Newly released emails show University of Utah president sought ‘total control’ of Huntsman Cancer Institute

University of Utah President David Pershing has announced his plans to step down from his position as soon as officials can find a replacement for him. This is part of the fallout from the firing and subsequent reinstatement of Mary Beckerle as the head of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune)

When a frustrated Peter Huntsman requested a late-February meeting with University of Utah President David Pershing, he hoped to resolve a monthslong funding dispute over the Huntsman Cancer Institute. The way he saw it, the U. had failed to give the institute and its director, Mary Beckerle, the $13.5 million per year outlined in a memorandum of understanding.

Pershing had his own take on the financial dispute, but he also had bigger goals, which he spelled out in a Feb. 25 email to Vivian Lee, then the University of Utah Health Care CEO.

He wondered if there were a way to agree to Huntsman’s demands “but take total control of all cancer operations within the university.”

“I mean so Mary really works only for you,” Pershing wrote to Lee, “and we somehow also get control of the fundraising.”

This exchange was among nearly 200 pages of emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open-records request. The emails offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what became a contentious public fight after Pershing and Lee unexpectedly fired Beckerle on April 17.

The Huntsmans declared “war,” calling for Beckerle to be reinstated. Led by Jon Huntsman Sr., the institute’s founder and biggest benefactor, the family members directed much of their ire at Lee. A week later, Beckerle was reinstated, and, soon after, Lee resigned. Pershing then said he’d leave once a new president was selected, a process that remains in its early stages.

Four months after the public spat, there’s been little movement toward bridging the divides between the university and the Huntsmans, who still contribute a major share of the institute’s funding and oversee all charitable giving and marketing.

The Huntsmans believed Pershing had been misled by Lee, whom Huntsman Sr. once called “unethical and dishonest.”

That doesn’t appear to be the case.

The emails show that Pershing was a constant collaborator with Lee as they complained about Beckerle’s leadership of the cancer institute and the involvement of the family’s Huntsman Cancer Foundation, and as they crafted a strategy to persuade Peter Huntsman to see things their way.

In one email two months before Beckerle’s firing, Pershing writes to Lee: “Let’s just stay close together and we will indeed get through this.”

Through Kathy Wilets, a U. spokeswoman, Pershing and Lee declined to comment on the emails released Friday evening. Wilets added: ”These emails are a record of past communications. I’d like to emphasize that we’re now focused on moving forward and are engaged in productive discussions aimed at finding a solution.”

In an interview with The Tribune, Peter Huntsman said he found the exchanges to be “disappointing” and said the revelations likely will impact negotiations going forward.

“I was flabbergasted that they were, on one hand, saying to me ‘put together a deal’ and behind the scenes they’re telling a different story to each other,” he said. “Who do you trust?”

“Philanthropy shouldn’t be this complicated,” he added.

The fight between the Huntsmans and the U.’s top leaders had been building for at least a year, becoming more urgent when the family sought a new memorandum of understanding that would cut out Lee, allowing Beckerle to report directly to Pershing. The agreement would have also given Beckerle more power to hire staff and cement a revenue-sharing agreement that the U. administrators thought was overly generous to the cancer institute. The family planned to give another $120 million over a series of years — and still intends to do so.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Karen Huntsman, left, joins Mary Beckerle, acclaimed researcher at Hunstman Cancer Institute after she was unexpectedly fired from her post as CEO and director of the Institute. In an email sent Monday afternoon, Vivian Lee, senior Vice President of Health Sciences at the University of Utah announced the departure without reason.

The Huntsmans also wanted U. Health Sciences to forgo its 25 percent cut in the cancer hospital’s revenue for three years to make up for failing to make the $13.5 million annual payments outlined in the memorandum.

Pershing and Lee believed U. Health Sciences not only had lived up to the agreement, but also had been contributing more than it should have by covering the bond payments on the cancer institute’s buildings.

The emails show that due to Huntsman Sr.’s fragile health, Pershing began to briefly negotiate with Salt Lake Tribune Publisher Paul Huntsman, one of Huntsman Sr.’s sons, before Peter Huntsman took over those talks.

“In short, we have an honest (passionate?) disagreement,” Peter Huntsman wrote in a Feb. 24 email, asking Pershing to meet with him and his father to end the dispute.

