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Emails Shed Light on Ongoing Huntsman Controversy

Kiffer Creveling
CEO and Director of Huntsman Cancer Institute, Mary C. Beckerle, PhD, speaks at the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center Dedication Ceremony at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 (Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

Emails recently obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune give more insight into the circumstances surrounding the removal of Mary Beckerle from her position as CEO and Director of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), as well as the subsequent conflict and her reinstatement.

In January, the Operating Coordinations Council at HCI met and unanimously approved a $21.5 million plan to buy new equipment and remodel sections of the building. The figure took into account the $16 million the University of Utah Health granted the cancer hospital the year before, as well as $5 million in excess funds from past years. The following month the Capital Committee at the University of Utah Health met and approved only $13.1 million in expenditures for the hospital. According to the current operational agreements, the U must pay the institute’s operational expenses at an amount that may not fall lower than $13.5 million.

Emails make it clear Beckerle thought this decision was improper. A few days after it was made, she emailed University of Utah Health Chief Financial Officer David Browdy to follow up on a meeting with him. She thought the decision about expenditures belonged to HCI, not the University of Utah Health, and said some hospital equipment could not be purchased as a result. He replied, saying the institute’s “share of University of Utah Health Care capital asks ends up pretty close to the available figures you cite”. She asked him for more details and said “I remain concerned that the process being followed is not consistent with the operating agreement for the cancer hospital. With your help, I hope we can address this going forward.”

If tensions existed then between Beckerle and other administrators, they aren’t obvious in emails. In March, Beckerle was appointed the Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Endowed Chair at the recommendation of Vivian Lee, then Senior Vice President for Health Sciences, Dean of the School of Medicine and CEO of the University of Utah Health. In the letter U President David Pershing sent to Beckerle notifying her of the appointment, he wrote, “Congratulations, I am so pleased for you.”

In the next month, relations appear to have soured between Beckerle and the higher U administrators Pershing and Lee. On April 10, Lee canceled a scheduled meeting with Beckerle for the third time in a row — this time without rescheduling.

At the same time, Huntsman Cancer Foundation CEO Peter Huntsman and Pershing continue to move forward with plans to discuss a potential new memorandum of understanding for the operation of the Institute. In a conversation initiated by Pershing on April 11, the two men amicably emailed about planning a meeting in Houston.

A draft of that potential memorandum was obtained by the Deseret News. Currently, 25 percent of the profits from HCI are reinvested in the hospital, 25 percent go to the University of Utah Health — which has an operating budget of over $3 billion, and 50 percent goes to Huntsman Cancer Institute. The current agreement is not set to expire for several years, but the Huntsmans were concerned about the U not living up to its end of the agreement to pay the institute’s operational expenses. They wanted the HCI’s profits to be split only between the cancer hospital and the research institute for three years to make up for the discrepancy they felt existed.

Six days after Pershing and Peter Huntsman discussed the meeting, Pershing sent an email to Beckerle. He said, “I am very sorry to send this to you over email, but I understand you are out of town.” Attached was a letter notifying her she would no longer serve as the CEO and Director of Huntsman Cancer Institute, effective immediately. It was signed by Lee, Pershing and H. David Burton, chair of the U’s board of trustees. The letter indicates the decision was made with the full support of the board’s senior leadership and offers to help Beckerle find a new position at the U.

The next day, Peter Huntsman sent an email to Pershing, asking to speak and saying he hoped they could avoid a “damaging and unnecessary conflict that is about to erupt.” Pershing replied that he would be happy to talk. That same day, Beckerle forwarded her emails with Browdy about capital expenditures to Susan Sheehan, COO of Huntsman Cancer Foundation, saying it would probably be the last financial update she could provide.

On April 22, Peter Huntsman emailed Pershing saying, “We have entered the battle I hoped we could have averted.” Huntsman expressed hopes that there could be a peaceful solution to the conflict so the two of them could continue to build the institute together.

The next day, U Department of Orthopaedics Charles Saltzman emailed Pershing and Lee, copying other chairs and members of the board of trustees, expressing concerns about the tense conflict that erupted following Beckerle’s dismissal. HCI was protesting and Jon Huntsman Sr. was making caustic remarks about Pershing and Lee in the press.

Saltzman asked for a better explanation of why the decision had been made, saying that the only details the chairs had been given was that Beckerle was dismissed in order to “head off the imminent threat” of a new agreement guiding the operation of HCI that the U “could not under any circumstances support because it would radically damage the University.” In response, Pershing asked for a meeting.

The Huntsman family has said that there were not any indications that something was wrong in the deliberations over the new memorandum, citing the plans of Peter Huntsman and Pershing to meet. However, Pershing never showed up to the meeting.

Beckerle emailed Peter Huntsman, Jon Huntsman Jr. and David Pershing on April 24 with a draft of a press release that would announce her reinstatement, asking for feedback. The next day, Pershing published the letter, updated with the group’s suggestions. In addition to reinstating Beckerle as CEO and Director of HCI, the letter announced a renewed commitment to negotiating a new memorandum of understanding.

A few days later, Lee resigned from her positions. It is rumored that Beckerle and Lee had long disagreed on how to lead HCI, which was under Lee’s purview as CEO of the University of Utah Health. The hearsay seemed to have been substantiated by a decision in Pershing’s April 24 press release to change the reporting hierarchy for Beckerle, so she would report directly to Pershing rather than Lee.

Pershing also later announced that he would resign as president of the U once a replacement had been found for him. The search for his successor is underway.

U spokesperson Chris Nelson has said the memorandum of understanding negotiations are ongoing. However, the Huntsmans have recently expressed concerns about the slowness of the process, with Peter Huntsman saying he hasn’t heard from the U recently and no progress has been made despite pleasant words at the dedication of HCI’s new children’s research wing. The U has hired outside lawyers and business advisory firms to help with the process.


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About the Contributor
Elise Vandersteen Bailey
Elise Vandersteen Bailey, Investigative Coordinator
Elise is the Investigative Editor at the Daily Utah Chronicle. In her almost four years at the paper, she has won nearly 20 awards from professional journalism organizations. She currently attends graduate school at the U, studying Public Policy and Population Health Sciences, and spends her free time wondering whether it's too nerdy to Tweet whatever "cool" graph she's found most recently.

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    EmmaAug 10, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    Very well-written piece, Elise. Good job.