SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah President David Pershing, one of the key figures at the center of a controversy over the Huntsman Cancer Institute director's firing, said Monday he plans to resign and has asked the state board of regents to immediately begin searching for his replacement.
"I think it’s the best possible way to get from where we are now into the future," Pershing said.
Addressing faculty and staff at a campus meeting, Pershing said he is not stepping down because of the recent firestorm over the dismissal of Huntsman Cancer Institute Director and CEO Mary Beckerle, whom he played a role in firing by email on April 17.
Pershing said he initially planned to step down by the end of the 2017-18 school year, but now the preferred timeline is simply as soon as possible because he wants his replacement to be able to recruit his or her own candidate for the crucial position of senior vice president of health sciences.
"I don’t think at this particularly critical time it’s in our interest to have interim leadership (hiring for that position)," he said.
That post was vacated Friday by the resignation of Dr. Vivian Lee following more than a week of uproar over the decision she and Pershing made to fire Beckerle. Lee also resigned Friday from her positions as dean of the U. Medical School and CEO of University of Utah Health.
U. spokesman Chris Nelson said Pershing decided he wanted to retire well before the public rift between the cancer institute and the university — perhaps as far back as December. Pershing initially planned to announce his resignation in August but decided to let faculty know sooner when the likely end of his tenure was moved up.
Pershing never planned to serve much longer than he has, and his presidency at the U. was never a stepping stone to another position, according to Nelson. Pershing's life plan, he said, was initially to finish his presidency slightly later — around the end of the 2017-18 school year — and the revised timeline has had no effect on his desire to remain at the U. as a professor.
See an email Pershing sent to students and faculty below:
Pershing also addressed several pointed questions from faculty members about Lee's resignation during Monday's meeting with the university's Academic Senate. He told the faculty he wanted to make it "crystal clear" that he never asked for Lee's resignation.
"I was actually in shock as many of you in this room were," he said. "I didn’t see this coming. I am grateful for everything she has done."
Pershing heaped praise on Lee, calling her instrumental in building the prestigious reputation of the university's medical school.
"There is no doubt that she has moved our health sciences side of the campus in very positive ways," he said.
Pershing also praised Jon Huntsman Sr. for his role in assisting Huntsman Cancer Institute. But he expressed regret at Huntsman's public comments calling for him and Lee to be fired, saying the public rift was "ugly."
Nadia Cobb, an associate professor in the University of Utah's Department of Family Preventive Medicine, told Pershing she's worried that the reinstatement of Beckerle could send a message that large donors are allowed to have undue influence going forward.
“I think there are perceptions now that wealthy donors have the ability to really determine how things are done,” she said. “That is a great concern.”
Cobb said she is also worried about the “character assassination” of Lee through Huntsman’s media blitz, including full-page advertisements in the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune calling the university administration “bloated.”
Pershing responded that Huntsman’s pressure was not what motivated him to reinstate Beckerle.
“I did not reverse the decision because of any donor,” he said. “I reversed the decision because I came to the conclusion that it was not in the best interest of university faculty.”
In the aftermath of Beckerle’s firing, Huntsman angrily called Lee a “vicious, vitriolic” woman and said he wanted her fired. Prior to Beckerle’s reinstatement, he also said he wanted Pershing fired, saying he “should have been let go a long time ago.”
Huntsman reversed his position after the reinstatement, saying he had discovered the U. president was given bad information and that he hoped Pershing would remain in the position “for many years.”
However, when contacted about Lee’s resignation, Huntsman said he wasn’t sorry to see her go.
Cobb added that she is worried that the university did not come to Lee’s defense as strongly as it should have.
“There should be some sort of communication now publicly that (what was said about her) is not OK,” she said.
Pershing replied by saying he was doing his best to not instigate any additional fights in the media and that he had to “sort of negotiate the cease-fire, which I did.”
“I can’t control what the newspaper publishes. That’s the newspaper’s businesses,” Pershing said. “I am in a very tricky place because I am the guy who is trying not to throw gasoline on this fire.”
Dr. Antoinette Laskey, an associate professor and division chief at the Center for Safe and Healthy Families at the U., said she felt Lee took the lion's share of the blame for a decision that was also made with the blessing of Pershing and the U. board of trustees.
"When there was a reversal (of Beckerle's firing), it was Dr. Lee who was left as the one responsible," said Laskey, who also practices as a clinical doctor at Primary Children's Hospital. "Dr. Lee was being thrown under the bus regardless of what the reality was. Dr. Lee was left holding the bag."
Pershing replied that he never intended for Lee to become a lightning rod for those who were angry about Beckerle being fired.
"I have never done that, and I’m not about to do that today," he said. "It was not my intention to throw Dr. Lee under the bus at that time, or any other time."
'We didn't do it right'
Pershing said he didn't do a good job of handling the different visions of health sciences and Huntsman Cancer Institute.
"It’s really hard to get this to work out perfectly," he said. "Was this conflict handled correctly? No, absolutely not. I get that that is on me. I apologize for that. We didn’t do it right. We didn’t do it in a correct way."
Pershing also acknowledged that there was disunity between Huntsman Cancer Institute and the U. medical school for "many months" prior to Beckerle's firing.
"I want to be clear that has nothing to do with the quality of health care that we’re providing or the quality of research that many of you in this room are conducting," he said.
Pershing fielded some other heated questions about whether he would prioritize being transparent to U. faculty more so than to university donors. But the question and answer session Monday was largely civil.
Pershing was also praised by some faculty members for making the decision to bring Beckerle back. He received applause at the end of his remarks.
Following Pershing's announcement, the state board of regents and Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler released statements expressing gratitude for the U. president.
"He has always put students and the university first," Buhler said. "He will be missed as president, but I am grateful he is not leaving the university family and will remain as faculty.”
Board of regents chairman Daniel Campbell said Pershing made "a lasting mark" on the university.
“His visionary leadership as president of Utah’s flagship university over the past five years has been extraordinary," Campbell said. "We are grateful that he will remain as president until the search is concluded.”
Pershing's announcement also prompted a response from Gov. Gary Herbert.
"He has championed significant improvements in STEM education and guided major campus improvements that will bless the lives of students for decades to come," Herbert said in a prepared statement.