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'Mounting mayhem': Emails show discontent over differing visions from cancer institute, U. brass

SALT LAKE CITY — Emails obtained by the Deseret News through an open records request show that Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Dr. Mary Beckerle voiced disagreement over the institute's funding to University of Utah administration shortly before she was fired in April.

The emails, obtained Friday, also divulge the contents of U. President David Pershing's email firing Beckerle, in which he said he was "very sorry" not to do so in person and offered to look for other positions for her at the university. Beckerle was later reinstated.

The released records also include correspondence with pointed questions posed to Pershing from University of Utah Health Sciences faculty who questioned whether he had hedged on his objections to proposed financial arrangements with the Huntsman Cancer Foundation as it pertained to the cancer institute.

Also Friday, Peter Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation that provides the cancer institute a large fraction of its funding, told the Deseret News he is "concerned that we still have not made any progress" in negotiating an updated three-way memorandum of understanding between his organization, the U. and the cancer center.

Funding disagreements

About five hours before she was fired on April 17, Beckerle sent an email to David H. Browdy, chief financial officer of University of Utah Health, saying "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," she wrote.

That was shortly after 10 a.m. By a little after 3 p.m., Pershing sent Beckerle an email removing her from her position as director and CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

"Dear Mary, I am very sorry to have to send this to you electronically, but I understand you are out of town," Pershing wrote in his email, which had the termination letter attached.

Thirty-two minutes after that, U. faculty were notified that Beckerle had been fired.

Exactly a week earlier, an email to Beckerle from her assistant included a note that said "Vivian Lee's office cancelled 1:1 meeting for 3rd time, waiting to hear re: rescheduling," but did not go into more detail.

Beckerle had voiced concerns over Huntsman Cancer Institute spending for fiscal year 2018 in a March 6 email to Browdy.

"I believe the decision rights for cancer hospital capital expenditures lies with the OCC," Beckerle wrote, referring to the Operations Coordinating Council, a Huntsman Cancer Institute faculty-run body led by the CEO herself.

That body "unanimously approved capital equipment and remodeling in the amount of $21.5M on January 20," Beckerle said in the March 6 email. However, the University of Utah Health Care Capital Committee, which met in late February, indicated that only $13.1 million had received the green light, according to Beckerle's email.

"Thus it appears we were denied access to both the full $16M allocated to the cancer hospital and to the $5M in unexpended cash reserves that we had carried forward from prior years," she wrote, later adding, "What's the next step?"

Browdy responded eight days later that the Huntsman Cancer Institute's "share of (University of Utah Health Care) capital asks ends up pretty close to the available funds figure you cite."

Peter Huntsman told the Deseret News on Friday that it was clear to him that Dr. Vivian Lee, the former senior vice president of health sciences at the U. who is believed to have persuaded Pershing to sign off on firing Beckerle, had a much different vision for how the cancer institute's large amount of donor dollars should be used.

"I've always contended that Vivian wanted to take funds from the cancer institute and put them throughout the rest of health sciences. ... (But) when you're putting in a life's work of donations, I think that there ought to be some assurance that those moneys are going to be well spent and are going to be focused on cancer care and research," he said.

'Challenging time'

The document relieving Beckerle of her duties was signed by Pershing, Lee and U. board of trustees Chairman H. David Burton.

"This is a challenging time with increasing complexity in the health care landscape and increasing competition for research funding," their letter said.

"After very careful consideration, and with full support of the University of Utah president and the senior leadership of the University of Utah board of trustees, we have decided that at this critical juncture, HCI needs a new leader as director who can lead physicians and an integrated cancer effort and build on the legacy to which you have made such an important contribution."

The email specified that Beckerle was to still receive her $573,244 salary for the 2017-18 academic year, "in recognition of your service to HCI." The letter also said administrators were "interested in exploring the possibility of you serving in a different role that would recognize your unique perspective and talents," and recommended that Beckerle contact Pershing about such an opportunity.

"Please know that I am sincere in my offer to explore options for you if you are so inclined," Pershing said in his email to Beckerle that included the termination letter.

The U. never released an official reason for Beckerle's termination, saying it was a personnel issue.

Beckerle's firing caused a highly public tirade from the Huntsman Cancer Institute founding donor, Jon Huntsman Sr., directed to U. administrators. Huntsman went after Lee in particular, calling her vindictive and jealous of Beckerle.

Beckerle was reinstated after a week out of her job. Lee resigned from her positions, which also included dean of the U. Medical School, a few days later.

