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Huntsman says University of Utah ‘power grab’ is behind firing of acclaimed researcher from cancer institute top post

First Published      Last Updated May 22 2017 05:33 pm


Email to faculty members says Mary Beckerle is leaving institute’s top post, gives no reasons.

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Top Utah cancer researcher Mary Beckerle said she was going about her Monday activities when she opened an afternoon email from University of Utah President David Pershing's office.

After serving about 11 years as Huntsman Cancer Institute's CEO and director, Beckerle said the email stated she was terminated in that role — effective immediately.

"It was totally surprising," Beckerle said Tuesday. "I didn't expect it at all."

Pershing and Vivian Lee, the U.'s senior vice president of health sciences, announced Beckerle's departure internally Monday — though they did not provide a reason.

The move has drawn public protest and criticism from top Huntsman Cancer Institute faculty members as well as senior members of the Huntsman family, whose philanthropic largess helped found the institute.




Family patriarch Jon Huntsman Sr. called it a "power grab" by Lee. He said Tuesday he would not accept the change, adding that he'll make sure Beckerle is back in charge "one way or another."

"Whatever we have to do, we'll get it done," Huntsman said. "I don't have any question about that."

His wife, Karen Huntsman, called the move "a hostile takeover. ... This is just the beginning, the war."

U. spokeswoman Kathy Wilets said the school doesn't "comment on personnel issues so I don't have a statement to share at this time."

Beckerle said she was informed of her termination at about 3:15 p.m. Monday. And by about 3:40 p.m., some faculty and staff already had been informed via email. That email simply said Beckerle was "leaving her role as CEO and director" and made no reference to what was motivating the ouster.

Beckerle will remain a "distinguished professor in biology," the email stated, and Kathleen Cooney, a clinical oncologist and hereditary prostate cancer researcher, will serve as interim CEO and director.

During Beckerle's tenure, she "helped to raise the university's Huntsman Cancer Institute's national status to new heights, including its recent National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, the successful stewardship of the Utah Population Database, and national and international recognition as a premier center for cancer research and treatment," according to the email.

Faculty members swiftly voiced their displeasure and as of early Tuesday had launched an online petition calling for Beckerle's reinstatement.

A midmorning meeting Tuesday, scheduled at the U.'s Health Sciences Education Building to explain the move, drew angry shouting and protests.

The standing-room-only crowd thinned after five minutes when half those in attendance walked out in frustration over vague responses from Ed Clark, chairman of University of Utah Health Care's pediatrics department.

Faculty members pressed Clark for specifics on Beckerle's removal, and plans for the institute's future. Bruce Edgar, a U. professor of oncological services, said forcing Beckerle out would damage the institute's reputation and make it difficult to draw top faculty.

"How do you expect to be able to recruit a world-class cancer center director after firing the best one in the country?" Edgar asked. "And doing it by a coup mechanism worse than what we saw this week in Turkey?"

Clark said the administrative changes were necessary "to anticipate our future needs" but repeatedly declined to discuss specific personnel matters.

"Change is disruptive," he said. "We all know that and yet what I can assure you is that when change occurs, the University of Utah, and particularly health sciences, has been an extraordinarily resilient institution."

Despite the walkout, a crowd continued chanting in the hallway in support of Beckerle, often drowning out presentations by institute administrators. Clark drew gasps and boos by comparing the crowd to children.

"Remember, I'm a pediatrician," he said, "and I'm used to adolescent behavior."

Many also criticized the way her termination had been announced — in a university email late Monday night.

"You want to talk about juvenile behavior?" said Jude Rosenthal, senior laboratory specialist at the institute's Sean Tavtigian Lab.

The faculty petition, which had garnered nearly 200 signatures as of noon Tuesday, said the members were disappointed and shocked that Beckerle had "been relieved of her duties."

"We could not be more confident in Dr. Beckerle as our leader and completely disagree with this decision," the petition stated.

It added that the faculty members are "deeply concerned about the impact it will have on our future endeavors, retention and recruitment of clinicians and scientists, the mission of Huntsman Cancer Institute, and the reputation of the University of Utah."

Beckerle, a New Jersey native, 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, Beckerle 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.

In an interview, Beckerle said Tuesday she's unsure what her next step will be.

"I was planning to stay here for the rest of my career," she said, "and I think honestly I'm thinking about what I'm going to do at this point."

astuckey@sltrib.com

Twitter @alexdstuckey

bwood@sltrib.com

Twitter: @bjaminwood

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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