In the Aftermath of the Huntsman Cancer Institute Debacle, It’s Clear Money Talks at the U


Adam Fondren

The Hunstman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 5/14/17.

By Connor Richards

For weeks now, the University of Utah has been in a whirlwind of unrest, confusion and controversy. In late April, U students, faculty and the greater Salt Lake City community were caught off guard by the sudden firing of Dr. Mary Beckerle, head of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. After days of outrage marked by student protests, petitions by hospital faculty and blistering statements from the Institute’s founder and chairman, Jon Huntsman Sr., president David Pershing and the Board of Trustees announced they decided to reinstate Beckerle.

That was hardly the end of things. On April 28, Dr. Vivian Lee, a key player in Beckerle’s dismissal, told faculty via email she would be stepping down from her roles as CEO of University of Utah Health and dean of the School of Medicine. Then, just three days before commencement, Pershing announced he would be leaving his position in 2018.

There is a lot to uncover here. Why was Beckerle dismissed? And why weren’t faculty notified or included in the decision making process? What motivated Pershing and Lee to reinstate Beckerle? And what were their reasons for stepping down? Who has the final say on who is hired and fired at the U?

At the rate things are going, these questions will, unfortunately, remain unanswered. The U has stayed silent on the matter, only saying “personal issues” were at the heart of Beckerle’s firing. Pershing has denied the backlash played a role in his decision to step down, and he has insisted he has long planned on leaving at the end of the 2017-18 school year. For those involved in Beckerle’s firing, as well as the resulting turmoil, silence is the policy.

This is troubling for many reasons. The idea that no one, not Lee, Pershing, or Beckerle, will comment on what happened does not reflect warmly on the U. The fact that the meeting in which Beckerle was reinstated was not open to the public highlights the ways big decisions at the U are made, literally, behind closed doors. The notion of the university making and reversing decisions urgently is concerning from a stability standpoint. It is worrying and upsetting that weeks have passed without much answer or explanation for any of this.

Something that should receive considerable attention is the degree to which Jon Huntsman Sr., the founder and a big donor of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, influenced Lee and Pershing’s departures. Huntsman was adamant and specific, in criticizing both of them. “He should have been let go a long time ago,” Huntsman said of Pershing. As for Lee, he was less reserved: “She’s absolutely without question the most unethical, undisciplined woman in the world,” he said during an interview on the Doug Wright Show. Additionally, he told The Salt Lake Tribune he would have Beckerle reinstated “one way or another. … Whatever we have to do, we’ll get it done,” he said. “I don’t have any questions about that.”

Huntsman publicly and intensely called for both Pershing and Lee to step down, and both did. He lobbied for Beckerle to be reinstated, and that happened, too. The saying goes that twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern. On the face of things, it is safe to assume Huntsman’s demands had a considerable and demonstrable impact on the way things at the U have panned out.

The outrage felt by Huntsman, which was shared by university faculty and students, was due to the abruptness and secrecy of Beckerle’s dismissal. Huntsman called it a “power move” on behalf of Lee that was immoral and “underhanded.” However, documents obtained by the Deseret News reveal that leadership tensions had been building for weeks before Beckerle’s dismissal. On March 2, Jon Huntsman and his son, Peter Huntsman, executive officer of the Cancer Foundation, signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” asking Pershing to cede what the Deseret News described as “extraordinary powers” to Beckerle. Among other things, the memorandum would give Beckerle a direct line to the president, as well as authority over the “full spectrum” of the U’s cancer program. The memorandum, which was never signed by Pershing, reveals that this ongoing power struggle is more dynamic, complex and complicated than Huntsman and others have made it out to be.

Who, when it comes down to it, operates things at the U? If not the students, faculty, or president, then who? There is a venerable English proverb that he who pays the piper calls the tune. If there is one lesson from all of this, it is that money speaks in volume at the U.

There should be no doubt as to whether donors should have a seat at the table when it comes to decision making. Huntsman not only founded the Institute in 1993, but he has gifted it with hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, something that has certainly brought immeasurable benefits to the U and surrounding community. All that said, questions as to whether donors should be able to use their money to influence executive and administrative decisions are questions worth asking.

If the U is to present itself as an institution committed to the principles of democratic representation, it will have to address, and perhaps reconsider, the influence big donors have on the school.

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