Chapter 07: Building Research and Facilities Under Charles
Dr. Becker explains some changes in MD Anderson when Dr. Charles LeMaistre took over as MD Anderson's president with R. Lee Clark's retirement. He notes that Dr. LeMaistre's qualifications and his view that the institution needed a stronger academic structure and research base. In line with this vision, Dr. LeMaistre created a Vice President for Research, asking Dr. Becker to assume this position. Dr. Becker describes how he set up his administrative practice so it would not compromise his research career, then details his efforts to increase research facilities, recruit outstanding scientists and create professorships. He recalls his insistence that he be able to recruit anyone from anywhere (even a "polka dotted hermaphroditic Venusian geneticist") in order to pursue excellence, and notes that this was unusual in MD Anderson's "deep South" mentality at the time, when the faculty was geographically and racially limited. Dr. LeMaistre supported Dr. Becker's efforts to bring diversity to the faculty.
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Now rather surprisingly, Lee Clark then retired. First of all, it turned out he was 70. He looked 50, he acted 50, he moved 50, and he was such a dominant feature of this institution and national and international cancer efforts that it was almost inconceivable that this place was going to be without Lee Clark. There then ensued a very crucial point in the development of MD Anderson, and that was the search for the new president—someone who had the experience and knowledge about cancer and medicine—but we needed someone with really major administrative capabilities as well because I coined this phrase, “This was a mom and pop store that had become a Rice Market” and was still run by two or three people and needed a tremendous expansion of administration and so on to keep up if we were going to have continued almost exponential growth. And the person that they picked was Mickey [Charles A.] LeMaistre, an extraordinary pick because he was the chancellor of the university but a person of vast administrative capabilities in medicine. You’ll hear about things he was involved in. He was the person chosen by the previous chancellor to develop a plan for development of medical schools in this state, and he was the chairman of the United States President’s Commission on Smoking and so on and had vast administrative experience with a medical background. I think he had been chancellor for about seven or more years, but he had been in administration a long time, and in my conversations with him he told me he really wanted to get back to medicine, and this was a remarkable opportunity. It took a little bit of manipulation because he was the chairman of the search committee for the president. And so when this was brought up to him, he took himself off, recused himself, and he was rapidly appointed. And it was a remarkable choice. As usual, when you appoint a new president, there’s a certain percentage of the faculty who immediately have a thousand reasons why he’s the worst choice in the world. But he actually was the best choice in the world. And what he did was he knew this place because every appointment, etcetera, had to go through the chancellor’s office. So it wasn’t as if he was walking in—and secondly, Lee had been in close consultation with him for many years about plans because, again, the chancellor had to approve it. And within a very short period of time, Dr. LeMaistre—or Mickey, as we all knew him—recognized that what was needed here was an administrative structure commensurate with the demands of the institution and further impetus towards research-based medicine and research itself. There was a great deal of research in the clinical areas, much of it based on patient research, and it was famous for that already, which was amazing. But he saw this, and so what Mickey did to instigate this was to create positions at the administrative level that didn’t exist before, or if they did, they weren’t very recognizable. In addition to a vice president for patient care, a vice president for finance, a vice president for hospitals—meaning the administration of the hospital—he called me in and said to me that he would like me to consider a new position that he was establishing for the foundation as vice president for research wherein I would be in charge of overseeing the total research activities. That meant basic research, as we call laboratory research, and clinical research, as we identify research that’s focused on the patient. And he gave me a certain amount of time to think about it and to bring to him a proposal of what I would want—not personally, necessarily, but what power I would have, what goals we would agree on, what prerogatives. I gave it a great deal of thought because I was quite happy in my position, and I was concerned that my research might be harmed by it. So I tried to establish it in such a way that the position would be associated with a certain amount of additional laboratory support, that my office as vice president would be in a location commensurate with these various activities, and that I would have a staff which, to be perfectly honest, would be almost amusingly small compared to the least administrative position in the institution today. And one sidebar which I always think is amusing is that as soon as these four or five vice presidents were established, the faculty began to complain that the administration had grown too big, too heavy, and too complex. Today when the number of vice presidents can’t be held in storage by our massive computers and associate vice presidents and vice vice presidents and their staff, I find that memory somewhat amusing. And we were called by a consultant “silos,” too many silos, as if we couldn’t speak among the four of us. But that’s history.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:
So when you were thinking about Dr. LeMaistre’s quest to get this plan together, what did you come up with? What did you have in mind for the institution and also to preserve your own research?
