Diversity And The Cabinet

Diversity And The Cabinet


Leonard Zwelling


Daniel Henninger makes the precise point that I have been mulling over for the past few weeks when he writes in The Wall Street Journal on December 17. I have been thinking about this actually for many, many years. It has all kinds of names—diversity, multiculturalism and affirmative action, but what it is in essence is the political battle among factions divided along ethnic and racial lines when it comes to gaining access to high-powered jobs in government, business or academia. What has brought this to a head right now is the appointments that President-elect Biden is proposing for the various positions in his Cabinet and in the White House.

As Henninger points out, it seems that “first” is in front of the name of every appointee that Biden named from first African-American Secretary of Defense, to first Hispanic Secretary of Health and Human Services, to first woman Secretary of the Treasury, to the first openly gay Cabinet member at all. Of course, there were more, but what troubles Henninger, and me, is whether or not Biden got the best people for the jobs or was he box-checking with the various constituencies within the Democratic Party? Was he making the best appointments or paying back campaign debts?

In all honesty, when I began in administration, I used to think that diversity mattered less than getting the best person in the job. It was MD Anderson’s first Vice President for Diversity, Harry Gibb, who taught me that diversity is part of the equation in selecting people for roles in an administration and that diversity is critical to having the best total group advising the leader and making decisions. There are sensitivities that any one person cannot have. It soon affected my own decision-making. Due to the potent influence of Dr. Kleinerman, I made sure that every qualified female faculty member was offered a position within the research administration infrastructure. I appointed as many women and then people of color as I could to the positions my office had to fill on the Institutional Review Board, the Clinical Research Committee, the Animal Care and Use Committee, the Biosafety Committee and the Conflict of Interest Committee. I am not sure how successful I was but my thinking had been heavily influenced by Dr. Gibb and Dr. Kleinerman and eventually by the diverse leadership of the various committees whose operations I oversaw. I was always learning from the people that I appointed.

It is easy to criticize any appointment as not being worthy or not being wise. On the whole, it seems to me that Mr. Biden is appointing qualified people to all the jobs even if there may be other equally qualified people who did not get the nod and did not get that nod because of political pressure from opposition groups. I am not naïve. This happens in the real world all the time.

In the end, the only thing that will really matter to the country about Mr. Biden’s picks will be how they perform. Let’s hope that the Senate does not give too many of Biden’s choices a hard time during their confirmation hearings although I am quite sure a few will not make it across the finish line because of partisan politics unless the Democrats win both Senate races in Georgia, an unlikely event. There’s also the question of whether Biden’s choice for the Pentagon will get the special exemption he needs to serve in a civilian role after being out of the military only four years. (Seven years is required).

Much is being written about all the firsts from the oldest president ever to the first vice president who is a woman of color of South Asian origin. Frankly, I only care about how each appointee does in his or her new role. My guess is that some will do well and some not so much. Regardless, they all should be given a chance and judged by their actual success not their backgrounds.

Diversity is and should be a factor when people are chosen for jobs. That’s just the way the world is and, as Dr. Gibb taught me long ago, very often the person’s different background makes them exactly the right person for the job.

Diversity matters. Mr. Biden gets it. Good for him. Better for us.

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