publication date: Apr. 10, 2015

MD Anderson Violated Academic Freedom, Governance, Tenure Standards, AAUP Says

 

 Matthew Bin Han Ong

MD Anderson Cancer Center President Ronald DePinho’s administration acted in disregard of academic standards and the institution’s internal faculty appointment policy, according to a 23-page final report published April 8 by the American Association of University Professors. 

The report is the outcome of a yearlong feud between the cancer center and AAUP, which defends academic freedom and shared governance.

The process was unusually contentious, even by the standards of tenure disputes, as MD Anderson officials—in an open challenge—released the confidential draft document that was sent to them for review. The administration’s original response also included a statement that the report’s description of conflicts of interest was “legally actionable” (The Cancer Letter, March 20).

Responding to the final report, MD Anderson officials said it was an effort on the part of a “labor union” to attract more members.   

The report’s negative findings increase the chances that the illustrious Houston hospital will be added to AAUP’s censure list of over 50 institutions. Currently, there is no top-tier cancer center on that list.

According to AAUP, the censure list is closely watched by about 240 higher education and academic organizations that endorse AAUP principles. Job postings and other related media from censured institutions published in that network would be accompanied by a footnote that reads, “The administration of this institution is on the AAUP censure list.”

The MD Anderson final report doesn’t discuss censure—a decision that will be made at AAUP’s annual meeting of several hundred members and delegates who vote on the association’s recommendations.

Founded in 1915, AAUP has 47,000 individual members and 300 chapters.

The AAUP report summarizes the findings of an investigation triggered by refusal on the part of DePinho and his administration to provide justification for denying tenure renewals to Kapil Mehta and Zhengxin Wang. MD Anderson’s Promotion and Tenure Committee had unanimously recommended both professors for renewal. (The Cancer Letter, April 25, 2014).

 “The report finds that the cancer center administration violated commonly accepted academic standards when it terminated the appointments of two professors,” Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said in an email to the association’s members. “Neither of the two professors at MD Anderson received the due process recommended by the AAUP for full-time faculty members with more than seven years of service: an opportunity for a faculty hearing, in which the burden of demonstrating adequate cause for dismissal rests with the administration.

“Instead, after being notified that their appointments would not be renewed, the professors were limited to appealing the decision to the same administrative officers who made it.

“If no steps are taken to remediate the MD Anderson policies, it is likely that the AAUP membership will consider imposing censure on the MD Anderson administration at our annual meeting on June 13,” Reichman wrote. 

In advance of the AAUP annual meeting, held in Washington, D.C., Committee A will make a recommendation to censure, not to censure, or to hold it over pending negotiations. The committee will convene end of May.

It seems unlikely that DePinho and his administration would be open to negotiations.

“As with the draft report released in March, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center continues to disagree with the conclusions made in American Association of University Professors’ final report issued [April 8],” MD Anderson officials wrote in a statement to The Cancer Letter. “MD Anderson is secure in the knowledge that the review process for the individuals involved was transparent, documented and justified as well as compliant with both policy and fairness.

 “Several significant factual errors and inappropriate statements have been removed from the final document, but the objectivity of the report still is obviously deficient.

“As a labor union, the AAUP will reach whatever conclusions it deems favorable to its purposes. However, to draw broad conclusions that denigrate the dedication of MD Anderson faculty to advancing the science of curing cancer in order to save lives, through the AAUP’s narrowly-informed editorializing on MD Anderson’s strategic course crafted through extensive faculty participation, does an injustice to our scholarly physicians and researchers and their commitment to our mission.”

MD Anderson can avoid censure by reforming its policies and resolving the situations of the professors in question, said Gregory Scholtz, AAUP associate secretary and director of the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance

“It would be nice if they got rid of that obnoxious oxymoron, ‘term tenure,’” Scholtz said, referring to MD Anderson’s seven-year renewable faculty contracts.

The AAUP report slammed MD Anderson for its lack of “indefinite” tenure—a system practiced by nearly 90 percent—111 out of 126—of medical colleges and institutions, according to a 2008 study by the American Association of Medical Colleges (The Cancer Letter, May 30, 2014).

 

DePinho: We Will Enhance The Tenure Process

MD Anderson will not abandon its seven-year appointments.

Nonetheless, in an email to the faculty March 13, DePinho promised “enhancements” to the renewal process.

