SALT LAKE CITY — A state lawmaker said Tuesday that the Utah Legislature's Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee will soon ask University of Utah administrators for more information about the school's relationship with the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, the subcommittee's co-chairman, said he will seek more information during the Legislature's upcoming interim meetings for the sake of clarity in state funding decisions going forward.
"It's something we want to look into," Grover said. "We want to make sure (state) monies are appropriately accounted for."
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said there are many unanswered questions about what has transpired at the U. in the aftermath of a power play for control of the cancer institute that played out with the sudden firing — then reinstatement — of its director and CEO, Mary Beckerle; the resignation of the U.'s senior vice president of health sciences, Dr. Vivian Lee; and U. President David Pershing's announcement that he will move up the timetable on his retirement.
Gibson, who is a health care administrator, praised Lee as “very astute to the ever-changing world of health care. I think she was trying to make changes in terms of population health management and the way health care is delivered. I don’t know how that dovetails into the Huntsman Cancer Institute.”
The U. lost "a great leader" in Lee, said Gibson, who is House majority whip.
“Do I like it? I don’t like what transpired at all. I don’t know what can be done legislatively. I haven’t thought about it. Obviously there will be some who are concerned,” he said.
State lawmakers will hold interim meetings later this month, and likely will compare notes and develop a greater understanding of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, the health sciences campus and state funding.
“I would like to see over the last 20 years how much the Huntsmans have really given compared to how much state taxpayers have really given in terms of what the state Legislature over 20 years allocated and try to understand the nature of the Huntsmans’ donations,” Gibson said.
Grover said he would not characterize the upcoming inquiry as a probe or audit, and that he's not surprised to see conflict between the Huntsman Cancer Institute and other U. administrators, saying it is "not unique to the University of Utah."
"We've seen this happen before," he said.
Despite recent turmoil at the U., the search for the next university president is expected to attract high-quality candidates nationwide, said David Buhler, Utah’s commissioner of higher education.
“It’s been a difficult few weeks, but the quality of the University of Utah, the many good things that are happening there, I think, will far overshadow the challenges of the past period of time. I’m sure it will be a question, it will be an issue in some way, but I really don’t think it’s going to be the overriding issue,” Buhler said.
A search committee is in its beginning stages, to be led by board of regents member Harris Simmons and H. David Burton, chairman of the U.’s board of trustees.
If the recent search for Utah State University’s new president is a guide, the committee will include about 20 members, among them regents, trustees, faculty members, staff and community members.
One of the early decisions will be whether to hire a search firm to help with the process, Buhler said.
“We will proactively seeking out strong candidates whether we use a search firm or not,” he said.
This will be the seventh presidential search conducted in Buhler’s five years as higher education commissioner, he said.
Another job for the search committee is crafting a “position announcement,” Buhler said.
The recent search for Utah State's new president sought candidates with “extensive experience at a Research 1 and/or land grant institution, so I think you’ll be seeing a similar kind of thing here,” he said. “We’ll be looking for someone who has the demonstrated experience to lead the University of Utah with all its complexities, its breadth, scope and depth as our flagship institution.”
Pershing plans to stay in the position until his successor is in place, which Buhler said he believes will help with the transition and to address questions about the events of the past two weeks.
In December, Pershing informed Buhler and the chairman of the board of regents of his intention to announce in August his plans to retire from the U. He was appointed to the presidency in 2012.
Even though Pershing's announcement Monday that he would resign came following two weeks of tumult at the school, the board of regents insisted Tuesday that its support for him never wavered.
Board Chairman Dan Campbell said Pershing has "the full confidence" of the decision-making body, which hires and regularly evaluates presidents of the state's public universities and colleges.
The tension that Pershing said had existed for "several months" became highly public two weeks ago when Pershing and Lee, then the dean of the U. medical school, fired Beckerle.
The firing ignited a media blitz from Jon Huntsman Sr., who called for Pershing and Lee to be ousted from the U. It also prompted two protests on campus from cancer patients, institute faculty and students.
Beckerle was reinstated last week, and Huntsman told the Deseret News that the U. would have missed out on a major donation from the Huntsman Cancer Foundation if it were not for that reversal.
