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University of Utah President David Pershing announced Monday that he will be stepping down from his post, with the search for his replacement to start soon and run in "parallel" with the hiring process for a new senior vice president for health sciences after Vivian Lee resigned Friday amid controversy.
At a meeting of the school's Academic Senate, Pershing said he had planned to step down following the 2017-18 school year, and was going to announce that in August. But recent upheaval involving the Huntsman Cancer Institute made him move up that timetable, he said. Pershing will remain president until his successor is found. A U. spokesman said Pershing's replacement is expected to be tapped late this year or in early 2018.
The search for the university's 16th president will run slightly ahead of the one for Lee's replacement, "so that the person picking the new VP is the new president," Pershing said. "I think that's the best for all of us."
A. Lorris Betz temporarily took the reins Monday as the senior vice president for health sciences, coming out of retirement over the weekend to replace Lee whom he hired in 2011 after she resigned amid weeks of turmoil that began with the firing of Huntsman Cancer Institute leader Mary Beckerle. Pershing later reinstated Beckerle. Addressing the controversy that has rocked upper reaches of U. administration, Pershing said there had been concerns for months over ties between the cancer institute and U. health sciences, regarding governance and cost accounting, for example issues brought to a sudden head by Beckerle's firing.
Pershing said Monday the "conflict" was "absolutely not" handled correctly.
"I get that and it's on me," he said. "As president, I'm the one who didn't handle this completely correctly and I apologize for that. We didn't do it right."
Pershing said he did not ask or encourage Lee to resign, adding he "was in shock, as many in the room are. I didn't know it was coming."
Pershing also said he did not reverse Beckerle's firing because of outcry from the Huntsman family, whose members, led by Jon Huntsman Sr., temporarily tabled a planned $130 million funding agreement and threatened lawsuits over the ouster. Huntsman Sr., a major U. donor and the namesake of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, also called for Pershing and Lee to step down.
Instead Pershing said he was responding to frustration among the faculty, which included a series of protests.
"I reversed the decision," Pershing said, "because I became convinced it was not in the best interest of the university faculty."
Huntsman Sr. said Monday that he considers Pershing to be "an honorable and fine man" and added he had hoped the U. president would remain. he said he admired Pershing for reinstating Beckerle and correcting the mistake of her termination.
"It takes a big man to do that," he said.
Huntsman Sr. said Pershing's decision to step aside is not a victory for the Huntsman Cancer Institute or the Huntsman family.
"The only victory we wanted to have was a victory over cancer," Huntsman Sr. said. "We'd much rather fight cancer than fight the bureaucracy."
H. David Burton, chairman of the U. Board of Trustees, said Monday he knew Pershing had planned to step down as president, but he didn't expect an announcement until this summer. Burton said the university has "a good bench" to draw from while a new president and vice president are identified and added that Pershing had made substantial contributions to the campus community.
"He will be missed," Burton said. "In my opinion, he's been an excellent president."
Utah Board of Regents Chairman Daniel Campbell said Pershing has made a lasting mark on the U. in 40 years of service.
"His visionary leadership as president of Utah's flagship over the past five years has been extraordinary," Campbell said. "We are grateful that he will remain as president until the search is concluded."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in a written statement that campus improvements made under Pershing's "careful stewardship" will bless the lives of students for decades.
"President Pershing has accomplished all of this while overseeing the U.'s successful transition into the Pac-12," Herbert said. "His steady leadership will be important through this time of transition."
Hours before Pershing's announcement, Betz sent an email to U. employees seeking to reassuring them in light of recent turmoil, saying he would right the ship so they can return to their "important and transformational work."
"Anxieties may still be high," Betz wrote, "but I'm confident that we can rise above and return our focus back to our mission and the vital role that our institution plays in the community."
Betz also called for unity across the U. health system as it worked on "finding permanent leadership, transforming our campus and moving forward with all of the important initiatives you are working on."
Pershing said U. administrators and the Huntsman Cancer Institute are forging ahead with a new memorandum of understanding. The U. has retained Salt Lake City attorney Alan Sullivan, he said, to work with all parties.
Reached by The Salt Lake Tribune, Sullivan said work on the new pact would continue but was unable to outline a timetable. "We would hope to do it as quickly as possible," he said, "but I can't tell you what that means."
Huntsman said he was confident the new document would be completed, independent of Pershing's resignation.
The U. Academic Senate approved a resolution Monday to create an adhoc committee, starting next year, that would examine the relationship and governance structure between institutes and universities to ensure that the U.'s policies are appropriate.
Pershing, meanwhile, promised the Academic Senate that there would be no more "sudden administrative decisions."
"We will work through the process like we've always done and try to ensure that things are done in the way we do things," Pershing said, adding he would seek "appropriate faculty input" in future.
As he reached out to U. faculty and staff, Betz called Lee "a remarkable, innovative, and courageous leader," saying she "advanced not only our health system but also the University of Utah as a whole."
"We have never been stronger," Betz wrote, "and I am personally committed to carrying that momentum forward."
Betz served in Lee's former roles from 1999 to 2011, then hired Lee and served briefly as interim university president after former U. President Michael Young was hired by the University of Washington. He then retired.
In a public statement Monday, Betz said he immediately would begin meeting with "leaders across campus to hear their perspectives.
"I look forward to collaborating on our shared mission of providing exceptional patient care and world-class research and education," the statement said.
Lee, a leading radiological researcher, resigned from her U. administrative jobs Friday. In an email sent to colleagues, Lee said that "taking account of the events of the last two weeks, I believe the best interests of the university are now served by the decision I am taking today."
At the U., Lee has pushed to integrate the U. colleges and departments in health sciences, analyze and reduce the costs of care, improve quality, and boost innovation. She will remain on the staff as a tenured professor of radiology, the U. has said.
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Editor's note: Paul Huntsman, a son of Jon Huntsman Sr., is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.