SALT LAKE CITY — Dr. Mary Beckerle, the director and CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute who was abruptly fired last week after more than a decade in charge, likely will be reinstated to her position as early as Tuesday, according to sources with knowledge of the decision.
The decision is expected to be announced after a special closed executive session of the University of Utah board of trustees set for 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
Reached by phone on Monday afternoon, University of Utah board of trustees chairman H. David Burton declined to comment beyond saying that the board would be meeting Tuesday and that any statement would have to come "from the trustees as a whole."
The decision to reinstate Beckerle would mark a stunning about-face for university administrators.
Dr. Vivian Lee, the senior vice president of health sciences at the University of Utah, and University of Utah President David Pershing drew immediate and severe backlash for their abrupt decision to fire Beckerle on April 17.
The next day, about 100 students, faculty members and patients marched to Pershing's office to protest the move and an online petition asking the University of Utah board of trustees to reinstate Beckerle quickly gathered thousands of signatures.
The outrage continued to boil on Monday, as more than 50 people crowded outside Pershing's office again to demand answers in what was billed as a patients protest.
"(A decade) ago, they would have given me two years to live," said Garry Nichols, who is in remission from blood cancer. "I'm here today because of Mary Beckerle."
Chants of "We support Beckerle!" and "Reinstate Beckerle!" reverberated through the hallway as protesters stood outside Pershing's office doors, waiting for a response.
Chris Nelson, University of Utah's communications director, emerged to address the group and take questions, though he didn't offer more information about Beckerle's firing.
Nelson told the crowd that he understood how much people care about the center and that the university would be speaking out more about the situation "in the coming days."
Lee, who is also the dean of the university's medical school and CEO of University of Utah Health, and Pershing did not respond to requests for comment on Monday, nor did Jon Huntsman Sr. or Beckerle.
Paul Edwards, Gov. Gary Herbert's deputy chief of staff, said the governor was "very concerned" about Beckerle's firing but "confident they will be able to work out what has been an unfortunate series of miscommunications."
Beckerle's dismissal ignited a furious reaction from Huntsman, the institute's namesake, who provided the funds to found the center in 1993. Over the past week, Huntsman has heaped criticisms on Lee, whom he called a “vicious, vitriolic woman” in interviews with the Deseret News. He also told KSL Radio's Doug Wright that Pershing “should have been let go a long time ago.”
Huntsman said Lee and Pershing were jealous of the success of Beckerle and the Huntsman Cancer Institute and wanted to take control of the center to “fill the losses at the University Hospital,” he told Wright.
The billionaire philanthropist also threatened to sue and said that a $250 million donation from the Huntsman Cancer Foundation was now on hold.
The unusually public rupture of relations between the Huntsman Cancer Institute and University of Utah Health exposed the tensions building around the future of the cancer center, which has operated semi-autonomously from the rest of the university since its inception.
Jody Rosenblatt, a cell biologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and associate professor at the University of Utah medical school, questioned how Pershing and Lee would rebuild trust with faculty even if they reinstated Beckerle.
"Reinstating Mary Beckerle is a step in the right direction, but I think we need to see some remorse and that things are going to change," Rosenblatt said.
Some faculty believe that “change” includes firing Lee, Rosenblatt added.
Under Lee's direction, University of Utah Health earned the top spot in a national ranking of academic health care systems last year and was featured in the New York Times for an innovative program to measure the cost of care at the hospital system.
But faculty members and researchers with the University of Utah said that frustration against Lee has been building for years following a string of releases of high-profile department chairs and deans without explanation and making extraordinary demands of faculty to increase their teaching and research workloads.
Bruce Edgar, a professor with the University of Utah and molecular biologist with the Huntsman Cancer Institute, said Lee and Pershing should have been transparent about why they were firing Beckerle.
It will take "a lot of negotiating" to clarify the relationship between the university and the institute and how directors and department chairs are hired and fired, Edgar said.
"In this case there was no transparency from the university administration and there was no attempt to involve the scientific community or external advisory board or donors," he said. "And those were all mistakes."48 comments on this story
To date, the university has released few details about the circumstances surrounding Beckerle's firing, saying the amount of information they can release is limited because it was a personnel issue.
In an email last week to staff, Lee and Pershing said the decision was made with the "full support of the University of Utah president and the senior leadership of the University of Utah board of trustees.”
Rosenblatt said if things did not change, she would consider leaving.
"It's that bad," she said. "They have a lot of answering to do.”