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Huntsman calls for 'inept' U. administrators to be fired over cancer institute CEO's termination

Published April 21, 2017 9:34 pm

Dispute • Prominent family's public comments, full-page ads escalate the heated argument over the firing of Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The already-public spat between the Huntsman family and University of Utah administrators broadened Friday, with Jon Huntsman Sr. calling for the U.'s top leader to be fired and the publication of a strongly worded advertisement on the controversy in Salt Lake City's two daily newspapers.

In the full-page ad, Huntsman expressed appreciation for university students and supportive Utah lawmakers, as well as patients, doctors, staff and the recently fired former director of the school's Huntsman Cancer Institute.

But the ad, appearing in The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, concludes with a stinging rebuke of university leadership, implying that the controversial termination Monday of institute CEO Mary Beckerle has impeded the center's goal of eradicating cancer.



"We must not tolerate an over bloated, inept, and uncaring University of Utah administration who are determined to derail this life-saving work," stated the ad, which was attributed to Huntsman Sr. and the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

In an appearance Friday with KSL radio host Doug Wright, the elder Huntsman called U. President David Pershing "pathetic" and said the U. leader "should have been let go a long time ago."

"I'm just ready to cry every day," Huntsman told Wright. "This is my life's work."

In a short statement Friday, Pershing reacted with a conciliatory tone.

"We are so grateful for everything the Huntsman family has done to help the university," Pershing wrote. "We sincerely want to continue to work with them to further Jon's wonderful vision."

The U. president called Huntsman Cancer Institute "one of the crown jewels of the University of Utah and I am committed to ensuring its continued success."

The newspaper ad and other exchanges capped a tumultuous week for the state's flagship university after the Monday afternoon firing of Beckerle, a top cancer researcher, from her post as institute CEO and director. Beckerle's abrupt ouster was announced via email, and generated consecutive days of protests by U. faculty, staff, students and community members.

Top U. administrators have since declined to explain reasons for the firing, saying it is a confidential personnel matter.

A faculty forum Tuesday on the topic was disrupted by walkouts and chanting in the hallways of the Health Sciences Education Building. On Wednesday, a group of roughly 100 delivered a petition to U. administrators calling for Beckerle's reinstatement.

That petition now has more than 2,000 signatures.

Among the loudest voices critical of Beckerle's removal were Huntsman family members, who founded and support the cancer institute through hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to the U.

"That hillside would still be a vacant lot if it weren't for the vision of one person — and that's my father," said Peter Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and Huntsman Foundation.

Huntsman said he was scheduled to meet with Pershing this week to finalize details of a planned $130 million donation from the Huntsman family.

Pershing canceled that meeting Monday in an email announcing Beckerle's removal, Huntsman said, and in a phone call Tuesday indicated that Beckerle's firing was nonnegotiable.

"I pled with them," Huntsman said, "just trying to tell them this is a cataclysmically bad decision."

Along with negotiating over the $130 million, Huntsman and Pershing were to discuss the Huntsman family's desire that the institute's CEO report directly to Pershing, rather than the current structure that places the institute director under Vivian Lee, senior vice president of the U.'s health sciences.

"This is not a small wing on a hospital any more," Peter Huntsman said. "This is a world-class institution."

Huntsman speculated that the shake-up is a precursor to absorbing the cancer institute into broader U. operations, allowing institute resources and revenue to be used in support of other departments.

Peter Huntsman said the Tuesday phone call was his last contact with Pershing.

"I guess they've severed relations with our family," he said. "I'm still just befuddled. Why do you have to do this now? Why did the [board of] trustees support this?"

Phillip Clinger, vice chairman of the U. board of trustees, said Thursday that the board had internal discussions and was aware of the developing situation at the institute.

He declined to provide specifics, citing the sensitive nature of U. employment decisions.

"There are ramifications, of course, but it's a personnel issue," Clinger said, "which I can't discuss."

Despite the pushback by faculty and the widening rift with Huntsman family members, Clinger said the future of the cancer institute is bright and that the U.'s commitment to maintaining a world-class cancer research center has not changed.

"The relationship with the Huntsmans is very important to the university," Clinger said. "We all want it to work out and, frankly, I think it will. I just don't know how and when."

The other members of the U. board of trustees, including Chairman H. David Burton, did not respond to requests for comment.

Peter Huntsman said he was aware of his father's intention to buy a newspaper ad and that some of the language was the result of his own "wordsmithing."

He said the ad was intended to demonstrate that the Huntsman family is not willing to let its concerns blow over.

"They haven't seen anything yet," he said. "We want to make sure this stays on the public forefront."

Huntsman alluded to "bigger artillery" and said the Huntsman Cancer Institute is an asset worth fighting for.

"I'm not going to let a bunch of short-term, greedy individuals come in here and take an institution that's been built up for 25 years," he said.

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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