The Pre-emptive Attack Dogs of Holcombe

The Pre-emptive Attack
Dogs of Holcombe


Leonard Zwelling

         On March 16, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on
the interchange between the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)
and the administration, faculty and Faculty Senate of MD Anderson (first link).
Through links in the article, one is able to acquire a 37-page CONFIDENTIAL
AAUP report to MD Anderson stamped NOT FOR RELEASE (second). One is also able
to get access to a letter from MD Anderson to Gregory F. Scholtz of AAUP that
finds great fault with the report (third). Despite the request not to do so, MD
Anderson did release the report to the press. It also released its letter of
March 13 to Mr. Scholtz signed by the Executive Leadership.

         If this all feels like infantile behavior to you, you ain’t
seen nothing yet.

         First, the AAUP was contacted by faculty at MD Anderson
after the faculty and its elected Senate representatives tried to right the
perceived wrong of having two faculty members approved for term tenure renewal
by the Promotions and Tenure Committee only to have these tenure renewals unilaterally
reversed by Dr. DePinho, the MD Anderson President. Neither MD Anderson nor the
UT System itself recognize the AAUP’s legitimacy in this matter and furthermore
MD Anderson faulted the AAUP’s report as being filled with errors. The AAUP for
its part argued that this was the reason the report was to be kept confidential
so that any errors can be corrected via input from MD Anderson before it is
generally circulated. Alas, the Anderson crew decided on a pre-emptive strike
instead. The best defense is a good offense, I guess.

         The problem with all of this is that it completely misses
the point, clouds the issues and helps no one.

         There is only one point here. How much power does the MD
Anderson President have in matters of academic freedom and shared governance?
The answer is clearly absolute power as there really is no academic freedom as
these incidents illustrate and there certainly is no shared governance. The
President’s power is unlimited. The 7-year term tenure system allows him to
reverse the actions of any faculty committee. No amount of excellent
performance by a faculty member is sufficient to protect the faculty member
from non-renewal if the President wishes that to occur. Everyone, get over
yourselves. Every faculty member knew this when he or she got to Anderson or
soon learns it.

         Here are the facts:

1.  The AAUP has absolutely no authority over the
administration or faculty of MD Anderson.

2.  The administration and all the faculty serve at the
pleasure of the President.

3.  The PTC has always been advisory only and the
President is always free to reverse its decisions.

4.  The particular cases of the two non-renewed faculty
were horribly handled, not identical and dreadful in every way except one. They
were legal—not very collegial, but legal.

5.  Seven-year term tenure is written into the rules
governing MD Anderson and will not change any time soon.

6.  Most of the issues from the fate of the two faculty
members, to the validity of term tenure to the legitimacy of the AAUP are

7.  If you are faculty member at MD Anderson, you are
serving at the pleasure of a host of masters from department chair to Division
Head to Provost to President. Piss off any one of them and you could be in

8.  Is there any wonder why morale is in the toilet?

these realities are news to you, wake up! If these realities offend you, buff
up your cv. These have been truths for 75 years. The only difference is that for
most of that time, the leadership of MD Anderson has been both benevolent and
wise. Now it is neither. But there is no rule that dictates these
characteristics be part of the psyche of the MD Anderson President. So far, the
only criteria for President have been X and Y chromosomes, pale skin, and MD

     If you want fair, you are going to have to
go elsewhere and the AAUP ought to. They never had any business in these
matters and still don’t. Despite a very perceptive if overly lengthy report,
the AAUP holds no sway over MD Anderson, UT or the leadership of either.

     As for the ridiculous pre-emptive letter
and release of a confidential document, I will again allow the MD Anderson
administration to consider the wisdom of these actions when silence would have been
the right course because writing the letter and releasing the report
automatically gives the story legs and the AAUP juice. Why would you do that?

     All I can say is that everyone here is
behaving badly and there seem to be no adults in the room. Too bad, but no surprise.
This seems to be a dogfight of attack poodles or Chihuahuas—lots of bark but no

the big dog will show up on March 18 when the Chancellor comes and puts an end
to this tempest in a kennel. Some one needs to because right now, the faculty members
are playing the role of fire hydrant with the leadership of Anderson acting like
the big dogs because no really big dog is around. Let’s hope Admiral McRaven
really has the last bark. After all, SEALS bark.

4 thoughts on “The Pre-emptive Attack Dogs of Holcombe”

    1. I agree in part, but believe a far more activist approach is needed. The clinical faculties will need to strike to get any traction at all with the entrenched hierarchies in the corner offices. Those hierarchies care about one thing only. Money. Deny them that and you will have their attention. Anything short of that will not work as it has been tried and proven ineffective. The administrative leadership of most places and certainly at Anderson will not bargain because they don;t need to. If they need to, they will bargain and that will only occur once you threaten their revenue stream. LZ

    2. I think we are saying the same thing, Len. Only an organized faculty can strike. And even better would be a faculty organized across institutions. Any strike, whether it is by clinicians, researchers or teachers can potentially threaten a revenue stream as well as generate negative press (which can threaten philanthropic revenue).

    3. OK. I agree, but the keys to the kingdom at a place like Anderson are in the clinics. 85% of the revenue is generated by the clinical faculty. Organize them and the rest is easy, but herding mountain lions is a difficult task and one that on the national level has never really occurred. The reason the ACA is so hard on the docs is because the insurers and pharma were well organized and had great lobbyists and the docs were not and did not.

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