Eliminating Identity Politics At MD Anderson: Pister’s Job One


Leonard Zwelling


It seems identity politics is as old as the United States according to this piece in the Wall Street Journal. It’s as old as academic medicine as well.

To diagnose gout in 1973, joint fluid was aspirated from the afflicted patient’s affected knee, toe, or ankle. The fluid was examined under a special light microscope that could detect the urate crystals in the fluid of those with the metabolic disease. At Duke there was a sign on the microscope alerting “clinical toads” to be careful with it. Even then there were the researchers and the clinicians. Identity politics, i.e., tribalism, was alive and well at Duke Hospital in 1973.

The same is true in most academic centers where there is a constant tug-of-war between the laboratory-based scientists and the clinicians for the attention of the administration and of the students. In fact there are more groups than two. There are the “private” clinicians and the clinical investigators and the physician-scientists and the basic “lab rats” and now there are the population-based scientists and biostatisticians who everyone resents but no one can live without. There is still plenty of identity politics to go around.

MD Anderson has just come through a particularly virulent epidemic of identity politics best characterized by a war between the WE and THEY tribes. The past president had his favorites, the FORDs, Friends of Ron DePinho, and the rest of the institution pretty much had to fend for itself. Or each individual did. Either you were in the Tribe of DePinho or you were out.

The great challenge for Dr. Pisters will be to get the different factions to row together. This will necessitate a plan in which every faculty member knows his or her role in improving the institution. The world should hear what this plan is shortly or at least see how such a plan will be formulated.

It is great that Dr. Pisters has started with all the good will in the world, but there were still far too many faculty members who stayed away from the convocation than who showed up. Why?

Too many thought that “this does not apply to me.” That is unfortunate because it does or it should.

What the president has to say ought to matter and be perceived to matter. That will be up to him. For now I understand that he is still gathering information, but sooner or later he is going to have to give some marching orders.

Dr. Pisters is now the president and Chancellor McRaven is stepping down. Once again a precarious leadership change greets the faculty of MD Anderson. Will there be a steady hand on the tiller? Will the faculty be inspired to pull in the same direction? Or will identity politics plague MD Anderson again? Time will tell.

Leonard Zwelling