Mary Beckerle (second from right) during former Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in February 2016 as part of the cancer moonshot initiative.

Adam Finkle/Huntsman Cancer Institute

Cancer institute reinstates director after uproar from staff and funder

Eight days after learning via email that she was no longer the head of the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) in Salt Lake City, cell biologist Mary Beckerle has been invited to reassume her position. Today’s announcement from University of Utah President David Pershing seeks to smooth a tense relationship between the semiautonomous center, its main philanthropic funder and the university that houses it.

The largely unexplained firing, announced to staff last week in an email from Pershing and Vivian Lee, senior vice president for health sciences, mobilized HCI staff and other high-profile researchers, some of whom marched in support of Beckerle’s reinstatement and signed an online petition that now has more than 3700 signatures. Several faculty members described the move as an effort by Lee to take control of HCI and roll the revenue from its cancer hospital into the university’s health system.

Billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman, who was preparing to make a new donation to the center, vowed to have the decision reversed, and called for the university to fire Lee. He released a statement today praising the decision to rehire Beckerle, and calling Pershing “a man of integrity who recognized his mistake.” A new $120 million pledge from the Huntsman family and foundation, along with $130 million in previous commitments for a recently completed research wing, “will be honored in every respect,” Huntsman said.

“I think the affirmation that some autonomy in the cancer center can nurture excellence is wonderful,” says HCI molecular biologist Bruce Edgar. “We think this bodes well for university-cancer center relations in general.”

Here's Pershing's statement, following a vote from the university board of trustees today:

This past week has been an extraordinary and challenging time for our University and community. Members of our campus community spoke out and made their perspectives known. 

It is now time, I believe, to return to our mission of serving our students, caring for our patients and pursuing critical research. In that spirit, I am pleased to confirm that Dr. Mary Beckerle will, effective immediately, resume her service as the CEO and Director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) with authority over its cancer research, clinical care, and administrative functions. Dr. Beckerle, a Distinguished Professor of Biology, has led the Institute for 11 years. Under her leadership its scope and stature have increased greatly with the award of Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, the highest recognition afforded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and one that is reserved for only a handful of elite cancer centers in the United States. Effective today we have changed HCI’s reporting structure, and Dr. Beckerle will report directly to the President of the University. I am very grateful for her committed leadership and look forward to working with her in the coming years.

We reaffirm our shared commitment to maintain the Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center and site of world-class patient care, cancer research and education. We appreciate the great work of our health care professionals, staff and faculty and confirm our support for them going forward. We also acknowledge our patients and their families for their bravery and their partnership in our fight against cancer. I regret any disruption to the Huntsman Cancer Institute community whose work is so important to the people of Utah and, increasingly, our nation.

The University of Utah is now working with the Huntsman family on a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), with the goal of reaffirming the Huntsman Cancer Institute’s role as an integrated and collaborative part of the University, while maintaining HCI’s strategic autonomy required for it to thrive as a highly ranked Comprehensive Cancer Center.  

We want to again thank the Huntsman family for their major financial commitments to the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and especially Jon Huntsman, Sr., for his vision, energy and passion for finding ways to cure this terrible disease. We are excited about the June 21st opening of HCI’s newest facility, the Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center, which will enable our faculty and staff to accelerate their groundbreaking research into cures for cancer.