After a torrent of news coverage this spring surrounding the University of Utah’s unexpected firing and subsequent rehiring of Dr. Mary Beckerle, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, the eponymous benefactor of the institute, Jon Huntsman Sr., agreed to discuss his life-long battle to cure cancer and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation’s new memorandum of understanding with the university. During preliminary conversations in preparation for the Q&A that follows, I learned that University of Utah President David Pershing had recently issued a letter of apology to Mr. Huntsman. I requested a copy of the letter from Mr. Huntsman which is published in its entirety below.
Q: It’s not easy establishing and helping grow a major cancer institute. Why get into this business of battling cancer in such a direct way in the first place?
In 1993, our family decided to devote our life’s work to help eradicate cancer and to alleviate the human suffering caused by cancer as much as possible. At the time, I had already survived prostate cancer and mouth cancer. My mother and father had both died of cancer. It has been a plague for mankind for the past 4,500 years. To me, two of the greatest challenges facing mankind are securing world peace and conquering cancer. 1993 is a defining moment in the history of the cancer institute.
From 1993-94, we devoted our time to visiting major cancer centers in the United States and in Europe. We consulted with experts about what comprised the essential elements of an excellent cancer institute. We were even offered lucrative financial incentives from thriving universities on both coasts of the U.S. to locate a cancer institute there. From this exhaustive research, we well understood what would be needed to create a world-class cancer institute. Essential elements to a resource of this high stature were a united effort and complete integration of:
• Clinical care
• Outreach and education
Our decision to locate a cancer center in Salt Lake City was not a financial decision. It was informed by two factors:
1) Utah and the broader Mountain West had no nationally recognized quality cancer center in its midst.
2) Unparalleled genealogical records available from the LDS Church, combined with health and other statistics could speed cancer research like no other resource in the world. This resource is known as the Utah Population Database (UPDB).
Upon learning from experts the essential elements of a world-class cancer institute, and upon discovering that the nation’s most powerful engine for medical research (UPDB) resided in our own backyard, Karen and I had no doubt about the appropriate next step.
In 1995, we entered into a 10-year contract to establish the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. From its beginning, its three-fold mission included research, clinical programs and outreach and education. Both parties’ responsibilities and obligations were clearly and legally detailed.
In 2007 and in 2014, additional contracts were executed that followed the evolution and growth of the cancer institute. The 2007 agreement dealt with ensuring that a portion of the revenue generated from clinical programs would be reinvested into research. The 2014 contract addressed the next investments Huntsman Cancer Foundation would make to accelerate cancer research. Both of those contracts were in force in April 2017.
Q: In April 2017, Mary Beckerle was fired as CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute by the University of Utah and then subsequently rehired. Why were you so passionate about getting her reinstated?
The termination of Dr. Beckerle was unwarranted.
We negotiated so diligently to keep Dr. Beckerle because we were fighting for the cancer institute. She is the right leader for the institute. Her stewardship of the three-fold mission has led the institute to the very highest accolades and coveted designations to which a cancer center can aspire. Her leadership transcends the sometimes polarizing world of academic medicine and academic politics.
Prior to the firing, we had more than two decades of history with the university, and we had never strayed from our vision to eradicate cancer. Dr. Beckerle’s termination was unnecessary and should never have happened. The action itself constituted a contract violation because Huntsman Cancer Foundation was not consulted nor informed prior to this termination. Second, the university’s financial practices also breached contracts. The university has conceded both these points in the new agreement. There will now be a restoration of funding by the university to Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Q: Are you happy with the newly signed memorandum of understanding between the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and the University of Utah?
Yes. I am thrilled we reached an understanding that will preserve the mission and vision of the cancer institute and will maintain our solid and trustworthy relationship with the university. This agreement appropriately returns the focus of our work to cancer, our patients and the families we serve.
Q: What is the appropriate role for the Huntsman family and the foundation to play in the institute and university, beyond writing checks?
I see our role as seeding and sustaining a world-class cancer center for Utahns and the surrounding region in a manner similar to what Monroe Dunaway Anderson’s foundation did for MD Anderson with its founding of the nation’s largest cancer center at the University of Texas in 1945. Nike founder Phil Knight is doing similar transformational work in cancer for the benefit of Oregonians now at the University of Oregon. The act of private donors making multimillion-dollar gifts produces exemplary health care programs.
