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As A. Lorris Betz took the stage Friday during commencement ceremonies for the University of Utah's School of Medicine, he acknowledged he wasn't the speaker most graduates expected to see.

Betz, interim vice president of U. health sciences, took that job only after the resignation of Vivian Lee at the end of April. And he kicked off the U. medical school's 2017 graduation at Kingsbury Hall with praise for her accomplishments and leadership during a six-year tenure.

Lee "is one of the brightest, most progressive and innovative leaders in health care today — always aiming for world-class excellence in everything she does," said Betz, who also serves as the medical school's interim executive dean. "Her belief in values like collaboration, integration and innovation made University of Utah Health one of the strongest economic engines in the state of Utah and one of the most desirable places to work and train."

Lee stepped down from her administrative positions after a backlash from her April firing of Mary Beckerle, director and CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, which sparked faculty and staff protests and harsh criticism from wealthy U. donor Jon Huntsman Sr.

Beckerle was reinstated a week later by U. President David Pershing, who then announced his pending retirement.

As Lee sat in the audience, Betz heralded her role in increasing patient visits in the U. health system, expanding its clinical services and placing a priority on efficiencies in improving the quality of care.

He then read from an opinion piece drafted by the School of Medicine's student body.

"We want to publicly extend [our] gratitude to Dean Vivian Lee for her tireless work on our behalf," the piece read. "As our dean, she has been a determined advocate for students and has challenged us to continually improve ourselves both academically and professionally."

Lee, who remains on the U. faculty as a tenured professor of radiology, appeared to acknowledge a standing ovation from graduates, faculty and attendees after Betz's speech, but she departed the ceremony quickly at its conclusion and did not comment on his remarks.

A U. spokeswoman said later that Lee meant to keep the ceremony's focus on the graduates and their achievements.

The U. School of Medicine graduated 297 students this year, 93 of whom received doctor of medicine degrees. It was the first expanded class to graduate from the school since the Utah Legislature approved increasing its class size by about 20 students beginning in 2013, said Tom Hurtado, the school's director of students affairs.

The classes of 2020 and 2021 already have 125 students, meeting the school's goals for continued expansion as Utah seeks to address an ongoing physician shortage.

The ceremony's keynote speaker, Louise Aronson, a physician, writer and professor of geriatrics at the University of California in San Francisco, spoke on the importance of imagination as graduates further their careers and training in health fields.

"At this moment in health care," Aronson said, "we need you to bring who you are and express your levels of imagination to improve health and health care."

Editor's note • Paul Huntsman, a son of Jon Huntsman Sr., is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.

Twitter: @kelgiffo

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