Ronald DePinho announced on March 8 that he will be stepping down as president of MD Anderson Cancer Center.
DePinho’s five-and-a-half years at the helm of the world’s largest cancer center were marked by unprecedented turbulence, questions of conflicts of interest, and unhappiness on the part of the faculty.
MD Anderson, once a highly profitable operation, lost $405 million over the past 11 months. Indeed, January marked the first month since last March that the hospital completed with positive operating margins.
Also, in recent weeks, control over MD Anderson’s day-to-day operations was transferred to Stephen Hahn, chief operating officer, deputy to the president, and director of the Department of Radiation Oncology, who is described as being well-liked by the faculty (The Cancer Letter, March 3).
The decision to transfer power to Hahn was presented as DePinho’s. DePinho’s departure from the president’s office, too, was being described as a resignation. The departing president announced his resignation in a video that could be described as Shakespearian. Visibly grief-stricken, DePinho acknowledged his shortcomings as an administrator.
“In an era of significant and rapid financial change, we are recovering well from short-term challenges and, longer term, have diversified our revenue streams through philanthropy, strategic ventures and innovation,” DePinho said in the video. “That should allow us to be strongly positioned to support our mission to patients for generations to come.
“The men and women of MD Anderson did this and much more. Our supporters and collaborators did this and much more. But there was a cost for that change, and I have added to that cost.
“I could have done a better job administratively, a better job listening, a better job communicating.
“Forgive me for my shortcomings. I regret them, but I was, and continue, to be committed to saving lives and reduce suffering, to help MD Anderson accelerate the march towards prevention and cure, particularly for the underserved. I’ve done my very best.”
DePinho said he was asked to remain in his job through the end of the Texas legislative session, which is scheduled to end on May 29. After that, he would step into a translational research role at MD Anderson, he said. According to an announcement to MD Anderson faculty and staff distributed March 8, “discussions between Dr. DePinho and Chancellor [William] McRaven are ongoing to coordinate the details and timing of his transition.”
While it’s likely that Hahn will continue to run MD Anderson at least in the near term, no announcements were made about changes in leadership following DePinho’s departure.
The MD Anderson DePinho leaves behind differs profoundly from what it was on Sept. 1, 2011, when he became its fourth full-time president. Governance at that time was mainly from the top down. The Faculty Senate existed, but its influence was limited. The UT System Board of Regents and its chancellor were either supportive of the new star scientist or stayed out of his way. Faculty morale, measured in multiple surveys, plummeted during DePinho’s reign.
Today, largely as a reaction to faculty turmoil in opposition to DePinho, MD Anderson has a uniquely powerful shared governance structure and an unusually strong COO, who reports to the president, but also keeps the UT System chancellor in the loop.
McRaven, the chancellor, has on numerous occasions reaffirmed his concern about faculty morale at MD Anderson. As a former admiral who commanded the operation that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, McRaven views morale as the institution’s premier asset.
As DePinho announced his resignation, McRaven issued a glowing statement.
“When Dr. Ron DePinho was named president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center by the Board of Regents in 2011, it was his vision and passion for ending cancer, with new ideas and innovations, that set him apart from other top candidates,” McRaven said. “Over the past five-and-a-half years, President DePinho did exactly what he pledged to do—elevate the scientific enterprise through the recruitment and retention of world class researchers, accelerate the translation of intellectual property, develop new collaborations with other institutions and hospitals, and put internal teams of the world’s best clinicians and researchers together to mobilize MD Anderson’s quest to speed up development for new and more effective treatments.
“I will be forever grateful to President DePinho for all he has done, not only for his great institution, but for every person, myself included, whose life has been impacted by cancer. We all know that he has been and will continue to be our champion.”
The DePinho years at MD Anderson were controversial from the start. This was in part because of his industry ties and in part because of the leadership role of his wife Lynda Chin, a senior scientist at MD Anderson.
Soon after their arrival, the pair attempted to secure a $20 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, causing that institution’s Chief Scientific Officer Alfred Gilman, a Nobel laureate, to turn whistleblower.
The CPRIT controversy, which became inseparable from multiple controversies at MD Anderson, is covered in a series of stories that appeared in this publication last year. The series, “Slamming the Door: How Al Gilman Taught Texas a Lesson in Science,” is posted here.
