Chapter 12: A Search for a New President; Working with John Mendelsohn


Chapter 12: A Search for a New President; Working with John Mendelsohn



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Dr. Becker begins the next section with comments on the search for the new president, John Mendelsohn, and Charles LeMaistre's retirement. He describes how the search process worked, lists Dr. Mendelsohn's credentials, and notes that he could be considered the "first outsider" to be selected as president. He notes the particular value of Dr. Mendelsohn's experience with business in creating what he calls "The New Anderson," with a corporate structure. He recalls that by 1998, two years in to Dr. Mendelsohn's presidency, he was wearing out as an administrator. He describes his role as Special Advisor to the President when he stepped down as Vice President of Research. Among other initiatives, Dr. Becker worked on developing CORE grants, sat in on the External Advisory Board, and saw through construction projects initiated while he was Vice President. Once Dr. Mendelsohn had his own support system in place, Dr. Becker stepped away, eventually giving up all administrative responsibilities and taking a faculty position without pay.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center - Key MD Anderson Figures; MD Anderson History; MD Anderson Snapshot; Building/Transforming the Institution; Controversy; Portraits; Philanthropy, Fundraising, Donations, Volunteers; The Administrator; Contributions; Giving Recognition

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


Frederick F. Becker, MD:

So finally, by dint of incredible effort and cleverness and so on, we got out of the morass of eventual bankruptcy—not enough to replace everybody who had to be let go, and that was not mostly at the faculty level. It had to be at the support level, and Dr. LeMaistre then instigated his retirement. Or the chancellor did. It didn’t matter. He had a brilliant career here. They began to search for the new president. Ha, ha. When a search is instigated for a position of this magnitude, this prestigious position which is way up there, almost unique—maybe the person who is the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering and so forth—very few people certainly in the field of medicine and unquestionably in cancer hold the prestige, the potency of the president of MD Anderson, and so a search for that person is enormous. They have to be knowledgeable about medicine. They have to be knowledgeable about cancer. In the current environment, they have to have major research credentials. They have to be acceptable to the Board of Regents. Their wife has to be vetted, as is often the case, as someone who will contribute, etcetera. And so when this position opens—I’ve seen it three times now—people from within the institution rush forward, many with excellent credentials, and the search for people from without begins. A search committee is set up by the Board of Regents. In recent years it’s been a much more diverse committee. When Dr. LeMaistre was chosen, almost everybody on that committee was a name known in Texas—governors, ex-governors, heads of the Board of Regents, major people from the Board of Visitors, and so on. In more recent years faculty members have been added to that, occasional others, outsiders.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What’s your impression of how that process works?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Damn well.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

