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Ravell Call, Deseret News
FILE - CEO and Director Mary Beckerle of Huntsman Cancer Institute poses for a photo in the lab at HCI in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Beckerle has been fired as CEO and director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute in a move that has drawn the ire of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and Huntsman Family Foundation.
The left hand and the right hand at the University of Utah just doesn't know what's going on. It's just so pathetic to watch them operate. —Jon Huntsman Sr.

SALT LAKE CITY — Monday's firing of the Huntsman Cancer Institute's CEO has drawn outrage from founder Jon Huntsman Sr., who on Tuesday promised lawsuits to come, saying the university has been acting "unethically."

Dr. Mary Beckerle had overseen the institute for 11 years as its director and CEO. The reason for her departure was not divulged in a message sent to faculty and staff Monday by Dr. Vivian Lee, CEO of University of Utah Health Care, and University of Utah President David Pershing.

Huntsman, the Utah business giant who provided the funds to found the cancer institute in 1993, expressed anger Tuesday at what he called an abrupt firing. Beckerle was notified through email that she was fired, Huntsman told the Deseret News.

"It was a terribly, terribly unethical act," Huntsman said. "We're dumbfounded."

Huntsman said he is hopeful that Beckerle can be reinstated at some point — if he has anything to say about it. He heaped praise on Beckerle, calling her "world-renowned."

"Nobody was warned of this," he said. "There's no reason for it; there's no excuse for it."

Pershing and Lee, who is also senior vice president for health sciences at the U. and dean of the U. School of Medicine, said in their email that Beckerle "will remain on faculty as a distinguished professor in biology."

"This change has occurred after very careful consideration and with the full support of the University of Utah president and the senior leadership of the University of Utah board of trustees," the email states.

Kathleen Cooney, chairwoman of the Department of Internal Medicine, has been named interim director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. The email from Pershing and Lee didn't provide details about a possible search for a permanent replacement.

The email also said the institute appreciates its partnership with the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

"We are grateful for the visionary leadership and generous support of the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman family and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, and share their commitment to the eradication of cancer," they wrote.

The email from Pershing and Lee also thanked Beckerle for her service and praised her work, saying she helped raise Huntsman Cancer Institute's national status to "new heights, including its recent National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center designation, the successful stewardship of the Utah Population Database, and national and international recognition as a premier center for cancer research and treatment."

But Huntsman criticized both Pershing and Lee, saying the firing was personal on Lee's part. He said Lee was motivated by her jealousy of Beckerle while Pershing "has given (Lee) full reign and not been on top of it at all."

He also called Lee "a very vicious, vitriolic woman."

"The left hand and the right hand at the University of Utah just doesn't know what's going on," he told the Deseret News. "It's just so pathetic to watch them operate."

Responding on behalf of Pershing and Lee, university spokeswoman Kathy Wilets declined to answer questions about the decision.

"We just do not comment on personnel issues," she told the Deseret News.

Attempts to reach Beckerle for comment were unsuccessful.

Huntsman promised "several" lawsuits against the university in the coming weeks, some of them related to handling of finances. He alleged that the university has not met its agreed-to financial obligations in the last few years to reimburse the Huntsman's efforts to expand and improve the Huntsman Institute Center campus.

The Huntsman Cancer Foundation's "sole purpose is to raise funds to support the mission of Huntsman Cancer Institute" and is responsible for funding one-third of the institute's budget, according to explanations given on a University of Utah Health Care web page. The Huntsman Family Foundation is an organization responsible for a wider range of philanthropic projects.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute itself is not owned or operated by the Huntsmans.

Huntsman said a deal was being negotiated in recent days that would result in $250 million being donated to Huntsman Cancer Institute by the Huntsman Cancer Foundation over the next eight years. But those negotiations are now on hold, he said. He said he is committed to making Huntsman Cancer Institute a world-renowned facility lasting until "well after I'm gone," but that he wants Lee fired.

"Our family has now either raised or contributed or through grants, we've put over $2.2 billion in this facility, and until Vivian Lee is replaced and removed and fired — our family will continue to always, always help those with cancer — but we have other buildings on the drawing board, other plans for expansion and we're not going to slow down because of a bureaucrat," Huntsman said.

Huntsman also lamented what he said was a troubling relationship with the University of Utah overall.

"There was a sense of jealousy, a sense of (feeling) the Huntsman Cancer Institute was outgrowing the university. ... The university isn't quite big enough to accept some of that. ... I can't imagine anything worse than the University of Utah treating a donor the way they treated us. It's just without equal," he said.

Huntsman also characterized the university's firing of Beckerle as "a terrible, terrible thing they've done to our family" and "far, far, far removed from anything we've ever seen at any cancer hospital anywhere."

During his world travels and business dealings, Huntsman told the Deseret News, he has never seen unethical behavior to the extent that he has with current university administrators.

"We've never had anyone ... ever, ever act with this type of immaturity and dishonesty, ever," he said. "So it's new to us. We play by the rules, live by the rules."

Peter Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Family Foundation and Huntsman Cancer Foundation, also blasted the decision Tuesday, telling the Deseret News it was "a terrible move."

"I was absolutely floored. I was absolutely shocked," said Peter Huntsman, who is also CEO of Huntsman Corp. "… I was very disappointed."

The change was made "without any consultation or any advice" on the part of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, he said.

Peter Huntsman vouched for Beckerle, calling her "a wonderful human being" who had overseen an increasingly successful facility that he said is known as "one of the best hospitals in North America."

"It's always about money. It's always about greed at the end of the day," he said.

"I imagine there's an ongoing argument in the university as far as how (granted or donated money) should be used," he said, noting that he believes funding donated or granted to Huntsman Cancer Institute should stay focused on its role in cancer research.

"It's a cancer hospital," he said.

"Our first and foremost (priority) is going to be for Huntsman Cancer Institute to be nationally recognized," Peter Huntsman said. "Does the university want us to have a role in this? Is this something the taxpayers want to start taking on?"

An online petition at change.org calls for Beckerle to be reinstated and characterizes her exit as a termination, saying she had been "relieved of her duties."

"We … voice our objection to this decision and the manner in which it was carried out," states the petition, which had gathered more than 400 signatures by early Tuesday evening. "We are deeply concerned about the impact it will have on … 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."

The petition, created by a user called "UU Faculty," says it was launched in response to "profound shock and disappointment."