Oliver C. Henkel Jr., an executive at The Cleveland Clinic, recently sent a letter to the editors of Inside Business saying that a column I had written in February about the Clinic was disappointing and inaccurate. I understand Oliver’s disappointment, for disappointment was the context of my message. I am, however, puzzled over the reference to inaccuracies, since none were declared.
I was not surprised to see the column was not posted in the Clinic’s busy main corridor, which holds the many articles justifiably lauding the Clinic’s accomplishments.
That corridor is an extraordinary avenue — one of the few things in Cleveland that have held me in awe in recent years. Actually, the Clinic itself is awesome, a city as lively and burgeoning as any in the world.
The contrast of the gray and glum expanse of Euclid Avenue with its drab buildings — sentinels of the past — to the Clinic’s energy and modernity is breathtaking. In the midst of our urban discontent, the Clinic is more than a deposit of hope; it is a beacon that signals revival in a town that has lost its way.
This is why I performed a journalistic procedure on The Cleveland Clinic: preventive surgery to warn that the same cultural virus that befell University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University may be poised to infect the reputation and credibility of the Clinic.
Central in these situations is the leadership of the trustees of these institutions. For the most part, the profile of this group at the Clinic is gray, white and wealthy. The myopic synergy that these components produce creates a hierarchal view of the world.
It is ironic that some trustees cannot run their own businesses, yet they preside over these complicated institutions whose delicate cultures are much more mysterious to the trustees than science and technology.
In the old days one had to be very East Side, very wealthy (from specific industries) and very conservative to be considered for such august service. To some degree that has changed — mostly the way this group makes its money — but the new breed has adopted a similar manner and veneer of invincibility.
The veneer of invincibility is irksome and insidious. The board at University Hospitals a decade ago was well aware that its choice for administrator, Farah Walters, was seriously over her head in launching a war with the Clinic. The city’s most prominent businessmen fiddled while UH foundered.
This had a catastrophic effect on the hospital, resulting in embarrassing headlines and staggering lawsuits. It is unlikely that UH — once the best medical center in Cleveland — will ever achieve its former status.
This has a serious economic impact on all of us.
Across the street from University Hospitals is Case Western Reserve University, which has suffered from the kind of strife that can only be found in a civil war. It has gone through three presidents in the past 10 years.
The last word out of Case (which wants to be called CWRU again) was that it was spending thousands of dollars over the design of a new logo.
At one point Peter B. Lewis, one of the nation’s foremost philanthropists and a Clevelander, sat on the CWRU board. There are many ways to describe Lewis, but the profile of the typical Cleveland trustee is not one.
The fact that Lewis is his own man and doesn’t care what other people think of him is very discomforting in the Cleveland civic milieu.
Unhappy with the direction of the university, Lewis personally commissioned a study of the school. When completed, he asked if he could present the findings to the entire board.
When he was refused, he resigned. Ironically, many of the same trustees who sat on the university’s board were also on the board of the Cleveland Museum of Art. In one of those star-crossed Cleveland moments that reach back to John D. Rockefeller’s discontent, the plans for a new addition to the museum included a substantial gift from Lewis, which, under the circumstances, was not to be.
The actions of the CWRU board mirror Cleveland’s political philosophy: Better to do nothing, than something.
So down the avenue from University Circle and the crash sites of civic leadership, sits The Cleveland Clinic, an amazing place that continues to grow at such a rate that it threatens to envelop half of the city.
In the past year it has been trashed in the national media for conflicts of interest among its board and medical staff. Some fear that these revelations and the concurrent exodus of talented doctors may cost the Clinic its rating as the No. 1 heart center in the nation.
If that occurs, it will be traceable to the boardroom, where everyone will be looking around, wondering who to blame, the same way they did when the endowment fund crashed along with the stock market several years ago.
Nobody wishes the Clinic ill. But then again, nobody wished University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University bad fortune, either.
In a shrinking town like Cleveland, no man is unto himself. One man’s misfortune is not another’s gain, but a loss for the whole.