Why The Chinese Faculty Firing (And Not Firing) Issue Is So Important


Leonard Zwelling

It has been one of the most interesting episodes in my 35 years of watching (and participating in) interesting episodes at MD Anderson. I cannot remember any instances of group firings other than the Jewish group of a few years back and the Chinese one that is currently winding down (we hope).

We still haven’t (and probably never will) get the truth about the Jewish firings. The leaders extant at the time are gone from those positions and I suspect that the impetus for the firings has gone, too. At this point, I am not sure I would even believe the truth if I heard it. It damaged too many friends and people I respect. It is a scar on Anderson and scars don’t go away.

The current struggle is a bit easier to understand because MD Anderson is not the sole place at which this war against the Chinese is occurring. Emory has now fired two pretty prestigious Chinese-American faculty members and asked another to vacate his office. As far as I can tell, that’s been the main fallout from the NIH’s coming down on academic institutions (I believe the total is 61 institutions) under the guise of preserving intellectual property allegedly being stolen by Chinese nationals as well as by American citizens of Chinese heritage.

In truth, I am going to bet that this is all about money. Isn’t it always?

In the case of the Jews relieved (or running from) jobs at Anderson, the suspicions are that this had to do with the large influx of Arab money to pay for the new research building and demands made by the donors. Could this be the case? It could, but who knows? The family involved had previously tried to influence these kinds of matters in Boston and who knows where else? It’s pretty hard to get a bead on the truth. Anyone who knows isn’t talking and anyone talking probably doesn’t know. That includes me.

The Chinese cases are a bit easier to comprehend, but no less reprehensible in the manner in which they were handled by the leadership of Anderson and Emory. I’d feel differently if I knew why the Chinese faculty really were fired and even why some very prominent Chinese chose to leave on their own. If it is about their commitments in China that do not align with MD Anderson policies, why not just say that instead of hinting around it? If they had conflicts of interest, say so! Are these new rules? Were these folks given warnings that they ignored? We have had presidents of MD Anderson break the rules about conflict of interest and nothing happened to them. Why now? Why these people?

I think there are two great lessons here.

First, when nothing else seems to make sense, follow the money. Somehow there must be money involved with all of these decisions.

Second, I really think these decisions emanate from the highest levels of these institutions. No leader would allow the bad publicity to follow a decision made by an underling. Even Donald Trump fires his pollsters.

What principles are really being applied to the operations, strategy and decision making at these major academic institutions? How much sway are they giving the federal government in dictating their decisions and why? Emails turned over to the FBI? There had better be a good reason why.

In a country that is struggling mightily with its identity, its morals, its ethics ands its values after having chosen a leader with none of the above except for the identity part and his identity is that of a TV reality star, you can’t really blame the country for being kind of lost.

I truly believe that MD Anderson is churning through the same phenomenon. Where is it going? What’s the strategy? What’s the plan? More buildings? More red lines on buildings around the country? Where’s the future of science at Anderson and what about the future of prevention? I am not saying that such plans do not exist. As an engaged private citizen, I just don’t know what they are.

Lately, all the news about MD Anderson in the media has been negative. That can be turned around, but a real strategy needs to be articulated by the leadership of the place that includes all four mission areas not just clinical care.

I believe the latest challenges that MD Anderson is facing are surmountable, but they won’t fix themselves. Money is important, but it cannot drive everything. The Chinese firings suggest that the pressure placed on the institution by federal authorities got the leadership to act in a fashion that is unbecoming. Change that. No amount of money is worth your good name. It’s still a good name, but can afford no more body blows like those that have amassed of late.

The interesting news out of MD Anderson ought to be from the labs and from the clinical research, not from personnel issues or run-ins with CMS or NIH. Let’s return to those core values, especially integrity.

Leonard Zwelling