Protesters deliver petition to U of U administrators in support of ousted Huntsman Institute CEO

Huntsman family calls move "idiotic," places full support behind Dr. Beckerle

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) - Over 100 faculty, staff, and students marched from the Huntsman Cancer Institute to President's Circle on the University of Utah campus to protest the firing of the Institute's CEO and Director, Dr. Mary Beckerle, delivering a petition to UofU administrators calling for her reinstatement. 

Faculty and staff at the Huntsman Cancer Institute learned that their CEO and Director Dr. Mary Beckerle had been fired through an email Monday afternoon.  The email obtained by ABC4 News reads:

Colleagues,

During her tenure as CEO and Director, Mary C. Beckerle, PhD, helped raise the University's Huntsman Cancer Institute's national status to new heights, including it's recent National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, the successful stewardship of the Utah Population Database, and national and international recognition as a premier center for cancer research and treatment.  

We are grateful to Dr. Beckerle for all she has done over the past 11 years.  Although she is leaving her role as CEO and Director, she will remain on faculty as a distinguished professor in biology.  This change has occurred after very careful consideration and with the full support of the University of Utah President and the senior leadership of the University of Utah Board of Trustees.  

Effective yesterday, Kathleen A. Cooney, MD, is serving as interim CEO and Director of Huntsman Cancer Institute.  Dr. Cooney, a distinguished clinical oncologist and renowned researcher in hereditary prostate cancer, is a member of the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine.  She was formerly Deputy Director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center and chief of the division of hematology and oncology.  

We are grateful for the visionary leadership and generous support of Jon M. and Karen Huntsman family and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and share their commitment to the eradication of cancer.  Please join us in thanking Dr. Beckerle for her service and in welcoming Dr. Cooney into her new interim role.  

Sincerely, 

Vivian S. Lee, MD, PhD, MBA
A. Lorris Betz Senior VIce President for Health Sciences

David W. Pershing,PhD
President, University of Utah

"It's just not transparent.  There is no information that's provided to us.  There's no explanation and at the least we deserve some explanation of what caused her to be fired," said Bryan Welm, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Surgery at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.  

Releasing and firing a world renowned leader like Mary, the way they did this is totally disrespectful." 

Supporters of Dr. Beckerle calling her an outstanding leader as they walked down towards President's Circle shouting "reinstate Mary," and holding signs that read "We need Mary and the Huntsman's," and "We support you Mary," to deliver a petition signed by more than 1,400 people and with printouts of messages and comments from people from across the country showing their support for Dr. Beckerle.  Many of those comments from patients, doctors, and people that have worked for and under the leadership of Dr. Beckerle.  [To read the full letter and petition calling for the reinstatement of Dr. Mary Beckerle click here.]

"They [University of Utah administrators] made a grave miscalculation.  The Institute didn't get where it's at by accident, it's because of Mary," said Julie Kadrmas, Research Assistant Professor of Oncological Science at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.  

The decision to fire Dr. Beckerle also gained harsh criticism from the Huntsman family who has thrown it's full support behind the ousted CEO.  Peter Huntsman speaking on behalf of the family over the phone to ABC4 News from Houston, Texas, called the move "idiotic" and "bone-headed."

"This thing is well run, it's well managed, it's successful, you just don't take things like this and turn it on it's head for no reason," he said. "I still don't understand why and at this point it's just senseless anger. This does not need to happen and it's a horrible decision."

Huntsman -- like Dr. Beckerle, the staff and faculty of the HCI -- learned of Dr. Beckerle's firing through an email.

"I was actually expecting the President of the University of Utah here in my office in Houston and about the time he was suppose to fly out here to finalize a new agreement for yet more donations going to the University of Utah I got an email saying that Mary had been fired and that was it," Huntsman says, "It's just absolutely shocking and after you get over the shock you now see the horrible decision that this was."

Huntsman was scheduled to meet with President Pershing to continue their discussions over the Huntsman family contributing more than $100-million towards the Huntsman Cancer Institute in the coming years.  

"I thought we were making progress but apparently not," he said.  

He believes the decision to fire Dr. Beckerle came down to two things: money and greed.

"Decisions like this just don't happen, because the Institute is nationally recognized, which it is.  It has near record high patient-employee satisfaction...it's been recognized this past year by the National Institute of Heath as one of the few comprehensive cancer care research centers in America, it's financially viable, it's successful, it's expanding," he said.  "I would suspect that it has something to do, at the end of the day, with money.  Usually decisions like this all go around money and greed.  This is not somebody fired for cause.  It's not because she was found to have embezzled something or discriminated, then she'd be fired."

His conclusion drawn from the fact that Dr. Beckerle wasn't terminated from the university -- as she is still a staff member and professor for the university.

Huntsman saying the family --  who has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Institute -- isn't trying to run or manage the facility but does want to make sure that it does have accountability and continues to strive for the national recognition that it has achieved and deserves.  He says he would like for his family to to be involved in the long-term and would like to remain dedicated to and continue to work with the facility to support the community.  

That said, Huntsman said the family is reviewing the terms and conditions that have been implemented over the last 25 years to ensure both sides are abiding by their agreement.  

"If someone is messing with the future of it and funding and so forth, I'm not threatening anyone, but we will do what we can do to make sure this wonderful Institute remains well-funded, viable, and continues to grow," Huntsman said.  

Huntsman says he has received many phone calls with concerns over the future of the Institute and how patients there would be getting treatment, afraid funding would be pulled because of the fallout over Dr. Beckerle's ousting.  

"People that are getting treatments up there ought to continue to go and I've received a number of calls from literally people from all over the country wondering, 'does this mean the center is being shut down, that all of a sudden care is going to stop, are they gonna start transferring doctors somewhere?'  I don't know what the University of Utah intends to do with the Institute but it's got too many professional to stop dead in it's tracks and people ought to continue to move forward with it.  

He closed his remarks by asking people to be engaged and not to let this story die.  Asking people to place calls to University of Utah President David Pershing, and Vivian Lee, Senior Vice President of Health Sciences, and put pressure on them to "put this thing back to where it was."

This afternoon the University of Utah released the following statement regarding the fallout over the decision to fire Dr. Beckerle as CEO and Director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, reading:

"We do not comment on personnel issues. We can tell you, however, that we take all personnel issues, including changes in key leadership, seriously. The difficult decision to make a change in leadership of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute came only after thoughtful consideration and careful deliberation, and with the full support of the University’s President and senior leaders of the Board of Trustees. 

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a critical operating unit of the University of Utah, supervised by the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences, who is accountable for the success of all the clinical, academic and research enterprises at University of Utah Health. 

Today's healthcare landscape is dynamic and competitive and we must have the capacity to adapt if we are to continue to excel. As we look to the future, we believe closer collaboration between HCI and the rest of the University will further strengthen HCI for the benefit of our patients and enable us to apply the combined talent and resources of the University's entire health system, including our outstanding researchers, educators and health care professionals, to our mission of finding improved treatments and ultimately a cure for cancer.

As part of that ongoing mission, we’re pleased to welcome Kathleen A. Cooney, M.D., as interim CEO and director of HCI. Dr. Cooney will lend her experience to this interim role as the university searches for a permanent director in collaboration with our external advisory board.

The University is grateful for the support of the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman family and the countless supporters they’ve inspired to make philanthropic donations through the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. The University shares the Huntsman family's commitment to eradicating cancer and reducing human suffering from this terrible disease."

 

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