Pershing sought to bolster his argument by looking into the debt still carried on the buildings, though the institute and cancer hospital have a surplus of operating funds.

“I have been studying the materials on the money behind the buildings as I promised and that could be the smoking gun,” Pershing wrote to Lee in a Feb. 27 email, adding that there appears to be $130 million in bonds on the expansion of the hospital from 2009.

“That is a lot of money,” he said.

Money wasn’t the only thing that bothered Pershing and Lee about the cancer institute or the role the family played through the foundation.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Vivian Lee, CEO of the University of Utah Health Care emerges from a university board of trustees closed executive session following discussions over the recent firing of Dr. Mary Beckerle, the CEO and director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. A decision on her possible reinstatement is expected later in the day on Tuesday, April 25, 2017.

Other points of contention include:

Marketing: In a March 2016 email to Pershing, Lee called the U.’s central marketing team “awesome compared to [the institute’s] internal group.” It was a “point of friction,” she added.

In a later email, Lee noted that Beckerle had promoted her administrative assistant to lead HCI’s marketing.

Untapped fundraising potential: In a December email to Pershing, Lee voiced her frustration over the role Susan Sheehan, the foundation’s president and chief operating officer, played in all cancer fundraising.

Sheehan “believes that every donor who has to do with cancer is her donor.”

Lee added that “physicians have grown averse to any interactions with [the foundation] and [the institute]” when it came to fundraising.

Since the institute’s inception, the Huntsman Cancer Foundation has overseen all charitable contributions to the institute.

Grant dollars: In a March 2016 email to Pershing, Lee noted what she saw as poor performance by institute researchers to secure grant money. “Really what should be the focus is that we need more major grants from HCI, that would be most helpful for bringing our reputation up. For the $ we’ve put in, we’re not performing.”

Hiring employees without approval: In March, Beckerle hired Sunil Sharma as her deputy director. With Lee’s support, Sharma had been removed from his administrative duties with the academic department before Beckerle promoted him at the institute.

“This email came as a surprise to us and creates significant issues. Kathy Cooney, the new chair of medicine who is doing a sensational job, has expressed serious concerns. I think it makes sense for you to meet with her,” Lee wrote to Pershing on March 20.

Sharma still is employed at the institute, a U. spokeswoman said, but has accepted a job at City of Hope, a cancer research facility in Arizona.

Lee and Pershing also were unhappy with Beckerle’s involvement in discussions about capital improvements at the hospital.

Ben Tanner, executive director of the Huntsman Cancer Hospital, sent an email to U. Health Sciences administrators Feb. 28, noting that Beckerle was “disappointed” with the fiscal 2018 capital budget, and said she was “going to talk with Mr. Huntsman about it.”

The email made its way to Lee and Pershing.

The president responded: “I don’t understand this. Why would Mary — who runs a research program — think she should have any call on capital equipment funding from the hospital system? She is getting her cut of the [cancer hospital] profit directly through the formula.”

Lee, on March 1, answered him: “She thinks she runs the hospital. We keep reminding her she doesn’t, but she can’t seem to remember.”

Beckerle raised a question about the capital budget again April 17 — the day she was fired — saying she didn’t think the institute’s operating agreement was being followed.

Hours later, Lee, Pershing and H. David Burton, U. board of trustees chairman, fired Beckerle — also in an email.

The next day Peter Huntsman sent Pershing an email asking to talk. The conversation didn’t resolve the dispute, as a few days later, Huntsman sent the president another message: “We have entered the battle I hoped we could have averted.”

Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, a son of Jon Huntsman Sr. and brother of Peter Huntsman, is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Dignitaries break ground on the Huntsman Cancer Institute's new wing, the Primary Children's & Families Cancer Research Center, in Salt Lake City, Friday June 6, 2014. Left to right, Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, Senator Orrin Hatch, LDS Church leader M. Russel Ballard, Governor Gary Herbert, Jon Huntsman, Jr, Karen Huntsman, Jon Huntsman, Sr, David Huntsman, University of Utah President David Pershing, University Health Sciences Senior Vice President Vivian Lee, Huntsman Cancer Institute Director Mary Beckerle.

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