the Latest Cancer Letter:DePinho Flap is Silly



     If it’s Friday it must be time for the
weekly email from the Cancer Letter with an anti-MD Anderson headline.
Yesterday was no exception.

     The story this time is the fact that Dr.
DePinho rejected the advice of the Promotion and Tenure Committee (PTC) to
grant term tenure to two MD Anderson basic science faculty members. Both
individuals were recommended for new appointments unanimously by the PTC. While
this situation is indeed outrageous, it should not cause outrage. Here’s why:

     First, while the fate and stories of two
faculty members seem to be yoked, my suspicions are that their situations are
quite different. One is toward the end of his career at a point where such
reappointments were usually pro forma. But in this case, despite the unanimous
vote of confidence from his peers, the faculty member was tossed aside by the
President. There is some controversy about the support the faculty member
actually had from his former department chair and that chair having left MD
Anderson isn’t talking.  Wise man!

     Second, the other faculty member is
considerably younger and from what I have heard is a real star and very
productive. Unfortunately, he found himself in a basic science department with
a new chair who seems to want to make the department over in a new image
(likely his own), which I suspect is why the new chairman was hired. It is likely then
that the forces conspiring against these two faculty members were quite
different and it may well be a mistake to treat their cases as similar. I doubt
all of the issues and truth will ever come to light about the politics here,
but I suspect the politics were a major contributor to the outcome. This, as General Shinseki and I have learned is part of the game we all are in.

While the political forces in each case
differed, the common theme is that neither candidate had strong backing from
his department chair. Nonetheless, their colleagues on the PTC found them
worthy, so why rock the boat, Captain Ron?

     Third, let’s think along with the captain
of the boat, Dr. DePinho. Did he do anything wrong? No, he did not. It is well
within his power as President to turn down any decision by the PTC. Those
decisions are advisory only and regardless of how strong they are, as they
appeared to be in these two cases, the Pres can decide otherwise if he believes
his decision is in service of the larger vision he has for MD Anderson. While I
have no idea why he would court this much tumult given what is already on his
plate, he is well within his rights to do so. 
I have no idea whether or not the various appeals processes have been
exhausted by either candidate, but that doesn’t really matter. If Ron says no;
it’s no. Those are the rules and we all know the rules when we signed up. That
MD Anderson does not have real tenure is not exactly news.

     There are really only three ways to pay
your way at Anderson if you are a member of the tenure-track faculty. Either:
(a) you bring in 40% of your salary on grants if you do research; (b) you see a
lot of patients; or (c) you have a fully funded administrative/leadership
position. Everyone, and I mean everyone, serves at the pleasure of the
President unless he or she has a revenue stream that guarantees survival and/or
passes muster with the PTC and the President every 7 years. Those are the rules
and they are not opaque.

     Fourth, this latest flap is obviously
another black mark on MD Anderson after CPRITgate, CNBCgate, South CampusFurnituregate
and IACSgate. Why Dr. DePinho chooses to attract this much controversy is
beyond me, but he must like it for on it goes. This time he’s right in his
exercise of power, but wrong in thinking this helps MD Anderson or his
relationship with the faculty.

     In summary, while I find the decision not
to grant these two another tenure term unnecessarily disruptive, distracting
everyone’s attention from really critical matters in cancer care and cancer
research right on top of ASCO, this is not headline stuff. The fact that 50
other institutions are on the “bad dog” list of the American Association of
University Professors should tell you how much sway that group has in academic

     This is a big issue for the two faculty
members, a blip for Dr. DePinho and a distraction from important issues for MD
Anderson and its faculty. Just say for me, DePinho wins again!

     I doubt Dr. DePinho did the political calculus
of his actions before making this call. He just decided as it appears he likes
to do. Personally, I think his decision is legal, but foolish. Why incur the
wrath of the faculty and the outside world for no meaningful gain?

     If I were the Faculty Senate (and once I
was a senator) I would worry less about the AAUP or these two individuals and
more about the manner in which my institution is being dragged into controversy
that weakens its position in the academic cancer landscape. I would also worry
about the really wrong things the President has done since arriving less than
three years ago and surely would concern myself with the direction he is taking
MD Anderson from the foremost place for cancer care to a clinical enterprise
using cancer care revenues to bankroll his own research.

     But the fact that the President exercised
his permitted right to turn down an advisory committee, even if unwise, would
not be the focus of my efforts if I were on the Faculty Senate still. In the
grand scheme of conflict of interest, nepotism, self-dealing and cronyism, this
is small potatoes and a diversion that only benefits the diverter not the

     Faculty Senate—move on.

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