Special Report – MD Anderson Moves from Top-Down Structure to “Shared Governance” with Faculty Senate

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MD Anderson Moves from Top-Down Structure to “Shared Governance” with Faculty Senate

By Conor Hale

MD Anderson Cancer Center was instructed to institute a “shared governance” structure, disbanding its powerful Executive Committee effective Sept. 1.

After years of turmoil and plunging morale, the UT System has instructed the Houston-based cancer center to form a Shared Governance Committee, which would incorporate input from the faculty. The move appears to change the institution’s structure from a strong top-down flow of authority to an unusually democratic system.

The new governance committee will serve as the top advisory body to the institution’s president, Ronald DePinho, and will include all division heads; the chair, chair-elect, and immediate past chair of the Faculty Senate; and senior executives.

The decision was announced Aug. 14, in a faculty-wide email from DePinho and Gary Whitman, chair of the Faculty Senate.

“In recent months, we have focused intensely on bringing together voices and talents from across our 21,000-employee institution to ensure adequate leadership representation and to enable awareness of issues and ideas that can lead to, or detract from, MD Anderson’s greatness,” the email said.

The email included two letters sent by UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven, addressed to DePinho and the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, respectively.

“The single most important issue, in my opinion, is assuring that bidirectional trust flourishes within the MD Anderson family,” McRaven wrote to DePinho in a letter that was dated July 22, but was released Aug. 14. “Toward that end, I believe that a new shared governance structure will be transformative.”

McRaven went on to list a series of changes, describing how the new Shared Governance Committee should operate—including which issues it should cover, how frequently the members should meet. McRaven’s also instructed MD Anderson’s leadership to develop an internal communication plan that would illuminate the committee’s decision-making process, “especially in terms of how clinical revenues are directed.”

“The shared governance team will serve in an advisory capacity to the President, who will continue to operate as the final decision authority for the institution,” McRaven wrote. “At the same time, the shared governance team includes broad representation of the institution, and if governance is functioning effectively, with thorough discussion, deliberation and opportunity for dissent, the decisions of the President will be closely aligned with the recommendations of the shared governance committee.

“Once the decision is made by the President, it will be considered final.”

In the letter, McRaven expressed his “full, unqualified, and unwavering support” for DePinho and his leadership, also saying that his “many conversations with faculty and staff reveal that there is a continuing sense that more can be done.”

“It is my goal, therefore, to communicate a set of institutional priorities that I hope will be embraced not only by your executive and faculty leadership team, but also by the faculty and the administrators,” he wrote.

McRaven thanked the Faculty Senate Executive Committee for all its work—specifically the white paper the committee prepared in July, which addressed what it called “pervasive” low morale at the institution, and called for the UT System to freeze the salaries of DePinho and his executive team until they reach parity with faculty compensation (The Cancer Letter, July 13).

“As we look to the future, it is clear that a team effort will be required to improve the climate at M.D. Anderson,” McRaven wrote in his letter to the Executive Committee. “The executive leadership team must embrace the principles of shared governance, transparency, and support of faculty academic effort. At the same time, the faculty must be an engaged and willing partner in these efforts.”

McRaven also said MD Anderson must “overcome a historical misperception that the purpose of the Faculty Senate is to serve as the loyal opposition to the administration.”

“The white paper has begun to change that dynamic—I have witnessed a genuine alignment of interests across the various stakeholder groups,” McRaven wrote. “In the proposed new shared governance model, it will be key for all of those involved in decision-making roles to act first and foremost in the interests of the greater good of the institution.”

Again calling for greater communication between all parties, McRaven wrote: “In my discussions with various stakeholders, it is clear that all constituents believe that internal communications can be improved at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“Clearly, the executive leadership team understands that they have to do a better job in that regard, but I would also charge the Faculty Senate representatives to meet regularly with their constituents in order to make sure that they fully appreciate the range of opinions that are held. The white paper process illustrated that faculty opinion is diverse, and to be effective, the Faculty Senate cannot be seen as representing only one segment of the broad range of opinion.

“When meeting with faculty colleagues, it would be helpful if the message from the Faculty Senate representatives was as balanced as possible.”

Tenure and Evaluations

In his letter to President DePinho, McRaven noted concerns over the institution’s policies on tenure and faculty evaluations.

