‘My patience is wearing thin’: Huntsman family says University of Utah has made no progress on cancer institute controversy

Although Peter Huntsman, CEO of Huntsman Cancer Foundation, says family has not heard from the university since April, U. officials say they’ve been in ‘constant communication’ with the foundation<br>

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Peter Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and President and CEO of the Huntsman Corporation shares a laugh with University of Utah President David Pershing and Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO and Director Mary Beckerle prior to the dedication ceremony of the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center, June 21, 2017. Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) dedicated the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center, a world-class facility dedicated to advancing cancer research and patient care.

Months have passed since the University of Utah hired a private attorney to negotiate a new agreement governing the Huntsman Cancer Institute, but a member of the Huntsman family said they haven’t heard from U. officials since the April controversy.

“I‘m impatiently waiting,” said Peter Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, a fundraising arm controlled by the family. “But my patience is wearing thin.”

But U. spokesman Chris Nelson said Monday that U. officials have been in “constant communication” with the foundation — including as recently as last week — ”to obtain the foundation’s input and records necessary for the negotiation of a new arrangement to proceed.” He added that an outside consulting firm is examining the institute‘s financials.

In late April, the family and the U. were in the midst of negotiating a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) — that would govern relationships among the U., the institute and the foundation — when institute CEO and Director Mary Beckerle was abruptly fired via email by U. Health Care CEO Vivian Lee and U. President David Pershing.

The draft MOU 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 appear to indicate Beckerle’s dismissal was directly related to this pending agreement.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Huntsman Cancer Institute faculty protest the firing of Institute CEO Mary Beckerle as they march to Vivian Lee's office, Wednesday, April 19, 2017.

Her unexpected termination sparked protests from cancer institute faculty and often caustic remarks from key members of the wealthy Huntsman family, including Jon Huntsman Sr., the institute’s founder and primary backer.

Negotiations over the agreement — which included a commitment from the Huntsmans to provide $120 million in new funding for the institute over the next eight years, adding to $130 million already in the works — were halted amidst the turmoil swirling around Beckerle’s firing. But when Beckerle was reinstated just a week later, the Huntsmans committed to reopening negotiations.

The U. then hired Salt Lake City attorney Alan Sullivan — at a rate of $480 an hour — to handle talks with the family on its behalf.

But since then, Peter Huntsman said, the school has remained silent on the proposed pact, which would replace the latest of seven past agreements since the institute’s founding in 1995, guiding issues ranging from the design of the cancer hospital in Salt Lake City to who interacts with donors.

“I‘ve been told that [the U.] is trying to reassess where they are internally” on this issue, Huntsman said Monday. “I can‘t imagine what’s going on that they can’t speak to their largest donor.”

U. spokesman Nelson, however, said foundation representatives have been engaged with the U., asking questions about ”the financial inter-dependencies between the university‘s clinical and research operating units and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.”

To get those questions answered, the U. hired FTI Consulting, a Utah-based business advisory firm, to ensure all parties ”have a comprehensive, accurate, shared understanding of the facts,” Nelson said. The U. spokesman added that FTI representatives have been in contact with the foundation and they expected to complete a report by the end of September.

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 commitment that cannot drop below $13.5 million. That funding was previously the responsibility of the foundation.

Currently, the cancer hospital keeps 25 percent of its profits. It sends another 25 percent to the university’s health sciences department, and the remaining 50 percent goes to the cancer’s research institute.

At the time of Beckerle’s firing, the Huntsmans wanted the share for health sciences to be sent instead to the institute for three years, because they felt the U. had not lived up to its funding agreement. Starting in 2020, that share would once again be sent to university hospitals and clinics.

If the funding disagreement isn’t fixed, Huntsman said, “we‘ll have to live with the ongoing conflict. If that’s the way they want to run the university, it doesn’t make sense to me.”

Soon after Beckerle’s return, Lee resigned from her three leadershiproles in health sciences and Pershing announced he would step down as U.president when his successor is selected. Searches for both Lee’s andPershing’s replacements are now underway.

Huntsman said he expects the lack of resolution on this conflict will affect the university’s search for a new president.

“With this conflict hanging over them, it can‘t be helpful — they won’t attract the best and brightest” applicants, he said.

But Nelson said he’s “confident” the U. and the foundation will find a solution “that provides for the long-term financial and operational health of the clinical and research missions of the university‘s Huntsman Cancer Institute.”

“The institute is one of the world’s great cancer centers and a tremendous asset to the people of Utah,” Nelson said. “Its support from the Huntsman family is unmatched and the university is committed to its long-term success.”

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.