Leonard Zwelling

It is Woody Allen who is quoted as having said that “80% of success in life is just showing up.”

This may be true, but a whole generation of young Americans were given trophies for just showing up. I saw it with my own kids early in their athletic activities. Everyone on the soccer team got a small trophy. Everyone was a winner. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

These Americans used to getting trophies for just showing up have now matured or at least gotten older. Some of them are doctors. They still want to get trophies for just showing up and surely do not want to be spoken harshly to by an attending of superior rank or stature. Thus, we have the current trend that everyone is equal and no one is any better than anyone else. This is the heart of the One MD Anderson philosophy that is a formula for mediocrity and has its roots in the fact that every one of the young faculty got a trophy for just showing up. The only new thing is that the people surrounding the leadership of MD Anderson are stealing everyone else’s trophies.

Maybe just showing up is good enough at many cancer centers. It shouldn’t be at MD Anderson.

My sources tell me that most meetings are festivals of praise for everyone around the table and no one ever does anything wrong that warrants harsh corrective action or, if what they did wrong is considered “unprofessional,” that faculty member may be gone in the blink of an eye regardless of that faculty member’s productivity, insight, or patient care skills.

As a parent, I was appalled when everyone got a trophy for just showing up. I never expected a trophy for just showing up. My father would never have tolerated such nonsense. My life was not a pass/fail test and neither is anyone else’s, especially in academic medicine.

In academia, we are to strive for excellence. We should never settle for just showing up. If anything was instilled in me throughout my education it was to drive for excellence and gold stars will follow. Did this become an addiction for me? It did. Was it healthy? No, but neither is settling for mediocrity and trophies for just showing up.

I would suggest to Dr. Pisters (as if he would ever ask) that he scrap the One MD Anderson nonsense, start surrounding himself with people who have actually accomplished something in academics besides stealing everyone else’s trophies, and set standards high for academic performance and less so for a rigid pattern of behavior. If he doesn’t, he may find himself short of the very people he needs for success and surrounded by 80-percenters who just show up.

Dr. Freireich never just showed up. Neither did Drs. Clark, LeMaistre or Mendelsohn. The patients of MD Anderson and the sponsors of MD Anderson research expect way more than just showing up. And they ought to. The current leadership of the institution is setting a course to letting down both patients and sponsors. That’s a formula for losing both.

8 thoughts on “Trophies”

  1. Don’t worry Dad, I threw those soccer trophies in the trash. The baseball ones…I earned and have kept. Down with mediocrity!

  2. David Farquhar, Professor Emeritus

    Great post. Agree completely. But don’t expect imminent change. In matters of employee welfare, the UT System delegates virtually complete administrative authority to each of its 13 component presidents. Barring some egregious breach of traditional norms, UT System rarely intervenes in the internal affairs of any component institute. Administrative decisions that impact faculty welfare are best addressed through the local faculty governance body. For MD Anderson, this mechanism worked fairly well during the LeMaistre and Mendelsohn years but was rendered totally dysfunctional during DePinho’s chaotic reign. The Faculty Senate played a major role in securing his resignation through active and extensive interaction with all levels of UT System executive administration. Local and national press coverage of faculty concerns expedited that outcome.

    The challenge for the Senate in promoting a positive faculty work environment in the face of an autocrat administration is that it requires long-term documentation of problematic issues combined with repeated faculty satisfaction and upward evaluation surveys. This demands an enormous expenditure of time and energy for engaged faculty, and detracts from their primary institutional responsibilities. Since the specter of personal retribution always hangs ominously over administration-faculty conflicts, vulnerable faculty are reluctant to get involved. And, sadly, a few faculty members usually try to exploit tensions to advance their career development.

    As national faculty organizations have repeatedly noted, strained faculty-administration relationships often stem from poor institutional leadership. MD Anderson was fortunate to have found two excellent and one very good leader in the first 70 years of its existence but, alas, has faltered badly in the past 10 years. Once appointed, a UT System president is difficult to remove from office except for incompetence, intransigence, or some egregious violation of System policy.

    But all is not lost. If an administration does not promote a healthy working environment for its faculty, the Senate can play the no-confidence card. Although symbolic, it expresses major faculty dissatisfaction with institutional leadership. This inevitably gains the attention of the Board of Regents and, through media attention, the general public. The downside is that it results in negative publicity for an institution. It therefore behooves Dr. Pisters to set aside the current woke, egalitarian nonsense and recognize that the true source of MD Anderson’s greatness resides in its faculty, a source that has endured since emphatically articulated by it’s first president, Dr. R. Lee Clark. He must be turning in his grave.

      1. Thanks Len, but I don’t have your flair for originality and penmanship. But I served in the MD Anderson Faculty Senate trenches for many years and interacted with all levels of internal and external executive administration. As you know, I served as Senate Chair during the 1998-1999 academic year. I’m particularly proud of establishing the Faculty Senate Salary Review Committee and making an annual presentation detailing the extravagant salaries and lucrative benefits of a seriously over-bloated administration. The findings were first reported in our newly formed Senate newsletter, the Sentinel. Dr. Mendelsohn was particularly chagrined when I was appointed by UT System to a health-related subcommittee of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. There I was privileged to meet with presidents from other System components as well as key members of the Texas legislature. These occasions was not wasted on frivolities. I greatly respected Dr. Mendelsohn’s social, scientific and administrative skills, even though he was ethically challenged on occasion and inappropriately set his heavy-handed legal beagles loose on a few constructively critical faculty members. For the record, I also worked hard behind the scenes (including a published commentary in the Cancer Letter) to address serious irregularities during the DePinho administration. Anyway, thanks for the invitation to write a guest commentary on your blog but I’m much more adept at reflecting on your own excellent commentaries.

  3. You’re describing what I describe as the “creeping malaise” that’s gradually coming to define life in America. Whether it’s people, systems, or products I find myself more surprised when they perform as (formerly) expected than when they don’t. My household long ago stopped complaining about poor service and focused instead on praising good service. But even that has become rare after encountering innumerable blank stares from managers we talked to. “So-and-so gave us great customer service!” (blank stare, long pause) “And you want me to do…what, exactly?”

    Up until recently I wondered why exemplary performance isn’t rewarded. I’m increasingly of the mind it’s no longer even recognized. I think that explains the concept of “quiet quitting.” What’s the point busting your hump when the people in charge are utterly inept? It’s almost like incest. Leaders beget leaders beget leaders, and they seem oblivious that the people many rungs below them are the only thing keeping the org from descending into chaos. Yet it’s they who collect the bonuses even as the worker bees receive pay increases double digits below the inflation rate.

    Needlessly pessimistic, perhaps, but I see little reason for optimism.

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