In June, the American Association of University Professors censured MD Anderson after a yearlong feud over the decision to deny tenure to Kapil Mehta and Zhengxin Wang, two professors who had been unanimously recommended for tenure renewal by the MD Anderson Promotion and Tenure Committee (The Cancer Letter, June 13).

“The process of building trust will be advanced if faculty members feel that they have input into the process of evaluating the performance of all faculty administrators,” McRaven wrote, discussing the upward evaluation process.

“The faculty administrator upward evaluation process was not implemented since 2010, in part because it was perceived that it was not functioning in a way that provided constructive feedback to faculty upper administrators. That may well have been a justified decision at the time, but the passage of five years without faculty input into faculty administrator evaluations is adding to the sense that faculty do not have an adequate voice in the organization.”

McRaven called for a summary report of the faculty reviews for promotions and tenure as well as actions taken over the previous appointment cycle:

“During the past year, one of the issues that was addressed was a perception that there is an inadequate appeals process for rejections of promotion and tenure requests. A proposal was implemented to create an advisory review to the President when he or she disagrees with a unanimous favorable vote of the promotion and tenure committee. Thus far, there has not been a need to invoke this new process, so it is premature to judge whether or not it is working. Therefore, I look forward to a summary report from the 2014-15 annual appointment cycle concerning the number of faculty reviewed in the promotion and tenure process, the distribution of votes by the promotion and tenure committee, and the need, if any, to invoke the appeals process. I trust that the review of these data over time will reveal whether the new grievance process is working or if it requires further modification.

“Faculty grievances also arise outside of the promotion and tenure process and it is appropriate for the shared governance committee to charge a group of faculty and administrators to conduct a review of the current faculty grievance appeals mechanisms and make recommendations about improvements in the policies and procedures. Recommendations for changes in grievance policies and procedures should be submitted to the shared governance committee and those that are endorsed should be transmitted to the President to render a final decision. Once implemented, these policies and procedures should be monitored over time to assure that they are working effectively.”

DePinho, Faculty Senate Announce Change

In an email sent to MD Anderson faculty and staff Aug. 14, DePinho and Faculty Senate Chair Gary Whitman pledged to work cooperatively.

The text of the email follows:

Date: August 14, 2015

To: All MD Anderson Faculty

From: Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., President and Gary J. Whitman, M.D., Faculty Senate Chair

In recent months, we have focused intensely on bringing together voices and talents from across our 21,000-employee institution to ensure adequate leadership representation and to enable awareness of issues and ideas that can lead to, or detract from, MD Anderson’s greatness. In addition, Chancellor Bill McRaven has provided sage advice in recent weeks and offered his perspectives and guidance in the form of two letters, addressed to both of us. We both wish to share these letters with you (see attached).

We are unified in our interest to advance the institution and are pleased to announce a new era of collaborative leadership at MD Anderson — marked by a genuine interest to create shared understanding and shared responsibility. To accelerate the realization of collaborative leadership, we are taking definitive steps to establish the institution’s first Shared Governance Committee. Effective September 1, 2015, this committee will become MD Anderson’s foremost advisory body to the president, assuming the responsibilities of the Executive Committee, which will be disbanded in its current form on August 31. Membership of the Shared Governance Committee will comprise all division heads; the Faculty Senate’s immediate past chair, current chair and chair-elect; and senior executives.

A renewed spirit of cooperation, rooted in our mutual desire to make this the best institution it can be, is palpable. It has been a key element over the past several months in advancing our institutional strategic plan well into its current implementation phase; ensuring progress across key focus areas; developing solutions for emergent operational issues; and supporting and advancing our world-leading faculty and staff to enable their continued scientific and clinical achievements for the benefit of countless people across the globe. We want to foster this collaborative spirit, build on our strong institutional momentum, seize extraordinary scientific opportunities and address critical challenges facing healthcare.

In summary, our new Shared Governance Committee has one fundamental objective: to collaboratively facilitate the advancement of MD Anderson toward achievement of our mission.

We are excited about working closely with each of you in Making Cancer History, together.

Ronald A. DePinho, M.D.


Gary J. Whitman, M.D.

Chair, Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate

Also available for download: Chancellor McRaven’s letters to Ronald DePinho and to the MD Anderson Faculty Senate.

Conor Hale


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Conor Hale