SALT LAKE CITY — Students, faculty, staff, patients, researchers and others associated with the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute are demanding an explanation for the sudden firing of its director, Dr. Mary Beckerle.
"She's amazing. She's an outstanding leader," said Bryan Welm, associate professor of surgery at the U. and a Huntsman researcher.
Welm said Beckerle led the institution out of obscurity to being a top provider for cancer care in the country.
"This was all done by her leadership," he said, adding that morale has been impacted and work is distracted by the recent decision that was "disgracefully" handed down via email "while Beckerle was on vacation."
"It's incredibly disrespectful," Welm said Wednesday during an on-campus demonstration that began at Huntsman Cancer Institute and culminated at the U. administration building, where a group of about 100 protesters delivered a letter to U. President David Pershing and the university's board of trustees, asking for an explanation regarding the change.
"We don't want to deal with this," Welm said. "We want to focus on cancer research."
Beckerle had overseen the institute for 11 years as its director and chief executive officer. The reason for her departure was not divulged in a message sent to faculty and staff Monday by Pershing and Dr. Vivian Lee, CEO of University of Utah Health Care.
The university reaffirmed in a statement released Wednesday that it doesn't comment on personnel issues, but takes "all personnel issues, including changes in key leadership, seriously."
"We care about our employees, and we want to support them in the good work they do,” said Kathy Wilets, director of communications for University of Utah Health. “We understand emotions are running high, but as you can imagine, out of respect for everyone involved, we can’t provide further information about personnel issues."
U. officials said the cancer care hospital is "a critical operating unit of the University of Utah."
"As we look to the future, we believe closer collaboration between (Huntsman Cancer Institute) and the rest of the university will further strengthen (the institute) for the benefit of our patients and enable us to apply the combined talent and resources of the university's entire health system, including our outstanding researchers, educators and health care professionals, to our mission of finding improved treatments and ultimately a cure for cancer."
Welm said protesters were met in Pershing's office by Wilets and Chris Nelson, communications director for the university, who accepted the letter on the U. president's behalf.
The university statement also included administrative praise for Dr. Kathleen Cooney, who was named in the Monday email from Lee to staff as the interim director at Huntsman.
Cooney was hired by Lee in March 2016 as chairwoman of internal medicine. In a subsequent blog post, Lee called Cooney a "super star," adding that the former University of Michigan cancer center director has a background that "makes her uniquely suited" to continue the U. department’s "strong research trajectory."
The U. statement also mentions the school's intent to begin a search for Beckerle's replacement, though Welm said dissenters are hoping Beckerle will be reinstated.
An online petition had garnered more than 1,500 signatures Wednesday afternoon in support of Beckerle since it was posted Tuesday. The public declaration cites praise for Beckerle from "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."
"Dr. Beckerle’s leadership has led to unprecedented growth of cancer care enterprise at (Huntsman Cancer Institute)," the letter states, adding that staff and faculty are "shocked and appalled" at the decision to relieve Beckerle.
Patients and their families, as well as researchers, students and others across Utah and the United States who are acquainted with Beckerle's work posted comments on the petition site, citing their disapproval with the university's decision.
"Without her, Huntsman Cancer Institute would not be what it is today," said Salt Lake City's Maria Rios. "The removal of Dr. Beckerle will hurt not only (Huntsman Cancer Institute) but the U of U as a whole, and it will take both institutions a very long time to recover from such a deadly blow."
The change also drew fire from the institute's founder and namesake, Jon Huntsman Sr., who Tuesday called the decision "unethical." He said the move was done out of jealousy.
Huntsman, who does not own or operate the cancer treatment facility, said he will back lawsuits on the issue, and some fundraising efforts are "on hold" due to the recent news of Beckerle's firing.
Welm said the group of local dissenters acted spontaneously Wednesday, but if they don't hear from Pershing's office, "more will come."
"This needs to be explained. We deserve to know what their thinking was on this," he said.