It does? Okay.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

I’m getting to the next choice, since I nominated him (chuckles). [ ] The people from within—most of them were very good friends of mine. Most of them were people at the highest level. Most of them went out afterward and got enormous jobs of prestige. But I for one—and I think a number of the faculty and members of the Board of Regents—felt that perhaps it was time to go outward because, after all, Dr. LeMaistre could hardly be considered an outsider if he came from the University of Texas to the University of Texas. And I think they also wanted—or they were convinced by others like myself—people with good scientific clinical or basic credentials. I had known Dr. John Mendelsohn for twenty-five or thirty years. He was not only an outstanding clinician oncologist at the University of California at San Diego—whose credentials were Harvard, this, that, and the other thing—but he had become the first director of their cancer institute. A [ ] discovery of his, would take another twenty years but became a major therapeusis. But when I had first tried to recruit him to MD Anderson in medicine, he was entrenched in San Diego, and my joke was, “He’ll come here after his last son gets off a surfboard.” And instead he went to take the chairmanship of medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Can’t beat those credentials. And so I recommended him very strongly, and I knew a lot of people. Remember, I was still the head of research, although, by the way, along the line my job had changed because they decided that clinical research and clinical stuff had become so gigantic we needed a separate vice president. No harm, no foul. Everything had become gigantic. So I recommended John through some people who contacted me who were on the search committee—members of the Board of Regents and so on. I was very well known by then. His wife Anne [ ]—her job description was the job description. She’s affable, intelligent, vital, energetic, and totally supportive of John’s career and her own contributions. Interestingly enough, then he could have been considered the very first outsider to look at a presidency here. That’s excessive but acceptable. And as far as I know, the search committee, made up of Board of Regents members and this and that, interviewed him and offered him the job—and Anne. Apparently they knocked everybody off their socks. So it’s a little humorous it took me many, many years to recruit John Mendelsohn. But the funny thing is, when he came for the first time with Anne [Mendelsohn], everybody on the eleventh floor—that’s where the presidency was for many years—came out of their offices to welcome them. Anne broke loose of the crowd, ran over, and gave me a hug and a kiss. And they said, “Fred certainly has an effect on women, doesn’t he?” “Only important ones,” I said. This was a tremendous choice because John brought to it an enormous knowledge of oncology, medicine, unlimited enthusiasm, brilliance—he’s smarter than the average bear—creativity, etcetera, and has a remarkable insight into business and corporate policies. And I say that because this was the time of the great change of Anderson. In my day I knew everybody. I interviewed half of them. I could pick up the phone and call them. By the time that John came in, this was beginning to be a corporate structure. Administration had increased tenfold or more maybe. Number of people, budget, space—everything was colossal; [ ] We had a legal department. We had vice presidents for this and that—finance, business, boom, boom, boom. And John was just the right person. He could encompass that. He understood that. For a while I remained the vice president for research because he requested that of me. I’ll give you an example. We have what’s called a CORE grant. It’s given by the federal government to support features of the institution. When I became vice president, I became principal investigator on the CORE grant and requested an increase from the federal government from $400,000 a year to $800,000, which they thought was astronomical. I believe the CORE grant is now 150 million dollars or something like that—something enormous, which would give you an idea of magnitude. So for the first several years of John’s administration—and he’s very quick with development of new ideas, new departments, new associations, new construction, and very tight relationships with business and so on—I did remain vice president. But I began to feel that although my research had continued and I was happy with it, I really was wearing out as an administrator. I had been almost twenty years as vice president. And I thought with a new person like John, new people should be involved. He accepted that idea gratefully. He asked me to remain in a new position called Special Advisor to the President, which meant a sort of private relationship, almost a consultant relationship, but not authoritative. I was not his consigliere. I was an advisor, and I gratefully took it. [ ] Someone asked me why I stepped down as vice president because, of course, the old-timers thought very highly of me, and now with this expansion of government, they realized that at that time I was easy to get to. So someone asked me why I stepped down, and I said, “If I went to one more administrative meeting, the headline in the Chronicle would be, ‘World-Renowned Oncologist Kills Colleagues,’ and I felt that would be detrimental to the institution.” Typical of this transition that I’m talking about, some years later I was talking to the chap who took over one part of what we used to do in my office, the oversight of clinical research approval. He’s a wonderful person and I thought he was doing a great job. But as I was standing with him, one of our giants of oncology who had been here forever came rushing up and said to him—I won’t use his name—“Blank, you stink. When Fred was in charge of clinical research and we put in a protocol, we got a yes or no in four days, and now it takes forever.” And I said to this person, “Blank, you mustn’t say that to Blank because he has a great disadvantage.” I was asked what that was, and I said, “He has 300 people, and I only had three. We had to approve it or not.” And that was pretty close to true. But now the regulations from the government and FDA and the companies are almost unbearable. Where one committee could approve or disapprove, there are millions of them now. There are regulations on every animal you use. It’s a nightmare of administrative demands. John did just what I thought he would do—quality research, quality recruitments, more building, and huge capability in raising money. His last act was to get 160 million dollars from some sheik for building in personalized medicine, pancreatic tumors, and so on. Incomprehensible. He got fifty million dollars from Boone Pickens for the Pickens Tower and on and on. We now went to 800-some odd beds built on top of the old Alkek—not very old but older Alkek. So in every aspect, I think John did a fabulous job, and I’m very proud that I recommended him. There were some external problems along the road that he faced, but that has nothing to do with us.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Tell me a little bit about your role as the special advisor. What were some of the projects you worked on? How did that relationship evolve through that?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Before I was going to step down, while I was still vice president, I had been the principal investigator on this CORE grant, which is federally funded to support support facilities to reduce redundancy. So for example, to set up an analysis of DNA, a lab to analyze DNA where faculty members could call upon that lab to do that for them instead of trying to have analytic centers all over the place in every department and so on. It’s a wonderful idea. And the extent of the CORE grant has increased and increased with technology over the years, as I told you, from peanuts to unbelievable amounts. And there are other grants called SPORE grants which focus on a given organ. So John, for the first few years after he became the president, became the principal investigator, as is often the case. He would call on me to help with the formation of it. For a number of years he used a modified external advisory board and would ask me to sit in on those meetings, etcetera. I served in sort of an advisory role. When he was troubled or he ran into something that may be based on historical precedent, he would call me in. It was strictly a private relationship. [ ]There’s no job here that you can just magically establish. It has to be approved upstate. But that wasn’t very much of a problem. Construction of research buildings that I had started, like the SCRB building, South Campus Research Buildings—we completed this one that we’re in right now, SCRB 2—we obviously were called in on that. With problems up at the Research Park—both in the Carcinogenesis Center and the Veterinary Center—he would ask me for background and so on. I think it was a consultative relationship but not like these professional consultants. I actually knew about the place. That lasted for a while, and then I felt that it might become obstructive to him.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Why was that?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

People would say, “We have a new Vice President for Research, Margaret Kripke. She’s terrific. We have this, we have that.” I’ll give you the best example. One of our outstanding [faculty]—in fact, I think he had been the chairman of medicine for a while. Bob Bast eventually took over as principal investigator of the CORE grant and the so-called SPORE grants, was doing a fantastic job, and has done a fantastic job. We have more than we ever had. The CORE grant has expanded in an exponential way. So it might be negative to look over his shoulder. Now he didn’t bring this up. No, no, no. I brought it up, and John agreed. Once John built the support staff he felt he required, it might be detrimental, we both thought, for me to hang around when he could call me any time he wanted without having a special designation. And so I not only stepped down but gave up any administrative position and took a faculty position without pay, which allowed me to get my retirement funds and not be a drain on funds of the institution, which included a chair I held, this, that, certain support funds, and so on.

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Chapter 12: A Search for a New President; Working with John Mendelsohn