Firing of director Beckerle draws ire, protest from Huntsman Cancer Institute employees


SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, April 19, 2017 (Gephardt Daily) — Employees of the Huntsman Cancer Institute on Wednesday rallied for their leader, Mary Beckerle, who earlier this week opened an email informing her that she had been terminated after more than a decade as the institute’s director and CEO.

“I think we’re all just really surprised by the announcement, and missing our leader,” said Sara, one of dozens of protesters who gathered at the University of Utah.

“Dr. Beckerle has been an amazing leader of HCI for 11 years. She’s the one that championed HCI to being a comprehensive cancer center,” Sara said. “She is certainly someone we aspire to, she is an amazing researcher, she is generous, gentle, kind, brilliant, strategically really thoughtful.

Dr. Mary Beckerle. Photo: University of Utah Health Care

“She’s done so much. She’s taken this organization to the top as well as keeping a really human touch. It gives you hope that there are going to be giant breakthroughs, because you have someone that cares both about the patient and understands that that means you also have to care about the researchers. You have to nurture the science, so then the science can make it to the people.”

Sara said with no public information on why Beckerle was let go, all the doctor’s supporters can do is react.

“So now we communicate how we’re feeling, communicate the utmost faith we have in her leadership, and everything she’s been able to do, and we hope that the powers that be listen to what we’re saying and, ideally, that we get our leader back.”

Beckerle was notified on Monday of her termination. Faculty and staff members also received an email, from University of Utah president David Pershing and from CEO of University of Utah Health Care Dr. Vivian Lee. The email reported Beckerle’s firing without touching on reasons behind the decision.

That email said Beckerle “will remain on faculty as a distinguished professor in biology.”

Jon S. Huntsman, Sr. Photo: Wikipedia

Businessman Jon Huntsman Sr., whose donations helped found the cancer institute in 1993 and who continues to offer funding, has said he believes the firing was abrupt. He said he plans to file lawsuits against those behind what he called a horrible and unethical act.

Huntsman said he also was informed of the firing by email, and reportedly said he was “dumbfounded.”

The email from Pershing and Lee also thanked Jon M. and wife Karen Huntsman, and their foundation for its “visionary leadership and generous support.”

Jon M. Huntsman has said he blames Lee for the decision to fire Beckerle. KSL News reported that Huntsman described Lee as “a very vicious, vitriolic woman.”

Kathleen Cooney, the Department of Internal Medicine chairwoman, has been named interim director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

The University of Utah protesters, chanting slogans such as “Justice for Mary,” publicized a petition on Change.org asking that Beckerle be reinstated. As of 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, it had been signed by nearly 1,500 people.

A protester also read a letter to university administration:

An Open Letter to the University of Utah President and Board of Trustees:

Faculty members at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute protest the firing of institute director and CEO Dr. Mary Beckerle. Image: Gephardt Daily

On Monday, April 17, the University of Utah sent an email to some faculty and staff notifying us that Mary Beckerle, PhD, has been relieved of her duties as CEO and Director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). We are writing to express our profound shock and disappointment. We could not be more confident in Dr. Beckerle as our leader and completely disagree with this decision.

Since her appointment as director 11 years ago, Dr. Beckerle has demonstrated nothing but exceptional leadership and commitment to the success of HCI and the University of Utah. HCI was on the brink of losing its status as a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Cancer Center when Dr. Beckerle started her position. She has, in an incredibly short amount of time, not only secured HCI as a NCI-designated Cancer Center but has also led HCI to the coveted NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center status – the highest designation possible. This acknowledges the exceptional depth and breadth of HCI research in each of the four major cancer research areas: basic, translational, clinical and population-based research. Of note, Dr. Beckerle received the NCI’s highest rating for leadership: exceptional.

We are not alone in our position of highest confidence for Dr. Beckerle’s performance and vision. Many of us were in a meeting with HCI’s External Advisory Board just last Friday, April 14, when the Board unanimously gave highest praise for the accomplishments of HCI and, specifically, for Dr. Beckerle’s leadership. The Board comprises world renowned cancer experts, including a Nobel laureate. These are true leaders in the field – both physicians and basic scientists – from prestigious Cancer Centers around the nation, who clearly have great confidence in our director.

In addition to the strongest vote of confidence from our faculty and the External Advisory Board experts, the most recent reviews from the NCI itself were exceptional – HCI received the highest rating possible following a stringent review and site visit by experts. It simply doesn’t get better than this. Dr. Beckerle has also served as a national expert on the Blue Ribbon Panel for the NCI’s Cancer Moonshot effort, and recently was called to testify to Congress on the importance of funding cancer research for the future of America.

In the area of clinical care, Dr. Beckerle’s leadership has led to unprecedented growth of cancer care enterprise at HCI. This leadership has been responsible for an incredible increase in the patient volumes and patient satisfaction that is at 99th percentile compared to all cancer hospitals. In addition, Huntsman Cancer Hospital was just ranked as a top 50 cancer hospital in the country. HCI has made clinical trials available to thousands of patients that would otherwise not be able to receive the newest therapies. HCI is the only cancer center to be designated by the NCI in the five-state Intermountain West region, which includes Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Nevada, and which covers more than 17 percent of the continental United States landmass. Revenues from clinical enterprise have been reinvested along with generous donations from the Huntsman family to keep growing the clinical and research enterprise. Clinical faculty growth and satisfaction has increased and our clinical faculty are shocked and appalled at this decision.

We are proud of Dr. Beckerle’s national reputation as a leader in cancer research and for bringing HCI to international recognition. Even more importantly, the Jon M. Huntsman family founded HCI with a vision to eradicate cancer from the face of the earth. We came to HCI because we share this vision. We feel an incredible sense of commitment to the mission, to our patients, and to our community. The only viable fight against cancer is research and excellent patient care, and for the University of Utah to give up the leadership of Dr. Beckerle, who brought HCI to the status of a world-renowned cancer research and clinical center is a colossal mistake.

Our concern is for the future of what we have worked so hard to build, and for the promise left untapped if decisions are enacted without full consideration of their consequences and without thorough input from the faculty.

We sign to voice our objection to this decision and the manner in which it was carried out. We are deeply concerned about the impact it will have on our future endeavors, retention and recruitment of clinicians and scientists, the mission of Huntsman Cancer Institute, and the reputation of the University of Utah. It is imperative that you immediately reinstate Dr. Beckerle to her position.

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