DePinho’s Message: “Change the People”

DePinho’s Message: “Change
the People”


Leonard Zwelling

         A response I received to a recent blog quoted one of the
FORDs as saying, “if you can’t change the people, change the people.” Surely
Dr. DePinho has done that.  And therein
lies my argument against the politely passive approach by the faculty and the
Senate to this latest incarnation of dictatorial power on Holcombe.

         Let’s face it. MD Anderson was designed by Dr. Clark to be a
benevolent dictatorship. Unfortunately, when he locked in the dictatorial power
by statute he forgot to lock in the benevolence. While Dr. LeMaistre certainly
continued the Clark benevolence, his successors have not.

         John Mendelsohn had the air of benevolence, but it was a
pretense only. He was as imbued with the worship of science as the solution to cancer
as is Dr. DePinho. John just cared a bit more about what you thought of him,
while Ron does not. John saw the connection between likeability and money,
especially in the philanthropic arena. Ron may be raising a ton of money, but
imagine what he could do if he was actually nice to people and behaved himself.
He might have been able to reach that goal of $300 million per year over 10
years that he pledged to raise for the Moon Shots. He hasn’t quite made it yet.
(Just for reference, St. Jude raises about $700 million per year, so it can be
done. You just need movie stars as friends not scientists and corporate drug
developers. Hollywood stunt men don’t count as “bankable” stars. Will Tom
Cruise be the next President of MD Anderson? He’s as qualified as the current
guy and don’t you think we need a Scientologist as President?)

         Dr. Mendelsohn started changing people immediately and did
so close to the executive suite. This makes perfect sense. He needed his own
team to implement his plan to “raise the bar” of the science at Anderson. Instead
he mostly raised the I-bar of “weapons of mass construction,” as Mr. Leech
termed it, building and hiring until he ran up against the falling stock market
in 2008 and had to layoff almost 600. To some extent John succeeded, but he was
never able to lasso that member of the National Academy to lead research that
he so desperately sought, but he sure built buildings and hired people. There
is no telling whether he would have been able to find that NAS member once he
started down the trail of corporate malfeasance that began with Enron and his
service on the board as the conflict of interest rules were waived for Andy
Fastow (jailed) and continued with his conflict of interest surrounding the
ImClone trials of Erbitux when 195 patients at Anderson were placed on the
trials of the drug he developed, with Sam Waksal (jail) supported by Martha
Stewart (jail) while Waksal dated Stewart’s daughter (no jail). Those patients never knew about the Mendelsohn interest in the drug’s success. (On October 29, 2001, Dr. Mendelsohn cleared over
$6 million selling ImClone stock to Bristol Myers. BMS had taken a 20% stake in

         John was an amateur when it comes to bad behavior compared
with his successor, who not only does the conflict of interest thing with
aplomb, but is into self-dealing on national TV, self aggrandizement anywhere, nepotism,
red couches, and a generally ornery and combative disposition free of any
concern about what the world might think about his actions or words. There was
never a doubt that if Dr. DePinho could not convince you that he is both right
and supreme, you were likely to be gone.

         Like the email writer said, “if you can’t change the people,
change the people.” John did. Ron did. No doubt the next guy (or gal?) will,
too. But what is lost is institutional memory and some of that was critical to
whatever success I ever had as a VP because it was the other VPs and the
faculty who got me through the first 6 months of not knowing what the heck I
was doing. Without their institutional memory, I had no chance. If you
eradicate all of that experience, you get…well, look around you.

         This will continue to happen as people who know nothing of
cancer or MD Anderson (i.e., the Board of Regents) plot to hire leaders with no
credentials or proven abilities who then see their hiring as a mandate for
change and to throw out the baby, the bath water and the tub.

         The only way this reverts to what Dr. Clark had in mind is
for there to be installed by the Regents and the Chancellor a real oversight
board for MD Anderson that meets regularly and receives reports on the
performance of the leaders, especially publicly available financial statements in
the traditional format of balance sheet, income statement and statement of cash
flows. This board must include at least one faculty member and one leader from
the Houston community, preferably the TMC representative in the Texas
Legislature. That would be Sarah Davis now who is a cancer survivor and more
than able to oversee the Pickens shenanigans.

         I am afraid that in this day and age of huge dollar science
and even huger dollar medical care, some responsible adults need to oversee the
irresponsible ones the Regents keep hiring and then leaving in place. Short of
that, they’ll keep changing the people and the people who aren’t changed, will
be altered irrevocably for the worse.

         Some of them are my best friends….

         A close friend says I should never take business personally.
I am not in the business any more, but the harm being done to my colleagues I
take very personally.

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