The Subtle Difference Between Possibility And Opportunity

The Subtle Difference Between Possibility and Opportunity


Leonard Zwelling

In The Wall Street Journal on March 25, Matthew Hennessey points out that President Biden has taken to calling the United States the “land of possibility.” Us old folks knew it as the land of opportunity and there is a difference.

Possibility connotes a chance occurrence and an element of luck. Opportunity describes a landscape of open doors to be taken advantage of by the ambitious and hard-working.

I’m not going to debate whether or not the President is correct in that the United States has been demoted to a country based on luck rather than hard work, but I will say that I believe that MD Anderson has changed since I arrived in 1984.

It was most definitely the land of opportunity when we got here. It wasn’t that it was possible that you would succeed and thrive. It was expected. It was expected because all the ducks were in a row for you to do just that. There was sufficient money to support research and faculty salaries. There was a massive emphasis on the development of basic research and clinical investigation upon the bedrock of superb clinical care for which the institution had been known for decades. The faculty I encountered when I got here always went out of the way to help me succeed from giving me lab space and equipment while mine was being readied and purchased, to giving me venues to present my work and make myself known in the institution. I was assisted in caring for patients and guided through all the political and administrative potholes characteristic of any large academic center.

There were a few caveats. You were expected to work. Hard. You were expected to be a good colleague and help any faculty member needing assistance. You were expected to be a good collaborator as well.

If you did these things, you were accepted as part of the Anderson family and opportunities abounded.

Fast forward to now.

I would say MD Anderson, like the United States, has become a place of possibility. Collaborations still occur and good research is done, but there are now singular centers of research power and a hierarchy controlling what happens at the institution. There is a much more centralized administration and the leaders of that administration are not the Freireichs, Beckers, Kripkes, and Fidlers of yesterday. They are people who have neither earned their positions, nor functioned well in them. They got their jobs out of luck, not opportunity, who they knew not what they had done.

I don’t know how you reinvigorate the culture of opportunity in an academic cancer center. I suspect it starts with the administration respecting the faculty and trusting that faculty to make their own decisions with regard to how they will be governed. That hasn’t been the case for years at Anderson.

I know I sound like an old man. That’s because I am. However, I do believe that I am correct in this assessment as Hennessey is about his assessment of the Biden perspective on this country.

The leadership of the institution is mediocre because it can be and yet continue in power. What is the vision for MD Anderson beyond clinics on Saturday and research institutions named for famous scientists being run by their wives?

The leadership in Austin is equally inept. These are not the days of Chancellor McRaven when a real leader was in that office.

MD Anderson still is a world of the possible. It should be the land of opportunity and it can be again. It just needs new leaders.

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