Chapter 10: Looking Back on Years as Department Chair


Chapter 10: Looking Back on Years as Department Chair



Media is loading


In this chapter, Dr. Buchholz takes a retrospective look at what he accomplished as chair of Radiation Oncology and summarizes some of what he learned as a leader. He notes that he saw a lot of change in the department. He hired 35 new faculty members and comment on how important it is for a chair to recognize that faculty entrust their professional careers to the chair's leadership. He also notes that this role offered him an opportunity to set expectations about professionalism, workplace behavior and fairness. He explains how he would talk to a new hire about expectations to reinforce the culture of civility. Finally, he explains what he means by saying that being a chair was "fun."



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 - Building the Institution; Leadership; Mentoring; On Mentoring; Professional Practice; MD Anderson Culture; Working Environment


Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely, yeah. Now, obviously, I want to go on and talk about those other roles that you served. A couple of details, though. Who was serving as Provost at the time that this was going on?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Ray Dubois.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, okay. And the Physician-in-Chief?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Tom Burke. I think when I started it was Margaret Kripke [oral history interview], offered me my Department Chair job. Ray offered me the Division Head job. So I served on Ray’s search committee, actually.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, did you?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Yeah. Dr. Mendelsohn asked me to be on the search committee for the new Chief Academic Officer. It became Provost when Ray accepted the position.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Okay. Is there anything else that you’d like to say at this point about your work as Department Chair?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

It was fun. I think another thing that really helped to change the culture... First, I entered into the Department Chair position feeling like we had a great group and a great culture, and the previous chair was still the division head, and he was the one who hired me. And he and I were aligned on many things, and so it was a natural succession that worked well. And it gave an opportunity for the first appearance that there wasn’t anything radically different going on. But then it did strike me about, at the end of the day, how much change really did happen, and how much really resulted from new directions, and new leadership. And it was a great way to transition. Part of the change that happens at MD Anderson that’s really kind of a neat thing is growth. So I was able to hire 35 faculty members or so. And when you bring people in, you kind of have a different degree of ownership. You have a different degree of responsibility. These people have entrusted their professional career to come work under your leadership, and they have a great... They’re looking to you to set expectations, to set mentorship, to help them realize what they articulated during their interview as why they want to come to MD Anderson. And I feel as if you’re making a commitment to someone to be supportive of them, that you have to follow that commitment. The other thing that was nice with new people, too, is you have a great opportunity to set expectations about some of those problems that end up happening. You can set expectations day one with people that say—about professionalism, for instance, about behavior in the workplace. You could set expectations about fairness, about communication and transparencies. And it’s the most wonderful time in the world, when you have someone who their first week of faculty, and you call them in, and you have that Department Chair meeting with them about professionalism. Of course, they’ve done nothing wrong, and you hired them because you think they’re a good fit in the department. But inevitably we work in stressful environments. You’re going to be frustrated when your pager’s going off constantly. You’re going to hang up the phone harshly sometime. You’re going to inadvertently say, “Why are you calling me? Well, this isn’t even my patient,” or... And be [coarse?], and tell a faculty member their first week, “When that happens, I’m going to talk to you. It’s going to be an awkward conversation for us, but this is of such importance in our safety culture that... And if you feel like you’ve been treated that way, I want you to come talk to me, because this is a priority for our group. And here are other things that sometimes faculty stumble in, and we’re going to have a degree of responsibility and accountability. And, again, they’re not getting to controversial issues. We’re all going to participate fairly. We’re all going to own these. And me, as a leader of this group, these are tenets that I hold to be very important. And if we recognize this is happening, we’re going to have a conversation about that.” They leave, of course, feeling like, oh my gosh, I just joined the best department in the world, right? Never have I had a department chair who would really address some of these things, and you’d just see them going on. And you’d also establish cultures. And then it also becomes much easier. It’s like, “Well, last week in staff meeting I know you felt passionately about this issue, but the aggressiveness by which your communication style really was off-putting to a lot of people in the room.” And they may, “Oh, wow,” you know? But it would be a comfortable conversation, because you say, “Remember when I hired you I said we’re going to have these types of conversations? Because I want you to be successful. I want you to grow.” I think that’s kind of the art of leadership that, again, just takes some initiative. I was shocked. When I first became leader, I underappreciated how much time it takes to be a leader. You thought you just go about and a decision would crop up and you make the right decision. You didn’t have to prospectively plan to avoid... But so I think those experiences were helpful to me, in really kind of learning how to do that. And then towards the end of my chairmanship, we really had a synergistic group. It wasn’t perfect. There were still political things. I still had to deal—I had to let some people go, because they weren’t working. I had to take people out of leadership positions, and I had to deal with conflict within our faculty. I’m not saying I dealt with these things perfectly. Sometimes we couldn’t reach resolutions. But I think the culture of our group, looking now from the vantage point of serving in these executive groups, wow, we have great functionality. We had great camaraderie. We had a sense of community. We had positive things, too. So... And as Chair, too, I tried to promote that community. I’d always have a faculty-specific gathering at my house. I’d always welcome new faculty at that, and I’d kind of have fun interviews with them up on my stairs. And it was a nice event, and it’d bring people together. We’d have retreats that bring people together, and it’d be fun, and you could have that social connectivity opportunities that would get people together and recognize, hey, we’re proud to be in this group.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

You’ve used the word “fun” several times. Like, fun as department chair. What are the elements of that fun for you?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Well, it’s having an impact, I think, recognizing that... It’s incredibly fun to lead a group where you’re making a real human impact on a disease like cancer, or on your own profession. We’re really making discoveries that are changing how things are done in the world. It’s a tremendous sense of self-fulfillment. It’s also fun to see people thrive, and see their enthusiasm. And a great thing about academics and leadership is you keep getting reinforced. There’s a new wave. There’s some new achievement and a new person that comes to you in your office, and is really excited, or writes this email to you to say, “Wow, I could never have done this without your support. Now look what we’re doing.” I mean, it is a rewarding type of thing. And it should be fun. We should all have fun at work. We should have relationships at work. We should wake up happy that we work at MD Anderson, excited to come in, and what the new day will bring.

Conditions Governing Access


Chapter 10: Looking Back on Years as Department Chair