“We’re enhancing MD Anderson’s term tenure renewal process in response to faculty concerns about nonrenewal of term appointments when the Promotion and Tenure Committee (PTC) unanimously recommends renewal for another seven-year term.

“Beginning immediately, in the rare instance when the president is considering nonrenewal of a seven-year term tenure appointment following a unanimous PTC recommendation for renewal, the following steps will be taken:

“1. Before a final decision is made, the president will consult with two former PTC chairs and the UT System Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs.

“2. Written recommendations from those consultations will be obtained, and the Executive Vice Chancellor’s comments will be available for the faculty member’s review.

“After three years, this newly expanded process will be reviewed by a committee of former PTC chairs. They’ll consider whether to extend the use of these additional steps or modify/expand them to improve the system.”

DePinho also promised to invest $10.8 million in clinical resources, which will, among other things, be used to recruit 84.5 new full-time employees.

 

Report Links DePinho, Chin to Faculty Morale Decline

The AAUP report devotes over two pages to a section titled “The Administration of President Ronald DePinho,” where the investigation committee describes in detail events that negatively impacted morale at MD Anderson, based on faculty feedback to the committee.

“After Dr. DePinho assumed the presidency, the cancer center became embroiled in controversies, and the specific issues of academic due process and shared governance to be discussed in this report are interwoven with those controversies,” the report reads.

“Faculty members, proud of MD Anderson’s reputation for both superb patient care and contributions to basic science, told the investigating committee that they were stung by missteps and improprieties reported in the press—particularly in The Cancer Letter, a trade publication—that tarnished the image of their institution.

“Members of the faculty complained that demands on them were being ratcheted up and their employment was being made less secure at a time when funding was less accessible nationally and when the administration was dedicating additional institutional funds to a unique drug-development initiative.”

The goes on to list alleged conflicts of interest involving Lynda Chin, DePinho’s wife, who recently stepped down as founding chair of Genomic Medicine and scientific director of the Institute for Applied Cancer Science at MD Anderson to join the UT System as an associate vice chancellor for health transformation and chief innovation officer for health affairs (The Cancer Letter, April 3).

“In May 2012, Dr. Chin attracted faculty criticism and unfavorable press coverage when it came to light that the IACS she codirected had bypassed the grant-application portal monitored by MD Anderson’s then provost, Dr. DuBois, with an email application to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), which then bypassed its standard scientific peer-review process in awarding an $18 million incubator grant, prompting several resignations from CPRIT, including the Nobel laureate who was it chief scientific officer.

“Controversy also erupted over ties that Dr. DePinho and Dr. Chin maintained with Aveo Pharmaceuticals, a company they cofounded.

“President DePinho was meanwhile seeking a sweeping waiver from conflict-of-interest regulations from the University of Texas system so that he could continue his collaborations with twelve entities and so that MD Anderson would be allowed to run trials on drugs and biological of the companies in which he had a stake.

“Ultimately, the board of regents declined to approve the full list, directing nine to a blind trust, but the board allowed President DePinho to retain his interest in three, including Aveo which was developing a drug that he especially wanted MD Anderson to test.

“Dr. Shine, who authored the waiver, stressed to The Cancer Letter the potential benefits of having a commercialization-oriented leader over the potential harms related to conflict-of-interest considerations. The unusual arrangement ran into principled objections from critics on MD Anderson’s faculty.”

 

The Report’s Conclusions

After lengthy discussion of the individual tenure dispute cases, MD Anderson’s contractual appointments and academic due processes, as well as its climate for academic freedom, the AAUP investigating committee concludes that:

1. The administration of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center acted in disregard of the joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which calls for the protections of tenure to full-time faculty members after seven years of service, when it failed
to retain Professors Kapil Mehta and Zhengxin Wang following thirty and twelve years of service, respectively, without having afforded them requisite academic due process. 

2. In both the Mehta and Wang cases, the administration acted in disregard of the Association’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure and of its own “Non-Renewal of Faculty Appointment Policy” when it failed to provide a written statement of reasons to the two professors for their nonreappointment.

3. In both cases and in others where nonrenewals and deferrals belied the positive recommendations of the faculty committee with primary responsibility for ensuring faculty excellence, the administration acted in disregard of the Association’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities when it failed to provide compelling reasons, stated in detail, to the Promotion and Tenure Committee for rejecting its recommendations.

