It’s a Damned Shame That It Has Come To This: Holcombe As A Mean Street and Administration as Secret Police in a Game of Faculty Gotcha

It’s a Damned Shame That
It Has Come To This: Holcombe As A Mean Street and Administration as Secret
Police in a Game of Faculty Gotcha


Leonard Zwelling

         This is going to be a hard one to write because it cuts
close to the bone—particularly mine and not my funny bone.

         It’s about firing, relieving of leadership roles, and
driving people out of MD Anderson.

         When we first came to Anderson, this was almost never a
problem. When people left it was either for a really great opportunity (e.g.,
Tom Frei) or because they did something that demanded their leaving. The latter
scenario was not unheard of, but it was usually due to actions of the dismissed
not the whims of the leadership. And, these departures were never whimsical. Oh,
how things have changed!

         It started logically enough in 1996 when Dr. Mendelsohn
cleaned house of the upper reaches of Dr. LeMaistre’s administration. This
wasn’t totally the case as Dr. M appointed Dr. Von Eschenbach to the academic
leadership position. That lasted a year, before Margaret Kripke had to be
called in to patch up the rift that had developed between two men who really
shouldn’t have considered working with one another.

         John made many changes at the divisional, departmental, and
vice presidential levels—including me, but rarely (and my case might not fit
this category) was it done with meanness. John could certainly be mean. I was
the object of his scorn more than once. (He liked to bark at me and I asked for
it by disagreeing with him). But having the job of research cop is unlikely to
endear you to a leader who wants what he wants when he wants it, even if it
violated HIPAA or other human research subjects rules. Oh well, it was just a
job and look at the fun I got to have in Washington, DC following my dismissal.

         Since Dr. DePinho’s arrival the carnage has been far more
severe, far more random, far more wide-spread and far more vicious. Here I am
not even a footnote. But my family sure is.

         But the list of the now missing in action is pretty
impressive. Some of these folks were relieved of their leadership duties, some
were encouraged to leave and some just got fed up and left:

Raphael Pollock

Scott Lippman

Roy Herbst

Razelle Kurzrock

Eugenie Kleinerman

Xiphong Wu

Lee Ellis

Bill Klein

Garth Powis

Ray DuBois

Susan O’Brien

Jim Abbruzzese

Knox Todd

Steve Stuyck

Lopa Mishra

Maurie Markman

And I am sure I missed
many others.

         It is becoming like the team of All-Stars you could make out
of ex-Astros. You could build a pretty fair cancer center around those who have
left their previous leadership roles at MD Anderson.

         Now, had Dr. DePinho brought in an equally good and younger
group of scientific and medical leaders perhaps the hole would not seem so large.
Surely, Nobel worthy Jim Allison is a great addition, but his best work is
likely behind him and hiring elder statesman scientists did not work at the UT
medical school either.

like the Duke approach. Both of their recent Nobel laureates spent virtually
their entire careers at Duke. They did the work there, they weren’t hired at
the last minute before punching a ticket to Sweden. The rest of the DePinho
crew is largely unknown and for the most part aimed at the commercial sphere
and thus far, at least as reflected with Aveo, the crew seems wanting.  

         It is obvious what Dr. DePinho is doing. He believes that he
alone holds the key to curing cancer with an all out spend out on current
technology and big science, commercialization of every innovation for monetary
gain, and the most mean of corporate cultures where leaders who have given
years of great service to the institution are marched into rooms and given the
Luka Brasi speech about their brains or their signatures on some memo that will
relieve them of their duties and forbid them to talk about it. This is East
Germany at its Cold War finest. It is heavy handed, cruel and totally
unnecessary. Besides, it’s rude.

         Everyone serves at the pleasure of the President. But that
doesn’t mean when he gets a whimsy to make a change he can send one of his
henchmen (sorry Admiral Chancellor, there is no other name for them) to lop off
their heads and humiliate them. Academics have a lot wrapped up in their jobs.
Most really make a major effort to succeed and to do so for reasons other than
self-aggrandizement. The same cannot be said for the current leaders of MD
Anderson and especially for the President and Provost who deal with others
using a heavy hand and a very swift sword.

         Until they are gone, I fear my list is destined to increase.
More will leave or retire or be fired before the carnage ends. The only hope is
that those victimized will make their stories available to the Chancellor as he
has requested. I urge each of you to avail yourselves of this opportunity. I
believe this Chancellor wants to do what is best for Anderson and for its
patients. He needs as many examples of the cruelty of the men he leads if he is
to turn this around.

         This is no time for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Chancellor
has asked. Tell him!

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