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Rift widens over Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO’s firing

First Published      Last Updated Apr 20 2017 08:08 am


Dispute » Faculty, Huntsman family question the ouster of top cancer researcher; U. officials wouldn’t budge, stay silent on the reasons Mary Beckerle was fired.

Two days after University of Utah officials abruptly fired the Huntsman Cancer Institute's CEO, the institute continued to reel from a widening rift between U. administrators and the Huntsman family.

Several Huntsman family members, whose charitable largess helped found the institute, said they were not informed in advance of CEO and Director Mary Beckerle's termination.

Jon Huntsman Sr. said there will be "many lawsuits" related to this "power grab by an unethical and dishonest Vivian Lee," senior vice president of the U.'s health sciences. The billionaire philanthropist also criticized U. President David Pershing.

"This was just a vicious, mean-spirited call by Vivian Lee, who is totally out of control, and by a president who doesn't exercise any leadership whatsoever," the elder Huntsman said.




Lee and Pershing, meanwhile, declined to comment publicly on the controversy, with U. officials saying the matter was a confidential personnel issue.

Beckerle, a top cancer researcher, said she was fired in an email Monday afternoon, with no reasons given. The 63-year-old New Jersey native will remain a "distinguished professor in biology" and Kathleen Cooney, a clinical oncologist and hereditary prostate cancer researcher, will serve as the institute's interim CEO and director.

Beckerle's termination also came just as negotiations on a multimillion-dollar funding agreement between the Huntsman family's foundation and the U. was being finalized, leaving the deal worth $130 million unsigned.

"I don't know if they want the family involvement anymore," Peter Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and Huntsman Foundation, said Wednesday. "I don't know anything."

U. spokeswoman Kathy Wilets issued a statement Wednesday saying that "thoughtful consideration and careful deliberation" went into this change, but offering few details.

"As we look to the future, we believe closer collaboration between [the institute] and the rest of the university will further strengthen [the institute] for the benefit of our patients and enable us to apply the combined talent and resources of the university's entire health system ... to our mission of finding improved treatments and ultimately a cure for cancer," the statement read.

For a second consecutive day, uproar continued among faculty members with the research and treatment center upset over Beckerle's termination and the message it is sending to the wider cancer-research community.

Many faculty members walked out Tuesday during a meeting with administrators to discuss the controversy. Others shouted down speakers and waved signs in protest.

About 100 faculty and staffers marched Wednesday afternoon from the institute across campus to Pershing's office, chanting "We want Mary" and waving signs that read "#TeamMary" and "Mary is HCI."

The crowd hand-delivered copies of an online petition to Pershing staffers, calling for Beckerle's reinstatement. The petition had garnered nearly 1,600 signatures by early Wednesday evening.

One of the marchers, Alex Chagovetz, a graduate student in human genetics at the U., said Beckerle was treated as "disrespectfully as someone could be in her position."

"This makes me feel disillusioned about the stability of any administrator or professor positions," Chagovetz said. Beckerle, he said, "is one of the greatest hospital administrators in the country and I don't know what they are hoping to get after getting rid of her."

Jon Huntsman Sr. said he'd received calls from cancer institute officials across the world who are "flabbergasted" and shocked" by the news of Beckerle's dismissal.

"They are all deeply concerned about the University of Utah and why they would do something like this to one of the leading cancer CEOs of the world," he said.

In an interview Tuesday, Beckerle said she received the "surprising" termination email from Pershing's office Monday afternoon.

"I didn't expect it at all," she said.

Not even 30 minutes later, Pershing and Lee had informed some faculty and staff via email that Beckerle was "leaving her role as CEO and director" but making no reference as to the motivation.

Peter Huntsman said he was set to meet with Pershing in Houston on Tuesday to finalize the U. funding plan. The agreement would have committed about $130 million to the U. for Huntsman Cancer Institute, which would fund research, education and clinical care there over nearly a decade.

The cancer foundation, created by the Huntsman family in 1995, provides about a third of the institute's operating budget yearly, according to the U. Health Care website. The institute is administered as part of the University of Utah Health Care System.

But Peter Huntsman said he instead got an email Monday from Pershing calling off the Houston meeting and informing Huntsman that Pershing, Lee and H. David Burton, chairman of the U.'s board of trustees, had decided to fire Beckerle.

Peter Huntsman said he called Pershing on Tuesday morning, pleading for a reversal of "this absolutely senseless and idiotic decision." Pershing said he couldn't, Huntsman recalled.

Huntsman said he has not heard from the U. president since.

In their statement Wednesday, U. officials said they were "grateful for the support of the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman family and the countless supporters they've inspired to make philanthropic donations through the Huntsman Cancer Foundation."

Attempts to reach Burton on Wednesday for comment were unsuccessful.

Beckerle joined the U. faculty in 1986. She was named CEO and director of Huntsman Cancer Institute in 2006, while continuing her research on tumor metastasis and Ewing sarcoma, a bone cancer.

Last year, she was one of 28 people tapped to serve on then-Vice President Joe Biden's blue-ribbon panel as part of his Cancer Moonshot Initiative, a campaign to cure cancer.

astuckey@sltrib.com

Twitter @alexdstuckey

kgifford@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kgiffo

Editor's note: The owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune is Paul Huntsman, son of Huntsman Cancer Institute founder Jon Huntsman Sr.

 

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