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'Clouds hanging over' U. in wake of cancer institute rift, v.p. says

SALT LAKE CITY — Dr. Loris Betz, the University of Utah's acting senior vice president of health sciences, acknowledged there are "clouds hanging over the health sciences" due to the lingering rift between the U. and the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

"Those clouds will remain until we have new MOU (memorandum of understanding) for HCI and until the leadership has been selected for the university and for health sciences," said Betz, addressing the university's board of trustees Tuesday.

Betz told the trustees he is forging ahead with many of the initiatives started or sustained by the former senior vice president of health sciences, Dr. Vivian Lee, whom he selected as his successor before his retirement.

"Obviously things changed a lot in April. I don’t need to review all that went on. I want you to know that while I am back in this position I really do intend to maintain the great forward momentum that Vivian created," he told the trustees in a meeting at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the U. campus.

Lee, CEO of University of Utah Health, was at the center of heated controversy over the firing by email and swift reinstatement of Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle. Shortly afterward, Lee resigned her administrative positions.

U. President David Pershing moved up the timetable on his planned retirement, although he has agreed to stay on the job until his successor is appointed. Pershing, Lee and board of trustees Chairman H. David Burton signed Beckerle's termination letter, according to emails recently released under a public records request.

Under Lee's leadership for 5 ½ years, health sciences gained national visibility for value, and patient experience has "just skyrocketed," Betz said.

Betz said Lee made significant progress on one of the long-range initiatives he launched during his 12-year tenure at the U., creating a single integrated health system.

"In an academic setting that's not something you can do overnight," Betz said, explaining he started the groundwork during his term.

"All kind of careful steps were taken in that direction. It's now gained a whole lot of traction and the leadership of the health sciences is very much engaged, eager to move forward. We’re in the process of selecting a national firm with experience in this area to guide our next steps over the course of the next six months or so," Betz said.

Health science faculty and staff are pausing to study and plan the next steps of other initiatives Lee proposed, he said.

"Vivian was spinning great ideas so fast that I’m finding out the staff couldn't catch them fast enough. So we‘re going to catch our breath, focus on the really great ideas and put the focus on implementation of those ideas,” he said.

As interim senior vice president, Betz said he has specific goals for University Health moving forward, among them a campus transformation project, strategy for growth in the clinical arena, recruitment and retention, developing U. Health's ambulatory care strategy and "regaining our national reputation."

On Friday, Peter Huntsman, CEO of the private, nonprofit Huntsman Cancer Foundation, told the Deseret News that he is "concerned that we still have not made any progress" in negotiating an updated three-way memorandum of understanding among the foundation, the university and the cancer center.

The university is confident an agreement can be reached that is satisfactory for all parties, said U. spokesman Chris Nelson.

"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," Nelson said in a statement.

Burton said the process of selecting the next president of the University of Utah is ongoing. A search committee has been selected and starting in September, public meetings will be conducted to aid the committee in developing a job description.

Contributing: Ben Lockhart