SALT LAKE CITY — Had the University of Utah not reinstated the CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, Jon Huntsman Sr. confirmed Wednesday that it would have lost a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar donation from his family's foundation.
Huntsman told the Deseret News that the deal — designed to give payments to the facility over eight years, totaling $250 million — "was pretty well settled" before Huntsman Institute Director and CEO Mary Beckerle was fired on April 17. But the decision to let her go changed everything, he said.
Asked whether the money would have been withheld had Beckerle not been reinstated, Huntsman responded, "Of course it would have been."
"Nobody's going to tolerate people being fired at any institution or any charity for no cause, no reason, no explanation — just fired — (when that person is) doing an excellent job and they're world-renowned and we respect them," Huntsman said.
"Of course we would never donate to that charity again, nor would anybody else. People don't give money to be surprised in that manner."
The Utah business and philanthropy giant said he no longer anticipates any problems in completing the $250 million donation.
Beckerle was reinstated to her position after a university board of trustees meeting Tuesday, with board Chairman H. David Burton saying the board now had "20/20 hindsight" about the initial move. Her firing drew outrage from Huntsman last week, in addition to prompting two protests on campus and thousands of signatures in an online petition asking for her reinstatement.
At the time, Huntsman called for University of Utah President David Pershing and University of Utah Health Care CEO Vivian Lee to be fired. Both were responsible for firing Beckerle in an email. Huntsman called that decision a "terribly, terribly unethical act."
In giving Beckerle her job back, the school also announced Tuesday that for the first time, the Huntsman Cancer Institute director will now report directly to Pershing instead of to Lee.
Huntsman claimed Lee fired Beckerle out of jealousy and called Lee a "vicious, vitriolic woman" and "the least ethical, least disciplined woman in the world." But Wednesday, he said Lee — who is also senior vice president for health sciences at the U. and dean of the U. School of Medicine — is no longer his concern since the institute won't be reporting to her.
"I don't wish her well, I don't wish her bad," Huntsman said. "We just don't want anything to do with her — at least I don't."
Huntsman also backed off from his call that Pershing be fired, saying he now hopes he remains president of the university "for many years."
Huntsman provided the financial backing to help found the Huntsman Cancer Institute in 1993. The Huntsman Cancer Foundation has contributed more than $2.2 billion to the institute since that time by helping to secure grants, donations and state funds for the facility, according to Huntsman. He estimates that between $500 million and $550 million of that was given out of the family's own fortune.
Huntsman was asked if there are valid concerns about whether his considerable clout as a major donor to the university will cast a shadow over U. administrators' decision-making in the future, given his public demands about Beckerle. He responded that his demands "didn't have anything to do with the size or scope (of my donations) and everything to do with justice and fairness."
"Any donor of any size to any organization as a charity has a right to have a full and transparent accountability of their funds," Huntsman told the Deseret News.
"The same thing is true for taxpayers. When they pay taxes, they have transparency and accountability due from the government. Anybody giving a contribution to anyone deserves to understand fully how their money is being spent by the ones they entrust it with."
Huntsman said he viewed Beckerle's firing as an extraordinary circumstance and insists he doesn't normally get involved in "internal politics" at the university.
"We've had 24 wonderful years with the various presidents of the university (and) deans — every single president, every dean. We've had a great relationship, remarkable teamwork and communication. There's never been an issue, ever."
He said that was partly why Beckerle's firing was so jarring and elicited a public tirade from him.
"My expressions were what they were because it was such a shock," he said.
Huntsman said Burton declined his request to meet with the U. board of trustees to make his case for Beckerle, and that denial angered him. He also said he doesn't believe the board's decision to give Beckerle her job back was because of his public pressure.
"That had nothing to do with the resolution" to reinstate Beckerle, he said. "I think the resolution was (reached because) the president (had) clearly (been) misled ... by inaccurate information by Dr. Lee for whatever reason that only she could tell us."
Pershing, Lee and Beckerle did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, though all three have previously issued prepared statements. The university has not elaborated on the reason for Beckerle's firing, despite numerous requests, claiming that information cannot be released because it pertains to a personnel issue.
Huntsman said he also is still unclear about why Beckerle was fired. He still believes there was no legitimate reason for her dismissal.
"This has really been a very, very difficult witch hunt to try to unscramble, because nobody has ever come up with any reason whatsoever for something as significant as firing one of the outstanding woman scientists throughout the world," he said.
He believes returning to normalcy is key to moving beyond the public rift between the U. administration and the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
"We just need to get back to where we were before Dr. Lee sent the email," he said. "All the HCI wants to do is put everything back the way it was before Humpty Dumpty was knocked off the wall."
Currently, the Huntsman Cancer Foundation contributes about 11 percent of the Huntsman Cancer Institute's research operations budget, though the institute says that number hovered around 30 percent prior to money recently being poured into the Primary Children's and Family's Cancer Research Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute, a 225,000-square-foot facility scheduled to be completed in June. The funds being used for the new center aren't officially counted toward the operations budget.
The building is slated to cost $116 million, all of which comes from either donations or state funds secured through the efforts of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, according to the institute.