The University of Utah on Tuesday reinstated Mary Beckerle as chief executive of the Huntsman Cancer Institute after days of protests over her abrupt firing.
The decision is a quick reversal for university leaders who summarily dismissed Beckerle last week with little explanation. After a trustees meeting today, University President David Pershing released a statement saying that Beckerle is reinstated “effective immediately.”
“This past week has been an extraordinary and challenging time for our university and community,” the statement said. “Members of our campus community spoke out and made their perspectives known. It is now time, I believe, to return to our mission of serving our students, caring for our patients and pursuing critical research.”
Beckerle’s reinstatement follows an internal power struggle and several days of demonstrations by cancer institute patients and employees. The dispute pitted Pershing and Dr. Vivian Lee, the head of the university’s hospital, against Jon Huntsman Sr., the patriarch of one of Utah’s most powerful families and the benefactor of the university’s cancer institute. He had called the decision to fire Beckerle “pathetic” and accused Lee of a “power grab.”
The battle was unusually intense, even by the standards of high academia, where political struggles are common but often unfold behind closed doors. Huntsman, whose family owns the Salt Lake City Tribune, took out full-page ads in two local newspapers to protest Beckerle’s removal last week and the Tribune had also published an editorial calling for Lee’s firing.
Lee left Tuesday’s meeting without speaking with reporters and has remained publicly silent during the battle. During her tenure, Lee has raised University of Utah’s national profile, launching a first-of-its kind effort to track the actual costs of delivering care and aggressively pushing efforts to focus on patient-reported outcomes.
In an email about Beckerle’s removal last week, Lee credited her with raising the Huntsman Cancer Institute to “new heights,” noting her role in securing its comprehensive cancer center designation by the National Cancer Institute — a status that brings significant financial resources and prestige. Huntsman Cancer Institute is the only facility with that designation in the mountain west.
But the note offered no explanation for why she was removed. Meanwhile, an online petition to protest Beckerle’s removal collected more than 3,500 signatures.
Despite the controversy, department heads at the University of Utah’s health care system released an open letter Tuesday declaring their “unwavering” support for Lee and crediting her with being a “champion” for the institution.
“She is imperative to the continuing success and strength of the University of Utah,” they wrote.
This story has been updated to reflect that Beckerle has been reinstated.