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Mary Beckerle (right) meets with former Vice President Joe Biden during his visit to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in February 2016 as part of the cancer moonshot initiative.

Adam Finkle for Huntsman Cancer Institute

Power struggle erupts at Utah cancer institute over director’s firing

The abrupt dismissal of the head of a Utah cancer center is causing backlash from its faculty—and its major philanthropic funder—in a struggle over the center’s autonomy from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. And nearly 2000 researchers have signed a petition calling on the university to reverse its decision.   

For 11 years, prominent cell biologist Mary Beckerle has headed the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), which is based at the university but receives its funding largely from philanthropic donations, revenue from its cancer hospital, state funding, and grants from the National institutes of Health. In an email to some clinical staff on Monday, university President David Pershing and Vivian Lee, senior vice president for health sciences, announced that Beckerle would step down “effective today,” but would “remain on faculty as a distinguished professor in biology.” Beckerle, who has not responded to Science’s request for comment, told The Salt Lake Tribune that she had learned of her dismissal in an email less than an hour earlier.

Details have been scant from the university, which also did not respond to a comment request. But Beckerle’s colleagues contend that the move amounts to a hostile takeover by the university aimed at capturing the cancer clinic’s revenue, and other prominent scientists are rallying unquestioningly around her.

“I find it unimaginable that this would happen,” says cancer biologist Harold Varmus of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City and former director of the National Cancer Institute, which funds HCI as one of its designated cancer centers. “If you think about great cancer directors around the country, her name comes to mind immediately.”

Beckerle’s dismissal is “a real insult to the whole academic establishment that we all have been working to build up, and … an insult to American scientific leadership,” says University of California, San Francisco, biochemist Bruce Alberts (former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science). Alberts served with Beckerle on the leadership board of the American Society for Cell Biologists, based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Alberts is among more than 1800 signers of a petition on the website calling for Beckerle’s reinstatement, which was delivered to Pershing’s office after a protest march from HCI yesterday.

Billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman, the Utah philanthropist whose funding helped build the center and has supported it since 1995, was apparently blindsided by the move, which came amidst negotiations for a new $120 million donation. He described Beckerle’s dismissal as a power grab by Lee, and promised to fight to reverse the decision.

“I can't imagine anything worse than the University of Utah treating a donor the way they treated us,” Huntsman told the Desert News. "Until Vivian Lee is replaced and removed and fired … we have other buildings on the drawing board, other plans for expansion,” he said. (Huntsman is also a major benefactor of the university; its environmental research center, school of business, and indoor sports arena all bear his name.)

University officials haven’t clearly explained their reasoning, says HCI molecular biologist Bruce Edgar, but “the general belief is that it has to do with resource allocation and control … [and] that the medical school would like to roll the cancer center into the health sciences center, including the revenue from the cancer hospital.” He adds that many faculty members are resistant to becoming an arm of the university’s health sciences center. “I think part of [Beckerle’s] dedication to the HCI has been to do negotiations on the part of HCI, to retain some autonomy,” he says.

A press release published yesterday afternoon by University of Utah Health defending the decision says that “closer collaboration between HCI and the rest of the University will … enable us to apply the combined talent and resources of the University’s entire health system … to our mission of finding improved treatments and ultimately a cure for cancer.”

Colleagues who credit Beckerle’s reputation and leadership with pulling the center from obscurity see the change as an existential threat to HCI. “As soon it’s gotten put on the map, they wanted to do a hostile takeover,” says Jody Rosenblatt, a cancer cell biologist at the institute. “If [Jon Huntsman is] not part of it, if Mary’s not the head of it, if we just have this coup and somebody takes over, people like me and lots of others of my colleagues that are constantly getting offers to take jobs in other places, we’re going to go,” she says. “It’s going to be the end of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.”