A top University of Utah Health Sciences official said Tuesday the Huntsman Cancer Institute controversy in April remains a problem for the department — but leaders are pushing forward to regain the department’s national reputation.
“It‘s true there are still clouds hanging over health sciences,” said A. Lorris Betz, interim senior vice president of health sciences, at Tuesday’s U. Board of Trustees meeting. “But you need to know we have an incredibly strong leadership team.”
Those clouds will remain, Betz said, until a new memorandum of understanding governing the institute is put in place. The Huntsman family and the U. were in the midst of negotiating that new agreement — that would govern relationships among the U., the institute and the foundation — when institute CEO and Director Mary Beckerle was abruptly fired via email in April by U. Health Care CEO Vivian Lee and U. President David Pershing.
The unexpected move sparked faculty protests and critical remarks from key members of the wealthy Huntsman family, including Jon Huntsman Sr., the institute’s founder and primary financial backer. When Pershing reinstated Beckerle just a week later, Lee’s resigned from her three leadership roles in health sciences, followed by Pershing’s announcement that he would step down as U. president when his successor is selected.
Asked afterward to elaborate on Betz’s comments, U. spokeswoman Kathy Wilets said that Lee’s resignation did not affect the school’s commitment to being a leader in academic medicine.
But, Wilets added, “Lee is a respected national health care leader and her resignation certainly caught the attention of her peers in academic medicine.”
It remained unclear if the controversy was affecting searches for both Lee’s and Pershing’s replacements, which are now underway. Betz took Lee’s place on a temporary basis while her successor is being selected.
Betz served in all three roles from 1999 to 2011, then hired Lee and served briefly as interim university president before retiring.
Even though Betz’s appointment is temporary, he told trustees on Tuesday he plans to continue on Lee’s track of boosting health sciences’ stature nationally.
“Vivian was spinning off great ideas so fast that sometimes we couldn‘t catch them fast enough,” said Betz, who hired Lee in 2011. “So we‘re going to catch our breath, focus on the really great ideas and put the focus on implementation of those ideas.”
The main thing they will focus on putting in place, he added, is creating a “single integrated health system.”
The U. is in the process of finding a national firm to help them achieve that goal, he said, “to help guide our next steps in 6 months or so and lead up to whole new way doing our budgets next year that will be much more integrated.”
As senior vice president, Lee’s goals were to pool finances and brainpower across departments, analyze and driving down costs and boost innovation.
Betz added that U. health sciences was taking steps to “regain our national recognition.”
University officials also recently hired a Utah-based business advisory firm, FTI Consulting, to examine the institute’s financials — a core source of disagreement between the U. and the Huntsman family.
The U. did not provide information about how much the firm is being paid, but officials said Monday they expect a report in September.
The draft MOU being negotiated when Beckerle was terminated aimed to address the chain of command between Beckerle and Pershing; powers to hire and fire institute staff as well as revenue-sharing between the U. and the foundation. Emails obtained Friday by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request indicate Beckerle’s dismissal was closely related to this pending agreement.
The Huntsmans sought to adjust the funding mechanism for the institute, because they felt the U. had not lived up to its side of a prior funding agreement.
Under the current MOU, signed in December 2014 and not scheduled to expire for 10 years, the U. pays for the operational expenses of the institute — a level of support that cannot drop below $13.5 million. That funding was previously the responsibility of the foundation.
Currently, the cancer hospital retains 25 percent of its profits and sends another 25 percent to the university’s health sciences department, with the remaining 50 percent going to the cancer’s research institute.
But the Huntsmans wanted the share for health sciences to be sent instead to the institute for three years to addressing the funding disagreement. Starting in 2020, that share would once again be sent to university hospitals and clinics.
Negotiations — stalled during the April turmoil — have resumed, though the Huntsmans and the U. disagree over how productive that has been thus far.
Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, the son of Jon Huntsman Sr. and brother of Peter Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.