Frederick F. Becker, MD:
To preserve my own research was both simple and complex. First of all, I required some laboratories near where I would office. That was easy because we had created a couple of suites of laboratories prospective for recruiting. More than that, I wanted the ability to pursue an increase in our research facilities because most of them were limited and older, which meant fundraising at a very substantial level—not commensurate today but in dollars probably. I wanted the ability to recruit outstanding scientists from wherever that fit our goals for research, and that meant creating professorships, support, financial mechanisms, and so on. The most important thing to me was that I had the freedom to recruit from anywhere anyone that had the credentials and the proven capabilities. Now what does anybody mean? It means women. There were almost no women faculty members, no less leaders. There were no leaders. We had almost no—I guess the current term is African Americans. The faculty was very geographically limited, and there was, at that time, an overwhelming Southern attitude. If I should tell you anything, I can tell you that personally one of the big surprises of my life—it didn’t quite make me humble but moved me towards that—was my surprise of my image of Texas compared to Texas. I never thought of Texas as Deep South, and it was very Deep South when I got here. Segregation had only been overturned ten years before. We sometimes say humorously, even worse than that, it was dry. You couldn’t buy whiskey or wine. And on one trip to a neighboring small city, Pasadena, my family and I passed a billboard that said, “You can feel safe. You are in KKK country.” And at that point, some of my family voted to return north as quickly as possible. And the change in the city and the area has been revolutionary since we have had an African American mayor and now have a woman lesbian mayor. It’s incredible. But at that time, this was a very big shock. You may be amused, but I said to Mickey, “If I want to recruit a polka-dotted, hermaphroditic, Venusian geneticist, that’s it.” And he gave me his word, which he kept without hesitation. There were people on the administration and certain chairmen who had trouble with this concept. And I have to tell you—you may not include it—after recruiting one of the most outstanding geneticists in the country, Benoit de Crombrugghe, who you will hear about, from the National Cancer Institute—Belge, one of the finest people that I’ve ever met in my life—one of my colleagues in administration said to me, “Now Fred, I’m sure that Dr. de Whatever-That-Is is a great guy and a good scientist, but can’t you recruit anybody named Smith or Jones?” And I said, “Joe, I haven’t found one smart enough.” They didn’t ask me that too many times.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:
Why were you so committed to bringing in more diversity to the institution?
Frederick F. Becker, MD:
I have to be honest with you. The diversity was secondary to excellence. In other words, it was the reverse. I didn’t want to be limited if I found a marvelous woman scientist or administrator or leader. I didn’t want to be limited not to approve her because she was a woman. So it wasn’t that. It was the flip side. And I have to tell you [ ] that as far as I know, I recruited the first woman chairman [ ] in the entire University of Texas, and that was Margaret Kripke, who became my successor. And if she wasn’t the first in the whole university, she sure was the first here or in most places. And years later I recruited or supported the recruit of [ ] Frank, who became the head of pediatric research, and he was a black. Brilliant, wonderful man, handsome. The head of diversity here for all these years, Lovell Jones [oral history interview], who just won a major award for his work in diversity, came to me. We were very close. We worked very closely together, so we had a kind of brotherly relationship. He said to me, “Dr. Becker, I bet you’re boasting about recruiting the first African-American chairman.” And I said, “Yes, I am, Lovell.” And he said, “Well, it’s all wrong. He’s African African.” I won’t tell you what I said to Lovell. Frank was born in Africa, which I thought was the funniest comment of all time. And Dr. LeMaistre, who is from Alabama and spent his life mostly in Texas, supported that without a single resistance, which I think aided us in creating this place.
Becker, Frederick F. MD and Rosolowski, Tacey A. PhD, "Chapter 07: Building Research and Facilities Under Charles" (2012). Interview Chapters. 430.
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