UT Southwestern VP Serves Local Media Some Whine and "Poppycock"

Dr. Kern Wildenthal is defended today by UT Southwestern's executive VP for academic affairs

A couple of weeks back, we pointed your attention to an essay in the subscription-only Chronicle of Philanthropy, in which Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, insisted that the Dallas media hadn't gone far enough in their reporting on UT Southwestern Medical Center's treatment of its VIPs. Well, today, UT Southwestern -- specifically, Alfred G. Gilman, its executive vice president for academic affairs and provost -- replies with a 1,742-word defense and dismissal.

Far as Gilman's concerned, The Dallas Morning News and KTVT-Channel 11's stories concerning that VIP list and outgoing president Kern Wildenthal's taste for expensive wine and dinner parties are tainted. "We trace these events to two predominant sources: One is a former employee, dismissed for fraud, and the second is a faculty member, relieved from his administrative duties but still employed as a tenured professor," he writes, without naming names. "These individuals and their attorneys appear to be pushing the buttons. They all have great stakes in the outcomes -- financial and otherwise." As it's not available online, a few highlights after the jump. --Robert Wilonsky

Kern Wildenthal's style of fund raising is intensely personal and labor-intensive, and it has been hugely successful -- turning modest gestures of appreciation into a $1.4-billion endowment that will support medical research, education, and patient care in perpetuity. Most medical schools and major universities approach this goal with large staffs, expensive brochures, and other accouterments. Dr. Wildenthal has done it by himself -- making sure that donors feel connected with our institution and know their support is appreciated. One is left to wonder why Mr. Eisenberg finds evil in this highly effective approach. Dr. Wildenthal is a man of extreme honesty, integrity, and wisdom. He holds the administration, faculty, staff, and students of UT Southwestern to the highest standards. He does not compromise these standards. ...

The most serious of Mr. Eisenberg's accusations is that we provide a different standard of care to patients at our university hospitals and clinics compared with those at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Similar accusations have appeared in legal pleadings filed by the tenured professor's attorney. The so-called evidence for this is: (1) disclosure by The Dallas Morning News that we maintain a "meet and greet" list of patients in our private facilities that includes both friends of the medical center and those who require special assistance in reaching their destination, and (2) the accusation that we send "affluent people to private hospitals and clinics and needy people to Parkland."

The statement that "other hospitals in Texas contacted by The Dallas Morning News offer no special perks to favorably connected patients" is poppycock, and The Dallas Morning News knows well that this statement is false. This is an extraordinarily common practice nationwide. The provision of courtesy perks of little real value in no way constitutes a double standard of medical care. To suggest such is an affront to the professional behavior of the physicians on our staff. ...

The next series of accusations involves (1) "excessive and unnecessary" gifts for donors and entertainment, (2) lack of knowledge on the part of donors about how their funds are used, and (3) refusal to answer the TV reporter's questions, and similar items.

What is wrong with providing modest gifts to donors to thank them, while keeping them involved with the institution, informing them of progress, and letting them know we have not forgotten their support? This is simple courtesy.

What is immoral, unethical, or inappropriate about a gift of popcorn during the holidays to a $100,000 donor, custom-made cookies to honor a $10-million contribution when dedicating a $50-million building, or wine given to note a special event in the life of an especially generous donor?

Mr. Eisenberg's objections seem absurd. He says the gifts are unnecessary. "Wouldn't wealthy donors have given their money without receiving an expensive bottle of wine?" Well, this controlled experiment has not been done, Mr. Eisenberg, especially not by you ...

All of the questioned expenses have been scrutinized exhaustively by auditors from the University of Texas system who report to Dr. Wildenthal's supervisors. They found absolutely no fault. Indeed, the audit report states that the expenditures were "appropriate and reasonable."

All of our money is publicly accountable, and we recognize that. We have provided the complete audit report to The Chronicle.

Thus, contrary to the inflammatory headline used in Mr. Eisenberg's article, there is no "scandal" at UT Southwestern. Rather, our responsible practices have been scandalously misrepresented.

One other jab by Mr. Eisenberg shows his lack of objectivity: He says Dr. Wildenthal is "resigning" his position. Dr. Wildenthal announced his retirement many months ago. He will remain on the faculty and continue his involvement in the community.

Finally, Mr. Eisenberg implies that the "intrepid" reporter lost his job because of his brave attacks on the establishment If his dismissal had anything to do with his stories on UT Southwestern (for which there is no evidence), I suspect it was because those in charge realized that he had spent enormous amounts of time and money to find cookies, tacos, appropriate events, and gifts of appreciation, and an outstanding medical center that renders great service to the people of Dallas and, via research and education, to the world. That's the story, Mr. Eisenberg.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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