Four months after Vivian Lee stripped neurologist Stefan Pulst of his leadership role at the University of Utah, her temporary replacement handed it back to him.
Pulst, who had served as chairman of the neurology department for 10 years, was among numerous U. department heads who told The Salt Lake Tribune in April that Lee, then the senior vice president for health sciences, forced them out in a similar fashion to the ouster of Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle.
The major difference, they said, was that their termination didn’t draw public scrutiny.
Beckerle was unexpectedly fired April 17 by Lee and U. President David Pershing, a move that sparked faculty protests and drew often caustic remarks from the Huntsman family, led by Jon Huntsman Sr., the institute’s founder and biggest benefactor. Pershing reinstated Beckerle just a week later 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.
A. Lorris Betz agreed to temporarily return to take over Lee’s responsibilities, while the university searches for a new senior vice president. Betz, who hired Lee in 2011, had also tapped Pulst to serve as the leader of the neurology department, and it was Betz who recently returned Pulst to that position.
Pulst did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but U. spokeswoman Kathy Wilets confirmed his reinstatement.
“During the past 10 years under Dr. Pulst‘s guidance, the department of neurology has emerged as one of the largest departments in the School of Medicine,” Wilets said in a statement. She added that Pulst has recruited “exceptional faculty” and increased the department‘s research in his time as chairman.
Lee developed a reputation as an innovative leader, who had a vision of a more integrated and competitive health sciences organization. Some faculty members said Lee was not shy about replacing people she felt didn’t meet her goals, which left them frustrated. But she continues to get repeated praise from many leaders at the U., including Betz.
When asked if Betz would be reinstating any other medical school department heads removed by Lee, Wilets said, “not that I‘m aware of.”
It's unclear why Betz reversed Lee's decision, which would not have gone into effect until Oct. 1.
That’s because Pulst in 2012 negotiated a five-year contract, which ends Sept. 30. Soon after Lee arrived at the U., Pulst previously told The Tribune that he began to notice Lee seemed to be firing department heads she had not recruited. So he sought the contract to protect himself.
Despite that, Pulst said Lee soon came after his job, too.
Lee had voiced concerns to Pulst last fall about the level of philanthropy raised by the department, Pulst said, but he thought they had “forged a path forward.”
So Pulst was surprised, he said, when Lee called him into her office in early April, shortly before Beckerle was fired, to do exactly what he had taken steps to prevent.
She told him “it‘s a good time to go back to the lab” solely as a faculty member, Pulst said.
Lee has declined repeated requests for interviews.
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.
Correction: Aug. 15, 10:03 a.m. • An earlier version of this story listed the wrong year Vivian Lee was hired at the University of Utah. The correct year is 2011.