Jon Huntsman Sr. declined to comment when reached Friday, referring all interviews to his son Peter. Pershing likewise declined an interview. Beckerle was traveling out of the country and could not be reached, said Huntsman Cancer Institute spokeswoman Amie Parker, who also declined to comment. Attempts to reach Lee were unsuccessful.

'Unnecessary conflict'

Early in the morning on April 18, the day after Beckerle's firing, Peter Huntsman emailed Pershing in alarm.

"May I speak with you for five minutes this morning? I really want to try to avert a damaging and unnecessary conflict that is about to erupt," he said.

Pershing responded about 90 minutes later, saying, "Yes of course I am always available to talk to you."

It's unclear from the released emails whether the two men talked on the phone after that point, but just after 5 p.m., Huntsman writes to Pershing that "we have entered the battle I hoped we could have averted."

"Regardless of what you may think, I really do hope we can have an amicable resolution," he said. "I have no desire to see you leave and hope we can re-engage and build the institute we both want. I consider you a good and trusted friend who never wanted such a dispute."

That same evening, Jon Huntsman Sr. struck a dramatically different tone in an interview with the Deseret News, calling Lee "a vicious and vitriolic woman" jealous of Beckerle's accolades and adding, "I can't imagine anything worse than the University of Utah treating a donor the way they treated us."

He later called for the ouster of both Pershing and Lee, though he later walked back his words on the U. president. He also later said a sizeable foundation from the Huntsman Cancer Foundation was imperiled by Beckerle's firing and would not have ultimately been given unless she had been reinstated.

Change of direction

An email sent to Pershing on April 23, one day before Beckerle's reinstatement, indicates at least some faculty were already aware that the decision to fire Beckerle had been reversed.

Dr. Charles Saltzman, chairman of the Department of Orthopaedics, wrote in that email that he and other department chairs were concerned about "the academic and financial independence of the university and the health system."

"On Monday, you told us that you and the trustees decided to take the action with respect to Mary Beckerle's leadership of the HCI," Saltzman wrote to Pershing. "And that the reason for doing so was to head off the imminent threat of a new (memorandum of understanding) from HCI that you could not under any circumstances support because it would radically damage the university."

Saltzman decried what he saw as a lack of direction from Pershing, particularly in the face of public attacks against the U. from Jon Huntsman Sr.

"At this stage we have been operating for a week without a clear explanation in the face of mounting mayhem," he wrote. "The primary narrative at this point is being driven by the donor, which is putting the university in an untenable position."

Referring to Beckerle's firing and Pershing's resistance to the proposed memorandum of understanding involving the cancer institute, Saltzman said, "we now understand that both actions are being revisited." Keeping Beckerle wouldn't be a concern, he told Pershing, and the School of Medicine "would welcome the opportunity to continue our collaboration with her." But hedging on a new agreement with the institute would be a much different story, Saltzman said in the email.

"We are requesting that we immediately be informed and be involved in advising on the academic and financial implications for the university and the (School of Medicine), as well as on management and oversight of cancer care in our integrated health system. ... We feel strongly that the success of the HCI cannot come at the expense of the School of Medicine. Both missions must be aligned."

Saltzman's main areas of concern were "academic appointments, "oversight of the clinical operations" and "funds flow."

Pershing replied by saying faculty's input would be sought after in negotiations regarding the cancer institute.

Current negotiations

Peter Huntsman said the U.'s subsuquent negotiations with his foundation have not been fruitful thus far.

"I'm concerned that we still have not made any progress in negotiating this thing since the whole (controversy) blew up," he told the Deseret News.

A priority for the foundation, Huntsman said, is to "have an agreement in place that 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now (in which) you don't have contention between the (university) president, health sciences and whoever's running the foundation." But he said the foundation has run into roadblocks on that front.

"If we're sitting here in six months and something hasn't been resolved, it will not be a good environment for anybody," he said. "This has gone on long enough. ... We need to move on here."

U. spokesman Chris Nelson said in a statement that the university is confident an agreement can be reached that is satisfactory for all parties.

"We understand Mr. Huntsman’s frustration with the pace of the negotiating process," Nelson said. "The financial interdependencies between the university’s clinical and research operating units, and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation are complex. Over the past few months we have been working diligently to make sure the university and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation have the a comprehensive, accurate and shared understanding of the facts."

"Once we have those facts in hand, we are confident we’ll be able to find a durable solution that provides for the long-term financial and operational health of the clinical and research missions of the Huntsman Cancer Institute."