EXTRA: Tenure, Equity and Dan

Tenure,
Equity and Dan

By

Leonard
Zwelling

     Once again this morning, August 2, we were
greeted by another unflattering headline about MD Anderson. This has become a
recurrent event since the arrival of Dr. DePinho 3 years ago.

This article by Todd Ackerman is all about the
push back on the part of the MD Anderson administration to a proposed
investigation of its tenure system by the American Association of University
Professors. The AAUP can be fairly characterized as a faculty advocacy group
whose help was sought by the MD Anderson faculty when two of its own were
recommended unanimously for tenure renewal (MD Anderson does not have lifetime
tenure, but rather doles out tenure in 7-year increments) by the body of peers
that makes recommendations to the President on such matters. The President
decided to not adhere to the recommendation and turned the renewals down for no
clear reason.

     Let’s dissect the various elements of the
case apart and address each individually.

     First, tenure. It is perfectly reasonable
to examine afresh the wisdom of MD Anderson’s current system. It is very
atypical in the country where most academic institutions grant lifetime tenure
to deserving faculty on the basis of academic accomplishments and productivity.
The purpose of this is to create a permanent environment of academic freedom
and the free exchange of ideas no matter how offensive to some. Tenure is a
very critical part of the greatness of American academia.

Despite this, for at least 40 years, Anderson
has not done this. As grant dollars become harder to obtain and clinical
demands of multi-tasking faculty drain more time away from academic pursuits,
it is probably reasonable to create a much more secure environment in an
academic institution like Anderson where the sole goal is to eradicate cancer
and achieving that goal will necessitate taking some higher risk strategies in
laboratory and clinical research to increase the likelihood of major progress
but which also entails the higher risk of failure. We cannot afford to have the
faculty of Anderson exhibiting creative timidity by doing “safe” research just
to insure they can get their tenure renewed every 7 years. Thus, this is indeed
a very good time to have the discussion throughout the Anderson community about
the tenure system—current and perhaps revised.

     That being said, every single member of the
MD Anderson faculty has a vote on whether or not he or she wishes to operate
under the current system. If yes, great, welcome. If not, leave. Sorry, but the
reality is that we all knew the rules of the game when we got here. Don’t
expect anyone to change them now. To quote the great philosopher Super Chicken:
“you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”

     The reason I bring this up is that while
the tenure discussion and the wisdom of the current system is important, it is
not germane to these two cases and should not be the focus of the
investigation. Frankly, as I have said before on this blog, the AAUP should
mind its own business when it comes to the tenure system at Anderson. This is a
matter for the Anderson community and UT at-large to pursue.

     Second, equity. The real crux of the
current dilemma is not whether or not the term-tenure system is wise. The real
issue is was it applied fairly to all. Now in another echo of many past blogs,
I am fully aware that life is not fair. Young kids get cancer and die. Some
people are born into great wealth. Others grow up in abject poverty. Some
people are blessed to be born in the United States (and the really lucky ones
like my son Andrew in Texas). Some are born in Gaza into the sound of missile
fire. I get that life is not fair.

     But, when two very deserving, long-serving
and accomplished faculty members are approved unanimously for tenure renewal by
their peers, what could possibly be the logic for the President overturning the
decision, even though it is clearly within his power? The President did not
overstep his bounds (although he surely has in prior incidences related in the
pages of the Chronicle). But why? To be perfectly blunt, where is the judgment
or wisdom exhibited by leadership that undermines the integrity of the
peer-review system, especially when it is evident from some of the other
recommendations of a less enthusiastic nature from the same faculty body that
the President let stand, that he was playing favorites. This is the real focus
of the current issue.

Or maybe it isn’t. For the third part of the
argument is the 5-page letter written back to the AAUP by the MD Anderson
administration that is what the Chronicle article was about. The letter was
written for the President by his Executive Chief of Staff Dan Fontaine, someone
I knew very well. I was instrumental in Dan getting his first job at Anderson
under the previous President when Dan got the case of a faculty member against
me and my boss Dave Hohn thrown out of federal court. Dan had been assigned the
case by the Office of General Counsel in Austin and when Dr. Mendelsohn needed
to hire a new attorney for Anderson he asked me if I thought Dan would be a
good choice. I said yes and I would again.

Dan is a terrific attorney, especially if he
is your attorney.  Dan is smart,
experienced and tenacious. He is definitely someone you would want in that fox
hole with you when the bullets are flying. I think both Drs. Mendelsohn and
DePinho would agree.

So where’s the problem?

The problem is that while Dan is a good lawyer
and possibly even a savvy businessman, he has really poor relations with the
faculty who view him as more consigliere than lawyer for two “Godfather”-like
Presidents.

If you can get a hold of the 5-page letter
(thank you reader who sent to me), you will see a series of very carefully-worded and thoughtful questions raised by Dan about the legitimacy, authority and standing of the
AAUP with regard to MD Anderson. All are good points and this is a highly
skilled piece of legal work. It is also irrelevant.

I still maintain that while the counsel of the
AAUP is welcome, its investigatory authority can only come from Anderson
agreeing to it, which I cannot imagine it ever will. Furthermore, by the tone
of the letter it looks like Anderson will resist all attempts to help the AAUP
in its investigation or to even abide by any findings of that investigation unless
Anderson’s leadership wishes to implement the findings anyway. This is a true
exercise in futility because the real issue, equity, is being confused with the
other issue, term-tenure. Both are legitimate, but only one is in play now in
the current disagreement.

Dan has done his typical superb job at confusing
the issues by turning the spotlight from equity to tenure and a whole lot of
other baggage.

If the faculty really wants to get to the
bottom of this latest DePinho-led morass, it will have to do it itself. It
needs no help from the AAUP to file an open records request for the academic
records of all of the people whose tenure was renewed or was not. In fact, I
believe Dr. Boyd has already done all of that.

Then, the faculty and the faculty only has to
decide what to do.  Here are the faculty’s
choices:

1.       
Nothing

2.       
Individuals are on their own. Stay or go as you please.

3.       
Take collective action against the administration.

The latter alternative has always been there
but thus far the faculty has not been willing to play that card collectively for
fear of losing their individual livelihoods. I really do get it.

Thus, I leave you today with the following
dialogue from a great motion picture from 1987, Brian DePalma’s The
Untouchables. This is an interchange between Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness and
Sean Connery as Malone. Enjoy and consider please:

Malone:
You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what
I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?

Ness:
Anything within the law.

Malone:
And *then* what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you
must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight,
until one of you is dead.

Ness:
I want to get Capone! I don’t know how to do it.

Malone:
You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends
one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That’s* the
*Chicago* way! And that’s how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are
you ready to do that? I’m offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?

Ness:
I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I
will do so.

Malone:
Well, the Lord hates a coward.

[jabs Ness with his hand, and Ness
shakes it]

Malone:
Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?

Ness:
Yes.

Malone:
Good, ’cause you just took one.  

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