The Case Of The Fifth Chinese Faculty Member: Only A Flesh Wound

The Case Of The Fifth Chinese Faculty Member: Only A Flesh Wound


Leonard Zwelling

Apparently, whatever the three MD Anderson Chinese scientists who were fired or quit did, the fifth one investigated did not do that.

It would be nice to know what the three did and the fifth didn’t (and where’s the fourth?), but I guess we will all have to guess what constitutes a firable offense and what gets a pass. I think the rest of the Chinese faculty members (and all the rest of the faculty as well) should be somewhat fearful that anything they say or do can come back to haunt them.

You see, that’s the problem with all of this. It seems so arbitrary and whimsical. But close observation suggests otherwise. This is both purposeful and methodical. It is kissing up to the federal government and punching down to a faculty minority.

Here’s what is needed.

First, without naming names (although I suspect all those around the “disappeared” know who they are), what precisely did the guilty do to warrant their dismissal? Was it no disclosure of grants, funds or affiliations from or in China? Was it inadequate disclosure? Did they actually pass intellectual property to handlers in China? Was it their own data (and thus belong to MD Anderson or the NIH) or was it grant applications or papers they were supposed to be confidentially reviewing? This matters. There must be a clear signal to all Chinese faculty members and all faculty members, for that matter, what is permissible and what is not.

Second, there needs to be an institution wide education process that restates the rules surrounding research and interactions with people outside the institution and outside the country.

Third, the punishment for violating these rules needs to be known ahead of time.

Fourth, the process by which accusations are investigated must be transparent and widely known. This is the case with issues surrounding research misconduct where a strict set of rules governed by federal standards is in the Handbook for all to read and was (and still is?) part of the clinical research training program at Anderson. By the way it is a process driven by peer review and not by the leadership of the institution.

This is now the second purge of faculty of specific ethnic groups. Neither has been fully explained and unexplained purges create fear and terror.

The leadership of MD Anderson must state definitively why this has happened, what happened, how new cases will be assessed and what the penalties for non-compliance are to be.

There remains a hole in this story. What did these people really do and what made some actions cause for termination and others allow continued employment?

It’s likely that the facts will leak out eventually. Why not get out ahead of it and use it as a teachable moment?

This is the first leadership challenge Dr. Pisters has had to face. There will undoubtedly be others. His immediate predecessor handled most of his early challenges poorly which led to his short-term leadership. The game has not changed. How the leader reacts to what he doesn’t see coming at him will largely determine his success and longevity. It’s time to put this one to bed, but that can only happen with real transparency about what happened and why. We wait.

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