Lavish design and furnishing of MD Anderson’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science, where Chin served as the chief scientist, produced one of the most remembered controversies of the DePinho years (The Cancer Letter, May 24, 2013). Another misstep occurred when, on a CNBC program focused on Wall Street, DePinho touted the stock of Aveo Pharmaceuticals Inc., a biotech company he and Chin had cofounded (The Cancer Letter, June 1, 2012).
Chin was transferred to the UT System offices in Austin after McRaven’s arrival on the scene, but she appears to have continued to play a role in MD Anderson’s collaboration with IBM Watson. A recent audit of that abandoned mega-project found that MD Anderson skirted the UT System’s procurement regulations as it spent $62.1 million on an ill-fated artificial intelligence system (The Cancer Letter, Feb. 17).
In June 2015, MD Anderson was censured by the American Association of University Professors for breaching standards of shared governance promulgated by that professional association (The Cancer Letter, June 13, 2015).
The censure concluded an acrimonious, yearlong feud between the two institutions, which began in April 2014. At that time, DePinho and his administration’s refusal to provide justification for denying tenure renewals to Kapil Mehta and Zhengxin Wang triggered an AAUP investigation. MD Anderson’s Promotion and Tenure Committee had unanimously recommended both professors for renewal (The Cancer Letter, April 25, 2014).
MD Anderson is listed on AAUP’s censure list of over 50 institutions. There is no other top-tier cancer center on that list.
Reacting to the news of DePinho’s resignation, many former scientists, physicians and administrators who form the MD Anderson diaspora responded with kind words about the cancer center some of them left under trying circumstances.
“MD Anderson is one of the very best cancer treatment and research institutions world-wide,” said Raphael Pollock, former head of MD Anderson’s Division of Surgery, who was fired after objecting to financial targets set by the DePinho administration. “Students of organizations recognize that such centers of excellence, even at the very pinnacle of accomplishment, go through cycles of higher and lower performance, and in the final analysis, institutions receive the leadership that they deserve.”
Pollock, who is Jewish, was fired on Sept. 26, 2012, which fell on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
“Personally, I am glad to see recognized—even by the recently resigned incumbent—the need for new leadership to inspire a renewed sense of purpose and confidence,” said Pollock, who is now the director of the Division of Surgical Oncology, vice chairman for clinical affairs at the Department of Surgery at The Ohio State University and surgeon in chief at James Comprehensive Cancer Center and The Ohio State University Health System. “If this can occur, our entire oncology community, both inside and outside of Anderson—physicians, scientists, staff, and patients alike—will all ultimately reap the benefit of this renewal.”
Raymond DuBois, who served as the MD Anderson founding provost and executive vice president at the time of DePinho’s arrival, said MD Anderson would weather this change.
“MD Anderson Cancer Center is a place of hope and courage where my family and I have received the best cancer treatment available,” said DuBois, dean of the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. “During this time of leadership transition, my thoughts and prayers are with the faculty, staff and patients associated with this great institution. I have only good memories of my time as provost and EVP in Houston and wish the best for everyone moving forward.
“MD Anderson has weathered well during leadership transitions in the past and will do so again during this current change.”
Arthur Caplan, the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, who frequently commented on ethics at MD Anderson, said he isn’t surprised by the change of leadership at the cancer center.
“I thought this would happen,” Caplan said to The Cancer Letter. “A prominent world-class cancer center needs stability with a focus on vision and mission, not leadership. Whatever the real issues, national and institutional attention seemed to have been in the wrong place for too long.”
Leonard Zwelling, a former MD Anderson researcher and administrator, who was among the first insiders at the cancer center to openly criticize DePinho and Chin, said he sees no cause for celebration.
“This is not a happy day at MD Anderson for two reasons,” said Zwelling, a writer and publisher of a widely read blog. “First, whenever a president steps down prematurely, it means that things are not going well. Second, in this case, there are entire levels of administrative bureaucracy that enabled today’s events. They, too, need to be addressed by the chancellor and the Board of Regents.”
Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, who serves on the MD Anderson External Advisory Board, commended DePinho for his vision.