There is always a natural tension between philanthropy/business and the academic realm. High-ranking institutions such as Stanford and MIT, together with the Ivy League schools, have finessed striking the appropriate balance between philanthropy and academic freedom and have a track record of excellence. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The University of Utah is similarly fortunate to have a large number of generous benefactors to assist and transform what can be offered on its campus. Our family has been proud to do our part, which we believe ultimately benefits the students, our patients and the citizens of the state and region. Some feel a benefactor should give funding, get a name on a building and move on to the next need. But cancer has not yet been cured. That is the ultimate prize. The Huntsman family and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation remain involved to continue to move the institute forward.
Here are the specific ways we have tried to move things forward in the past 20 years alongside the support of now more than 1 million donors:
• In 1999 we opened the research laboratories, outpatient care program and outreach and education programs
• In 2004 we opened the Mountain West’s first and still only cancer specialty hospital
• In 2011, based on patient need, we doubled the size of Huntsman Cancer Hospital
• In 2017 we doubled the amount of research laboratory space, placing a special focus on speeding discovery for treatment advances for childhood cancers, women’s cancers, cancers that run in families, and addressing health disparities in cancer.
The pace, in my opinion, is breathtaking by academic norms. We have had to prod, cajole and encourage along the way. But I don’t think anyone can be critical of the resources provided to benefit cancer programs, patients, families and our community. We will continue to advocate unabashedly in every appropriate venue for cancer programs until this dreaded disease is eradicated.
Q: The president of the University of Utah has apologized to you for not consulting the foundation before firing the CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Given where you are today with the university, would you have done anything differently?
We had to vehemently defend the cancer institute and Dr. Beckerle. The university’s action broke a contract. It broke our trust. We were absolutely blindsided. Worse, the action was unwarranted. By any objective measure, Dr. Beckerle is an exceptional leader who has brought the institute to the highest levels of achievement. My heart was broken.
Each day during a controversy, people tend to lose their focus on cancer advancements. Similarly, we lose our focus on a patient, a family, a beloved community member. My passion rose out of my deep concern and love on behalf of those who carry the heavy burden of a cancer diagnosis. The university’s actions seemed to overlook the patients and the impact on them.
Q: More specifically, you received a letter from the U.’s president, David Pershing, stating: “ I want to acknowledge and apologize for our recent actions with respect to our failure to consult with the (Huntsman Cancer) Foundation, as provided in the Current Agreements.” He also wrote, “I recognize these actions were detrimental to the long-standing history of communication and trust between us, which I deeply regret.” Do you feel the need to apologize?
I was very appreciative of President Pershing’s letter. It acknowledged that contracts had been breached. As important, it acknowledged that trust had been broken. That admission demonstrates the humility of the individual and the deep introspection this difficult time requires of us all. President Pershing and I have always shown our mutual respect and affection for one another. That feeling exists now more than ever.
We have all grown and learned from this experience. All is well going forward. We are unified as one team. It’s upward and onward now and finding a cure for cancer.
Q: As you try to put the past issues behind you, where are the foundation and the institute headed?
We are onward and upward together. To indicate the Huntsman family’s gratitude for the outstanding care we have personally received from throughout the University Health system, I announced a surprise, personal gift, that was outside our contractual obligations, to fund 12 new Presidential Chairs valued at $1.5 million each to be awarded to individual medical doctors throughout the university health system. I did this at the conclusion of the signing of the new contract. We feel the university medical staff, combined with Huntsman Cancer Institute’s professionals, constitute the most outstanding medical team in America.
The Huntsman Cancer Foundation will continue to support programs that accelerate discovery in order to develop better and more treatment options, particularly for childhood cancers, cancers that impact women, and to improve areas of clinical care. We look forward to being good partners with the university and our state. My children and grandchildren will continue the fight. The battle will not end until cancer has ended. Toward this goal, both the university and Huntsman Cancer Foundation are in agreement about present and future financial obligations.