4. In Professor Mehta’s case, the administration additionally ignored the findings of a faculty appeal panel that had sustained his appeal of the adverse action and misrepresented the panel’s findings to Professor Mehta.

5. The administration acted in disregard of the Association’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure and in disregard of its own “Faculty Appointments Policy” in failing to provide accurate licensure information in Professor Gouhui Lu’s initial letter of offer and in subsequent appraisals and reviews—information later used to remove him from faculty status and place him in a classified position. 

6. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center administration shows its disregard of principles of shared governance articulated in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities in its procedures for appointing department chairs and in its general failure to involve faculty meaningfully in academic decisions.

 

“Reputable Institutions” Prefer to Avoid Censure

Universities and colleges “of a certain pedigree” usually care about not making the AAUP censure list, said Matthew Finkin, director of the Program in Comparative Labor and Employment Law & Policy at the University of Illinois.

“They draw their faculty from PhD programs in reputable places. Their faculty attends conferences; they want to sponsor conferences. They’re in what I would call, ‘The orbit of comparison,’” said Finkin, who is also the university’s Albert J. Harno and Edward W. Cleary Chair in Law. Finkin has participated in four AAUP investigations, chairing two of them.

“Highly selective liberal arts colleges, heavyweight regional or state universities tend not to get on the censure list,” Finkin said to The Cancer Letter. “If on occasion that happens, for whatever alignment of the stars, they tend not to stay on it for very long because they care.

“The faculty will usually say, ‘This is hurting us. We don’t want to be on the same list as Frank Phillips College of Borger, Texas. I mean, come on!’

“So they tend to take AAUP seriously, they tend to solve cases, and when they end up on the censure list, you’ll see that they get off pretty quickly. For the institutions that don’t get off quickly, what you usually have is an entrenched administration or board of trustees or both that really thinks that they did nothing wrong, that the AAUP is at fault, not they.

Finkin is the author of two definitive books on tenure in the U.S., The Case for Tenure, and For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. He is also an author of Labor Law, a leading casebook in American legal education.

Finkin said he is not surprised that DePinho and his administration appear unfazed.

“The question is the shame quotient: Is this a place that is subject to any notion of shame?” Finkin said. “And the answer is, apparently not much, as it appears.

“What happens is you have to await a change of president,” Finkin said. “Very often, you’ll see a removal of censure that coincides with a new president, who comes in and says, ‘One of the conditions of my presidency is I want to get this institution off the censure list. It’s embarrassing.’

“All the AAUP can do is name and shame. If the MD Anderson administration has no sense of shame, then all AAUP can do is announce to the world that they should be ashamed of themselves, and that they should behave even better.

“It’s up to the thinking public to act on whatever manner they see fit.”

 

AAUP: Censure is for Fringe Institutions 

MD Anderson’s response to the AAUP report isn’t encouraging, said AAUP’s Scholtz.

“Given that MD Anderson, as the report itself said, is more hospital than university, I wonder to what extent they care, if they do, about being considered an institution of higher education,” Scholtz said to The Cancer Letter.

“The whole purpose of a censure is to send a message that says, ‘This is not a place that’s friendly to academic freedom and tenure. If you’re concerned about academic freedom and if you’re seeking the protections of tenure for academic freedom, this is not a place to work.’”

Other “reputable” universities typically offer full cooperation, Scholtz said.

“The University of Virginia was subject to a governance investigation a few years ago and the University of Illinois right now is probably heading towards censure, but they’ve bent over backwards to accommodate us,” Scholtz said. “There have been investigations that I was part of where the institutions avoided censure by fixing things before the annual meeting.

“In those cases, these institutions were very concerned about the adverse publicity and very concerned about their academic bona fide. But it may be that MD Anderson is not concerned about its academic bona fides. I hope it is, because we’d like to see the possibility of censure removed.

“What matters the most are the ones that are conscious of their image as being among the more reputable institutions in higher education. We don’t want that censure list to get too long, because it’s a list of institutions that don’t take academic principles as seriously—we have the hardest time getting institutions off the censure list who are more on the fringes of higher education.

“They’re not terribly concerned about the opinions of what one might consider to be core academic institutions about their status and standing.”

 

The full text of DePinho’s March 13 email to the MD Anderson faculty follows:

Dear colleagues,

Thank you to everyone who attended Wednesday’s faculty townhall. We hope the information shared, the questions and comments addressed, and our planned path forward will allow all of us to jointly push the reset button and continue our collaborative efforts to end cancer.