Lee resigned Friday, sending an email to faculty expressing sadness over the public divide between the U. and Huntsman Cancer Institute that followed Beckerle's firing.
Pershing, who has said he regrets firing Beckerle, said Monday that he is resigning as soon as the board of regents can find a permanent replacement for him, but he maintained that the decision was made before the recent controversy.
But Pershing added the timeline of the likely end of his tenure — and his announcement of it — was sped up in an effort to allow his replacement to personally recruit Lee's successor.
Support for Pershing
Just as Pershing insists he didn't want Lee to resign, Campbell indicated Pershing always had the board of regents' backing.
"We are grateful he will continue to serve for approximately one year until a new president is selected after a national search," he said.
Board of regents spokeswoman Melanie Heath said earlier this week that Pershing met with the board in a closed meeting "as a courtesy" on the day after Beckerle's reinstatement to keep members in the loop about the most recent developments concerning Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Heath added that Buhler — and the board of regents generally — believe the turmoil such as the kind surrounding Beckerle and Lee is best handled at the university level.
The regents continued to have strong support for Pershing following the outcry over Beckerle's firing, she said.
Paul Edwards, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert, agreed with the regents' and Pershing's assessment that the president was not announcing his resignation under duress.
"It had nothing to do with concern over power plays within the university, that kind of thing," Edwards said.
Campbell, Edwards and others, however, touched on the need for a new memorandum of understanding document, which is still being negotiated, to help outsider stakeholders understand how the U. and Huntsman Cancer Institute are expected to interact in the future.
"We do have a policy about donations to universities," Heath said. "We will be looking at our policies, including that one, to see if it needs to be updated."
When asked if such an evaluation of donor policies was a regular occurrence, Heath responded that the regents are "continually" reviewing the effectiveness of those guidelines "as needed."
Campbell also told the Deseret News that the regents "will be reviewing our statewide policies regarding private donations.”
A review of the memorandum of understanding will be important to help "clarify and reaffirm" the Huntsman Cancer Institute's role at the U., he said.
"We support (Pershing's) statement (Monday) that said the process of developing this agreement will be transparent," Campbell said in a statement.
Campbell was asked whether he is worried about the Huntsmans having an inappropriately large influence over university decision-making. He alluded to the value of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation in his statement, but didn't elaborate further.
"Private philanthropy is vital to the success of all higher education institutions, and we support and encourage it," he said.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Tuesday that he wants to understand more about who answers to whom and when as it concerns the U. and Huntsman Cancer Institute.
"I was unaware of what the pecking order really was and who was in a position to fire whom," Hughes said Tuesday on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show."
Hughes has previously said he asked the Office of the Legislative Auditor General to look into a 2014 donation to the U. from California billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong that came under scrutiny, and added that he was disappointed to hear of Beckerle's firing. He clarified Tuesday that he "would hope" that those two concerns of his are not related.
Hughes praised both Pershing and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation for the accomplishments at the cancer institute. He said he believes Pershing was in a tough spot with respect to Beckerle.
"There’s a lot of decisions that get made on campus, and I think sometimes digging out of those decisions has been left to President Pershing, even sometimes things that are not of his making," Hughes said.
The Huntsman family has earned the right to be listened to closely, the speaker said, more so than that of a typical big-money donor.
"You can’t put the Huntsman family in the donor category. They are a unique family," Hughes said.
"They are a family that is very close to this state and what they’ve done on a personal level with the (Huntsman Cancer Institute) I think outpaces what the definition of a donor is. Their role and their contribution has been integral to our community, and I think that institute’s impact has been felt worldwide."
Edwards said it's natural for institutions as large as the U., Huntsman Cancer Institute and Huntsman Cancer Foundation to butt heads.
"When you are dealing with these high-powered institutions and with high expectations, high demands there may be from time to time conflicts of vision and different thoughts about appropriate governance," he said.
Edwards said he is encouraged by what he knows of the current memorandum of understanding negotiations between Huntsman Cancer Institute and the U.
"They're good institutions, they're good people," he said. "It's unfortunate that there's been such conflict. But we have every belief that a more cooperative approach can prevail."