MD Anderson’s Latest Flap and Watergate

To Understand MD
Anderson’s Latest Controversy, Understand Watergate

By

Leonard Zwelling

         For people under 40, Watergate is history. For those who are
older, it is far more. This week marks the 40th anniversary of that episode’s
denouement—the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

         Formally, Watergate per se refers to the break-in on June
17, 1972 in a beautiful apartment/office building called The Watergate. It is
very near the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. A guard patrolling the building
that evening noticed lock-preventing tape on a door that should have been
secured. This led to the discovery of 5 men with walkie-talkies (they were in
communication with others across the street at a Howard Johnson hotel)
rummaging around in the offices of the Democratic National Committee. (If you
visit, you can see how proximate the HoJo was to the DNC offices). The men were
arrested and arraigned the next morning.

As
the city was gearing up for what appeared to be the sure fire re-election of
Richard Nixon as President, a question arose for all of official Washington at
the start of the summer of an election year. Among those asking the question
were two young Washington Post reporters. It was the same question I asked when
hearing about the break-in on the news the following morning in our apartment
in Durham, NC while doing my daily sit-ups.

         “Huh?”

         “Why would anyone break into the DNC offices?”

         But Watergate was really just a tiny end of a length of thread
that when pulled became a spider’s web that entrapped the entire executive
branch of the federal government all the way up to the Attorney General, FBI
Director and eventually those in the Oval Office forcing firing or resignation
of the entire Nixon team including the President himself. Watergate was no more
about a break-in than Monicagate was about sex or Iran Contra about missiles or
“Happy Birthday, Mr. President” was about Marilyn Monroe. It’s all about one
thing. Abuse of power.

         Now we have the recent Chronicle tale about the AAUP wanting
to investigate MD Anderson’s tenure system and Anderson’s scathing response
requesting that the AAUP demonstrate why it has any standing at all with the UT
System or with MD Anderson in particular. (Sounds like what the Nixon White
House said about the Supreme Court. Invoking Ye Olde Executive Privilege.)

         Frankly, I am not sure the AAUP has any standing, but I am
quite sure I don’t care because this is not about term-tenure, although that’s
a fine discussion to have at this point in MD Anderson’s history. This AAUP
flap, like the pre-ASCO CNBC self-dealing, the CPRIT grant to the wife, the
conflict-of-interest, the appointment of friends, the frank nepotism, the
maldistribution of resources including office furniture, and the generalized
unpleasantness of the new MD Anderson leadership, is about abuse of power.

         In the end, we all have decisions to make when faced with
difficult ethical and moral choices. These choices become harder when doing
something wrong might benefit you personally or advance a cause in which you
believe.

         Do you do what you know is right or what you can get away
with? (If you do wrong knowingly that’s bad. 
If you do it because you don’t know the difference between right and wrong,
I think they call that a “mental defect” on Law and Order.)

         Would you embezzle a million dollars to give it to cancer
research? How about to your own cancer research?

         Would you suspend the rules of conduct or
conflict-of-interest to advance your own business interests (e.g., Enron
Board)?

         Would you use your position of authority to advance the
stock price of a company in which you hold an interest? And what if it turns
out your optimism about that company is not well-founded, do you apologize when
the stock tanks? What if you knew the advice was not well-founded but endorsed
the company anyway?

         Would you knowingly and consciously and mindfully reject the
advice of a senior council of faculty on the renewal of term-tenure for
seemingly worthy senior faculty for any reason short of criminal activity on
the part of those the faculty advisory council approved?

         Is your own personal judgment always the best? Are you
always the smartest guy or gal in the room?

I
hope you agree with me that if the answers to the ethics quiz above are yes,
this might be a reason to suspect abuse of power, using power or position for its
own sake rather than for the advancement of good. Just because you can do
something, doesn’t make it a good idea to do it even if you can get away with
it. (Think Lance Armstrong).

         Abuse of power is what Nixon thought he could get away with.
(“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”) That was
Watergate and that’s this latest AAUP fiasco.

         No matter how hard Mr. Fontaine tries to spin this as being
an encroachment on MD Anderson’s sovereignty as a state agency (remember
Archibald Cox?—Google him), that is not what this is about. This is about Dr. De
Pinho doing more bad things and getting away with them because he can and being
arrogant enough to not even be thoughtful about the fights he picks.

That’s
not just bad.  That’s silly. That’s worse
than silly. It’s childish and I think it would be nice if at least one major
institution of higher learning was led by an adult, don’t you?

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