee? : Will They The Next Time?


Leonard Zwelling

Of course, it’s about race.

Colin Kaepernick’s original protest at the time of the playing and singing of the national anthem before an NFL game was all about the manner in which black people are treated in America. It was not about the military, or the flag, or the country, but about how a specific subset of Americans was being unfairly treated in his opinion.

There can be no doubt that he has the right to that opinion and no doubt he has the right to express it. He is now being black-balled by the entire NFL for starting this ball rolling. Many teams could use him—including the Texans.

President Trump upped the ante in this arena considerably by calling the players who protest offensive names and by demanding they be fired by their owners. I am quite sure that their opinions about race were not factors in their contracts. They are hired to play a game and both those who protested and those who didn’t are fully capable of fulfilling that contract. Their opinion about race or even about America should have no bearing on their ability to be employed.

Corporate situations in the business world or even in academic medicine can be different. I was certainly fired for having and expressing an opinion and that was probably reasonable even though I thought that I was right in my protest. My opinion mattered less than that of the corporate leadership and I was gone.

At MD Anderson this has occurred as well.

More than a few faculty and non-faculty leaders were sent packing by the last president for expressing their opinions about his decisions, sometimes even in confidentiality. I know I was lambasted by that president for doing something I didn’t even do, just because he probably knew how I felt about him and his leadership, and was operating on bad information.

In any given situation, it is hard to know when to express your opinion, always civilly, as the NFL players did, and when to just let it go and shut up. Each NFL player made that call for himself.

I am quite certain that during the five or so years that Dr. DePinho “led” MD Anderson, the faculty taking a knee in protest would have saved many jobs and a great deal of pain, not to mention money.

OK. That’s water under the bridge. The Faculty Senate could not muster a vigorous protest, but Dr. DePinho’s continuing bad behavior, spendthrift ways, and probably offenses about which most of us know nothing finally got to the Chancellor and DePinho was gone. Soon so were the three Executive Vice Presidents who managed to secure DePinho in place for as long as they did. They enabled him and should never be excused for their behavior.

I am very hopeful that Dr. Pisters will be a different kind of president. He will listen to the faculty, allow for opinions that do not agree with his, learn from them and make the best decisions having listened to all points of view. This would be the antithesis of DePinho.

But should he falter or slip into behavior that MD Anderson has seen far too much of in the past fifteen years, the faculty must protest. They must do it together hopefully, and must do it civilly, respectfully, but firmly. Ultimatums should be avoided, but not ruled out.

MD Anderson and the rest of academic medicine are at a crossroads. How can academia continue its joint missions of education and research while having to depend on a third mission, patient care, for all the revenue? The pressure on that revenue is great and getting greater. There are cheaper providers of cancer care and there is no evidence that the results they get are inferior to the ones attained at Anderson. That can change. Anderson could lessen its fixed costs, adjust down its prices, and document its quality. Then it could compete easily with other providers of cancer care. But these are real decisions and they need to be made quickly with the full understanding of those affected by them—the faculty, the staff and the patients.

I hope Dr. Pisters can rise to the challenge. But if he cannot, I hope the faculty will take a collective knee and not let a problem drag on for five years again.

Leonard Zwelling