 For those unable to attend, following is a high-level overview of what was discussed. You also can watch the session in its entirety.

Expansion of the Institutional Executive Committee

In the spirit of welcoming and engaging additional viewpoints to help guide our strategic goals and efforts, we’re expanding MD Anderson’s Executive Committee. Included now will be representatives, selected by their peers, from the division heads, clinical department chairs and basic science department chairs.

The chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate also will serve on the committee. These key people will provide valuable perspectives that will ensure we continue on a nimble and proactive path in the near term, as well as a strategic path in the long term.

$10.8 million investment in clinical resources

After committing $10 million to implement creative solutions designed to have an immediate impact on the working environment of our faculty in their labs and clinics, we empowered divisional and departmental leaders to solicit ideas from their faculty and determine how we should invest those funds.

Not only did we approve their plans, we increased the available funds to $10.8 million to accommodate the very real needs of our faculty. This additional support is needed now.

As quickly as possible, we’ll add 84.5 full-time employees – mostly mid-level providers, nurses and other clinical professionals, as well as additional faculty.

Additionally, based on feedback gathered by our research chairs, plans are being finalized to help students and postdocs with parking and enhanced videoconferencing capabilities. We also will expand our support of bridge funding.

Enhancements of our promotion and tenure process

We’re enhancing MD Anderson’s term tenure renewal process in response to faculty concerns about nonrenewal of term appointments when the Promotion and Tenure Committee (PTC) unanimously recommends renewal for another seven-year term. 

Beginning immediately, in the rare instance when the president is considering nonrenewal of a seven-year term tenure appointment following a unanimous PTC recommendation for renewal, the following steps will be taken:

1. Before a final decision is made, the president will consult with two former PTC chairs and the UT System Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs.

2. Written recommendations from those consultations will be obtained, and the Executive Vice Chancellor’s comments will be available for the faculty member’s review.

After three years, this newly expanded process will be reviewed by a committee of former PTC chairs. They’ll consider whether to extend the use of these additional steps or modify/expand them to improve the system.

Improving systems and transparent reporting of financial information

Progress has been made to improve the usability of Resource One/PeopleSoft. Leaders in Finance and Information Technology have reached out to division and department leaders to answer questions and offer additional training. 

Dedicated teams have been assembled to offer unified system access and training materials across all components of PeopleSoft. And Grants and Contracts accounting managers are staffing hotlines: Ext. 3-1122 or PSGrant_Support@mdanderson.org for PeopleSoft; Ext. 5-6065 or Grants_And_Contracts@mdanderson.org for the Help Desk.

A group of faculty and administrative representatives has been tasked with ensuring all necessary resources are applied to keep PeopleSoft enhancements on target. 

As of Dec. 22, ad hoc reporting capabilities for FTE and income statement analysis was released for extended testing in production. Training continues and end-user feedback has been positive.

Additionally, the Grants Portal is on target for release April 30. User acceptance testing is complete with positive end-user feedback. Enhancements are being prioritized and incorporated. Data reconciliation between PeopleSoft’s subsystems continues and is estimated to be complete this month.

A work group also will be established to receive and evaluate requests from faculty for detailed financial information on topics such as our Moon Shots Program, major capital projects, investments through UTIMCO and days of cash on hand.

A number of questions already have been submitted, and work is underway to consolidate these requests and collaborate with faculty leadership to identify the most appropriate mechanism to provide responses and ongoing education.

Thanks again to everyone for participating in our ongoing process to further our excellence. Joining forces will be crucial to our ongoing success. We must remember our primary responsibilities are to our patients who entrust their care to us and the public who supports our research.

Through ongoing dialogue, a willingness to learn and grow together, as well as a commitment to our core values, we can work together and achieve much more.

Thank you for all you do for our patients and their families, your colleagues and MD Anderson.

Ron DePinho, M.D.

President

Tom Buchholz, M.D.

Executive Vice President and Physician-in-Chief

Ethan Dmitrovsky, M.D.

Provost and Executive Vice President

Leon Leach, Ph.D.

Executive Vice President and Chief Business Officer

Tom Burke, M.D.

Executive Vice President,

MD Anderson Cancer Network

Dan Fontaine, J.D.

 

Executive Chief of Staff, President’s Office

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