SALT LAKE CITY — As a former volunteer at the Huntsman Cancer Institute — and most significantly, a survivor of ovarian cancer who beat the disease in 2009 after treatment there — Laurie Fraser feels she can speak from experience about what the organization has accomplished under the leadership of Dr. Mary Beckerle.
"Mary has devoted her professional life to the state of Utah, the University of Utah, the biology department and the Huntsman Cancer Institute," Fraser said Monday in front of dozens of protesters seeking Beckerle's reinstatement. "Under Mary's leadership, hard work and love, the HCI has met the challenges of providing intelligent, sensitive service to cancer patients over the state of Utah and the Intermountain West."
Fraser was one of more than 50 people who crowded outside the office of University of Utah President David Pershing to demand answers about Beckerle's firing and show their support for her Monday.
"The people of Utah deserve a medical school and cancer hospital that work together to give the patient care we all understand is available here in Utah without having to travel to Los Angeles, San Francisco (or) Seattle. President Pershing, do what is right. Restore respect to your office — reinstate Mary Beckerle," Fraser said to loud cheers.
Beckerle's dismissal ignited a furious reaction last week from the institute's namesake, Jon Huntsman Sr., who praised her as a "world-renowned" research leader who is largely responsible for the facility's prestigious National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center. A group of about 100 students, patients and researchers also protested the move and carried out a march to Pershing's office last Wednesday.
Chants of "We support Beckerle!" and "Reinstate Beckerle!" reverberated through the hallway Monday as about 60 to 70 people stood outside Pershing's office doors, waiting for a response from him. Instead, 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 April 17.
The university is being as transparent as possible and will be speaking out more about the situation "in the coming days," Nelson said. He said he understood how much people care about the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
"This is a shared community resource," he said.
Huntsman, the billionaire businessman who provided the initial money to found the institute in 1993, has heaped criticisms on Pershing and Dr. Vivian Lee, who is CEO of University Health Care, dean of the U. School of Medicine and senior vice president for health sciences, calling them unethical and saying they were jealous of the success of Beckerle and the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Huntsman claimed last week that the firing was done out of greed to "fill the losses at the University Hospital."
As of early Monday evening, more than 3,600 people had signed an online petition asking for the University of Utah board of trustees to reinstate Beckerle.
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. However, school spokeswoman Kathy Wilets praised Lee's leadership in a statement released Friday.
"Thanks to Dr. Lee, the U.’s medical center is thriving and well prepared to navigate a rapidly changing health care landscape. We must protect our institution which has an obligation to care for more than 1.7 million patients a year, do groundbreaking research and train new health care professionals every year," Wilets' statement said in part.
Several cancer survivors who were treated at Huntsman Cancer Institute were among the protesters Monday.
"(A decade) ago, they would have given me two years to live," said Garry Nichols, who is in remission from a cancer of the blood. "I'm here today because of Mary Beckerle.
Nichols said he is doubtful the Huntsman Cancer Institute could have the same exceptional care if the university continues on the path it's on.
"It's politics," he said.
University of Utah student Bruce Parker, who also protested Monday, said he wants to "reserve judgment" on why Beckerle was fired, but finds it hard to take the side of school administrators without receiving an explanation for the decision.
"Mary Beckerle has led the institution in an exemplary way," Parker said. "I think the residents of Utah deserve an explanation and we deserve one immediately."
Lee's style questioned
Eric Jacobson, former facilities and engineering manager for Cancer Huntsman Hospital who retired two years ago, called Lee's management style into question Monday, saying he was very disappointed at the fact that Beckerle was let go.
Jacobson said Beckerle and the Huntsmans were very personable with employees at the facility, in contrast with Lee.
"Did I get that from Lee? No. I met her once and that's it," Jacobson said.
Huntsman Cancer Institute employees have long believed that Lee treated her position at the University of Utah merely as a way to get a job somewhere else, according to Jacobson.
"(Beckerle) ran a great place," he said. "It's world famous and Lee is not going to make it better."
Jacobson was "not surprised" that Beckerle was fired despite her world-class reputation, he said, because he claims Lee showed tendencies toward jealousy as a leader.
"There's some jealousy there because Beckerle was assigned to be on (former Vice President Joe) Biden's (National Cancer Advisory Board) Blue Ribbon Panel," he said. "Lee wasn't. And I think she wants to climb up the ladder."
Lee emailed the Deseret News with a short statement in her defense on Friday, saying "I believe there are many who could attest to my character."
Ultimately, Jacobson believes Lee picked the wrong fight.
"I don't think Lee gauged the Utah populace very well," he said. I don't think (she) understands Utah's a lot different than New York City and when you go after a family like the Huntsmans, you're asking for a war."