Failing to Change

Something sad is happening in Dallas.  Dallas is home to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, the only institution in the world with five Nobel laureates.  No other institution has four, or even three.  Last I checked, there were only a few institutions that had two.  UT Southwestern’s ascendancy can be observed visually, too.  A sprawling complex of research labs and treatment facilities have sprung up, completely changing the complexion of a two mile stretch of road in the past 20 years.  UT Southwestern’s rise to prominence happened under the leadership of a highly respected medical doctor, professor, dean and president named Dr. Kern Wildenthal.

Dr. Wildenthal resigned as President in 2007, but he resigned from his position with the Southwestern Medical Foundation last week amid charges of “questionable judgment in making discretionary decisions on spending.”  In short, there was a lot of international travel, expensive entertainment, and inadequate documentation.  And his wife sometimes accompanied him, leading to accusations of blurriness between business travel and family vacations.  The local daily paper, Dallas Morning News, conceived of and researched the story and gave the UT regents a chance to respond.  Seven months and a 365-page third party report later, the story ran, and resignations followed.  (Two people in the institution’s internal audit organization left also.)

There has been no shortage of criticism in the aftermath.  Some of it is aimed at the struggling local paper–on the one hand for taking aim at a community bright spot to feed its own investigative aspirations, and on the other for sitting on the story for 7 months.  Some criticism is aimed at the Rick Perry appointed UT regents who seem to relish scandal over science for spending $1 million to expose $70,000 in questionable expenses (juxtaposed against an endowment increase of $1.3 billion).  Some of the criticism is even aimed, inexplicably, at the Nobel laureates who publicly thanked Dr. Wildenthal for his 25 years of service as evidence of an entitlement culture in higher education.

Most of the criticism, though, focuses on Dr. Wildenthal.  Some see him as a Colonel Jessup kind of character from A Few Good Men, sure that what he does is all to the greater good.  They acknowledge that “you have to spend money to make money,” but question whether lavish trips with family are out of line for a public servant.  Personally, I don’t question that.  Cultivating world-wide support and recognition requires world-wide travel.  Individuals who donate $10’s of millions want to feel that they know and like and trust the person at the top on a very personal level.  That requires spending time with them on their (expensive) turf, and a person’s spouse can reveal a lot about a person.  In that regard, I think Texans owe a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Wildenthal as well.

It’s the sad part of this story that can serve as a warning to us.  Times change, regulations change, enforcement attitudes change.  When I was in high school, the Texas drinking age was 18 and enforcement was lax.  These days, private high schools threaten to expel students served a glass of wine at their family Christmas dinner.  Attitudes about accounting standards have changed a lot in the past 20 years, too.  Attitudes about executive compensation have changed a lot in the past 2 years.  I suspect that practices considered excessively conservative 20 years ago, e.g. donating half your expense reimbursement back to the institution, fall woefully short now.  I don’t know if that is what has happened here, but I have seen it bring other gifted leaders down.  It’s sad when failing to change ends an exceptional career on a low note.

Join the Conversation.  What signs of changing attitudes would today’s leaders do well to heed?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit