The Future Is Texas

The Future Is Texas


Leonard Zwelling

Austin-based author Lawrence Wright encapsulates my dread with regard to the impending selection of the next president of MD Anderson in an article with this title. In brief, it’s a state-appointed position.

In this lengthy piece in The New Yorker of July 10-17, Wright describes the current state of Texas politics and especially how the sentiments of Texans do not align with the voting record of their elected representatives.

It is clear that like much of America, Texas is becoming more blue as the population of people of color begins to approach that of white people and the diversity we are supposed to embrace becomes a true reality that our legislatures seem to try to deny. I urge everyone who cares about Texas to read this article and grasp how tenuous is Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s hold on reality and how gallant a fight for that reality is being waged by House Speaker Joe Straus. What America sees in Trump’s Washington is alive and well in Patrick’s Austin.

My concern is how all of this will play out in the selection of the next president of MD Anderson. Will the UT Regents realize the critical nature of having a true clinician leading the nation’s number one place for cancer care and not someone who wants to turn it into Pfizer or Harvard? One can only hope.

It is my hypothesis that the damage that has been done by the last two presidents of MD Anderson derives from their insistence in trying to make the institution something that it is not nor should be. MD Anderson began almost 80 years ago as the place to provide the people of Texas with the best cancer care and should head in that direction again.

MD Anderson will not ever be a replicate of an Ivy League, research-based institution of higher learning. That is not its purpose. Do activities at Harvard echo those at Anderson? Of course. Both do great basic research, although at Harvard that research not only exceeds a cancer focus, it goes well beyond biomedicine, as it should. While the development of useful pharmaceuticals is surely embraced in the MD Anderson mission, the institution’s primary purpose cannot be turning those discoveries into cash for shareholders. The only people with a stake in MD Anderson ought to be its patients and the people of Texas. If the strategy of MD Anderson is to support its budget with the revenues from the commercialization of its discoveries, MD Anderson has lost its focus as well as blurred its vision.

So now the Regents have to make another choice for a leader of the state’s cancer center. Twice in a row it has chosen to err—once to intellectualize the choice and then to commercialize it. The time is right to choose someone to lead Anderson who appreciates the value of delivering caring clinical medicine, performing cutting edge clinical research, and the training of the cancer physicians and cancer researchers of tomorrow.

If you read the piece in The New Yorker, you will understand my concern. The state government of Texas is not reflective of the people of Texas and the people in the legislature are out of touch with reality concerning themselves with sanctuary cities and bathroom bills when education, health care, especially for women, and child protective services need acute attention.

Let us hope the Regents can get their act together and choose a leader for Anderson with a vision for the future grounded in the reality of today’s cancer medicine. The role of the academic cancer center has never been more fragile. Revenues are down. Costs are up. Drug development and human subject research are being led by big pharma and no one seems to really value teaching. The MD Anderson I came to in 1984 was bigger than all of that. It determined the direction it would take and did so in an atmosphere of congeniality, collegiality, and pride.

The new leader must get us back to the future. Mission, Core Values, and especially integrity are what is needed—now more than ever.

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