“During his tenure at MD Anderson, Ron helped lead the way toward better outcomes for cancer patients,” Sigal said to The Cancer Letter. “He built a model of collaboration across so many sectors, and drove real changes that impacted the everyday lives of patients being treated at MD Anderson and at centers all across the country.”
For the past two days, DePinho’s resignation video has been the talk of oncology worldwide.
“I hope people remember that Ron has done a lot of positive things for science; among them is the Moonshot, which brought together teams of people working together, using the much-needed command and control structure,” said Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. “Ron is also a basic scientist who has unusually deep appreciation for cancer control. He has his imperfections, sure, but don’t we all?
“Finally, it was a courageous act of leadership on Ron’s part to appear on that video and unflinchingly tell MD Anderson and the entire oncology profession why he was resigning,” Brawley said.
The text of DePinho’s resignation message, which was distributed to the MD Anderson faculty and staff shortly after 2 p.m. on March 8, follows:
Hello, I’m Ron DePinho, president of MD Anderson.
I believe it is time for a change in leadership at MD Anderson.
As a result of months of self-reflection and deep engagement with the Chancellor and our Board of Visitors, it became clear to me that this great and noble institution needs a new president who will inspire greater unity and a sharp operational focus on navigating the tectonic changes in healthcare delivery and economics.
I have informed the Chancellor of the University of Texas System and the Board of Regents of my resignation, effective as soon as possible, to allow this, the world’s premier cancer institution, to forge ahead on its mission of compassionate care for patients and the discovery of scientific advances that, I believe, lie at the heart of ultimately defeating cancer.
As with all my decisions in my professional journey, I am placing the interests of patients and our ability to impact the cancer problem first. My decision will give the institution new leadership and give me a chance, in a different way, to put my passion for finding cures to this horrible disease.
I am committed to a smooth transition. I will do anything the institution asks of me.
Being president of MD Anderson is an honor I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Nearly six years ago, I was granted the honor of being your president and was challenged by the Board of Regents to take MD Anderson to new academic heights, drive decisive research, expand our national and global reach, foster an innovation culture, and promote long-term sustainability.
It was a tough, tough job, and I pushed all of you and the institution very hard.
Together, we achieved much:
We recruited and nurtured dozens of star faculty.
We greatly enhanced our research competiveness as reflected in securing grants, high impact publications and top awards and honors including National Academies, Lasker and more.
We elevated the reputation of our graduate school program and training programs.
We expanded our world leading clinical trials engine.
We transformed our translational research infrastructure.
We extended our global reach to a network of premier institutions that touches nearly one-third of the human population.
With urgency, courage and compassion, we launched the MD Anderson Cancer Moon Shots Program, which has produced practice-changing advances and catalyzed a national movement.
In an era of significant and rapid financial change, we are recovering well from short-term challenges and, longer term, have diversified our revenue streams through philanthropy, strategic ventures and innovation. That should allow us to be strongly positioned to support our mission to patients for generations to come.
The men and women of MD Anderson did this and much more. Our supporters and collaborators did this and much more.
But there was a cost for that change, and I have added to that cost.
I could have done a better job administratively, a better job listening, a better job communicating.
Forgive me for my shortcomings. I regret them, but I was, and continue, to be committed to saving lives and reduce suffering, to help MD Anderson accelerate the march towards prevention and cure, particularly for the underserved. I’ve done my very best.
I was personally driven by the loss of my hero, my father, to colon cancer. His suffering ignited and defined the intensity of my fight.
Every life lost reminds me of my father and instills an even greater sense of urgency and, admittedly, anger. I simply hate cancer.
For myself, I need to return to my passion of conducting translational science and helping others doing great science – to drive ideas to clinical impact that matter for patients. I need to focus on the cancer moonshot, I need to be a father and husband of my still young family, and at this time in our nation’s history, I need to be more intensely engaged with the national cancer and health policy landscape, including funding for research in my role as co-chair for Act for NIH. I truly believe that this decision will allow me to better serve cancer patients here, at MD Anderson, and nationally.
I have full confidence in the leadership team that we have assembled. It is the strongest in the nation as reflected by our historic progress of the last five-plus years, which will serve as a foundation for the next 25.
So, I say good bye as your president, but I am not leaving the fight. My respect for the institution and for everything you do has no bounds.
Let’s look to the future. Many patients and families are counting on us.