Who’s To Blame And How Much?: Sexual Harassment and Institutional Mismanagement


Leonard Zwelling

In matters of misbehavior, the primary responsibility ought to rest with the miscreant. But not only.

Also in matters of misbehavior, there are degrees of bad actions and speech. It is one thing to call someone a “dirty rat” and quite another to use a racial epithet. Similarly it is, and I know this is controversial, one thing to do what Al Franken is alleged to have done, which was still a form of assault, and what Roy Moore was alleged to have done which is pedophilia.

There are two issues on my mind.

The first is obvious. Are there going to be degrees of sexual harassment or is every man who ever leered at a co-worker subject to the death penalty? That sounds ridiculous but no more so than Kirsten Gillibrand leading a movement among Democrats to have Al Franken resign prior to the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation into his misdeeds and assigning appropriate punishment. I kind of hope Mr. Franken changes his mind and does not resign now that the threat of Roy Moore’s being a senator is gone. I want Senate Ethics to draw the line and mete out the penalty for deeds that clearly are far less offensive—though very offensive—than the taking advantage of underage girls a la Moore or what is likely rape by Harvey Weinstein and others. I am going to take the position that there are degrees of sexual harassment. All are worthy of scorn and punishment, but some should be career-ending and others maybe not.

The second issue is the degree of responsibility that rests upon those who knew bad things were happening but kept quiet. And I don’t mean the traumatized victims of sexual assault. I mean those all over New York and Hollywood let alone Washington and Alabama (and Arkansas) who knew of men behaving badly and alerted no one. They share some culpability, but I also understand why they were silent. As someone who has frequently spoken up against bad actions he saw and paid a price for doing so, I comprehend the tendency of people to turn their heads in the face of evil. I did it myself a few times. I regret that deeply.

I was recently at an event populated by many of the members of the MD Anderson Board of Visitors who must bear some responsibility for the overly long tenure of a clear incompetent, Ron DePinho. They saw close-up what he was proposing and what he was doing—from Moon Shots to couches to conflict of interest. Yet, they did nothing for years as the finances turned upside down and MD Anderson lost countless talented people while watching truly awful leadership dominate a formerly great institution. These putative “board” people must at least make sure that this does not happen again and keep a close eye on the new administration, its decisions and its plans. But mostly, I hope they weigh in on the quality of the people Dr. Pisters chooses to lead with him and to keep a firm finger on the pulse of MD Anderson, especially with the Chancellor stepping down.

Someone has to mind the store. I have repeatedly called for a true oversight board of prominent and learned Houstonians to oversee MD Anderson at the 30,000-foot level. I still think that’s a good idea. But until then, the Board of Visitors cannot sit idly by as it did during Dr. DePinho’s tenure.

Sure. The bad actor is primarily responsible for the bad actions. But not only…

If we are to improve as a society and be more friendly and inclusive to women at all levels of business and work, everyone, especially men, must own the environment in which they operate and not be passive observers of bad behavior.

There are degrees of all misdeeds from outrageous speech to assault of any kind. There are also standards in any institution that require everyone’s efforts to maintain. That’s true in Congress. It’s true on Holcombe.

Leonard Zwelling