SALT LAKE CITY — Deseret News investigative reporter Daphne Chen has spent the past two weeks working with colleagues Ben Lockhart and Marjorie Cortez in successfully uncovering the circumstances that led to the firing and subsequent rehiring of Huntsman Cancer Institute Director Mary Beckerle.
When asked how she was able to uncover key documents and deliver the story, Chen said simply: "It's a lot of work."
Indeed it was. Chen spent day and night knocking on doors, searching public records, making hundreds of phone calls, sending emails, and reaching out to experts both in-state and out of state who could put what she was finding into context. Her guiding principles as a Deseret News reporter are truth, accuracy, fairness and context.
The saga includes many of the university's and cancer institute's brightest minds, involves hundreds of millions of dollars hanging in the balance, and included the very public flogging of the respected and accomplished Dr. Vivian Lee by the equally respected Jon Huntsman Sr., whose drive, generosity and philanthropic spirit is largely responsible for creating the cancer institute that bears his name.
An angry Huntsman criticized university President David Pershing, calling for his ouster and saying he "should have been let go a long time ago." A week later, he praised Pershing for "doing the right thing" by reinstating Beckerle. Pershing then announced his resignation.
Lee's been at the center of the storm — an unfamiliar place for this Rhodes scholar and academic leader who has been praised for innovation. Huntsman hurled strong language at Lee and never backed away from his criticisms of her leadership. It's taken a toll, as Lee said herself in announcing her own resignation following Beckerle's reinstatement:
"It is fair to say that some of the strong invective that has been directed at my integrity and character, that was carried in the news media over the past two weeks, has been disturbing, especially to the younger members of our family in this close-knit community."
What was the university's public response to the original firing of Beckerle? University spokeswoman Kathy Wilets, speaking on behalf of Pershing and Lee, declined to answer questions, saying only, "We just do not comment on personnel issues."
That response is not good enough. Among the greatest lessons from the past two weeks is that transparency and openness are necessary to prevent events that can be tremendously damaging to individuals and organizations, in this case the University of Utah and Huntsman Cancer Institute.
How can a replacement for Lee be found given the contentious exit? Will the new university president be beholden to Huntsman and the university's benefactors? Will respected doctors and scientists be willing to join the organizations after the firings, hirings and resignations came without public explanation?
Huntsman, Pershing, Lee and Beckerle are outstanding and have brought unquestionable benefits to the community. Utah State University on Saturday announced a $50 million gift to the university's Jon M. Huntsman School of Business from the Huntsman Foundation and Charles Koch Foundation.
But they also have made mistakes, and many of the decisions are confusing, resulting not just in disagreements, but in public protests and petitions, with little explanation. With the university's failure to keep stakeholders like Huntsman apprised of decisions, and the tax-paying public left in the dark on questions of institutional governance, confidence has been eroded. Leadership was needed but was absent.
Key to restoring confidence is providing information to the public so it can hold those making decisions accountable. Now, with much of the story revealed by our reporters, the rebuilding can occur.
Says Chen of the response to her stories and interviews: "Everybody on both sides was calling for transparency. The press has opportunity to do that. But it also takes people willing to do the story," she said, in praise of those willing to speak both on and off the record.
Chen said part of the task of reporting is building up trust with those involved. Proof of her integrity and ability to do that are the conversations she had and the stories she wrote. She stayed in contact with those she first spoke with. She sought not just facts but reasons for actions, and was mindful she was writing about real people affected by the stories she was writing.
"As journalists, we're not here to sensationalize or cause discord. We're here to arm people with knowledge," Chen said. Shining a light is part of that process.
Today we have a clearer view of what happened at the University of Utah and Huntsman Cancer Institute because of the work of Daphne Chen, Ben Lockhart and Marjorie Cortez. And there is more work still to do.
New governance agreements will now be negotiated. It must be an open process to retain the confidence of all involved.
Many great people — from the Founding Fathers, philosophers, leaders in business, and journalists themselves — have spoken of the need for transparency in matters that have the public as stakeholders. This statement from the Dalai Lama, offers simple insight into what's at stake.
"A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity."
Pershing told the Deseret News that he wants to involve department chairs in understanding and nurturing the relationship between the Huntsman Cancer Institute and university's health sciences.
Time will tell.