SALT LAKE CITY — An angry Jon Huntsman Sr. on Friday called for the ousting of University of Utah President David Pershing, saying he "should have been let go a long time ago."
Huntsman, still seething about the university's firing earlier this week of Dr. Mary Beckerle, Huntsman Cancer Institute director and CEO, claims the leadership at the school is incompetent and unethical, and says the firing was done out of greed.
Huntsman called on the "people of Utah" to help remove Pershing from his post, and he wants the same for Dr. Vivian Lee, CEO of University of Utah Health Care, dean of the U. School of Medicine, and senior vice president for health sciences.
Pershing and Lee sent an email Monday informing faculty and staff that Beckerle's tenure heading the institute was over. The two also informed Beckerle she was being fired in an email sent to her earlier that day, according to Huntsman.
"It's just a pathetic, pathetic situation that needs to be corrected, and only the people of Utah … can correct it by (sending) letters, by getting rid of this president and particularly this woman (Lee) who runs the university for him and is completely unethical and untrustworthy," Huntsman said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show."
Huntsman, a billionaire businessman and well-known philanthropist, provided the funds to found Huntsman Cancer Institute in 1993. The Huntsman Cancer Foundation contributes roughly one-third of the institute's funding, according to information posted online.
Huntsman said he believes the U.'s goal is to help finance University Hospital by using money from Huntsman Cancer Institute, which he says is more successful.
"The whole deal at the university is to take us over, so it will fill … the minuses, the losses at the University Hospital. They think by stealing our money, by taking the money from Huntsman Cancer (Institute), that some way or another will help make them look better," he told Wright.
A full-page advertisement in both the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune on Friday — attributed to Huntsman and Huntsman Cancer Institute — accuses university administrators of being "over bloated, inept and uncaring."
The ad says: "Grateful appreciation to our valiant cancer patients, doctors, researchers, staff and the marvelous university students. Thanks also to a thoughtful Legislature and the great citizens of Utah for their support. Our only goal is to eradicate cancer — with the world's finest institute and hospital and its world-renowned leader, Dr. Mary Beckerle.
"We must not tolerate an over bloated, inept and uncaring University of Utah administration who are determined to derail this life-saving work."
When asked Friday to respond to Huntsman's tirade, Pershing and Lee sent prepared statements that did not address the call for their dismissals.
"We are so grateful for everything the Huntsman family has done to help the university. We sincerely want to continue to work with them to further Jon's wonderful vision," Pershing said. "The Huntsman Cancer Institute is one of the crown jewels of the University of Utah, and I am committed to ensuring its continued success."
Lee only issued a brief response to KSL via email.
"I believe there are many who could attest to my character," she wrote.
In a statement Friday, University of Utah spokeswoman Kathy Wilets lauded the accomplishments of the Huntsman Cancer Institute under the leadership of Pershing and Lee.
"The University of Utah board of trustees has expressed its unwavering support of President Pershing and the university’s senior leadership team. Under this team, the university has strengthened its reputation as one of the country’s top public universities," Wilets said.
She added she is confident that the Huntsman Cancer Institute remains in a position to excel, despite the controversial change.
Thanks to Dr. Lee, the U.’s medical center is thriving and well prepared to navigate a rapidly changing health care landscape.
–Kathy Wilets, U of U spokeswoman
"Thanks to Dr. Lee, the U.’s medical center is thriving and well prepared to navigate a rapidly changing health care landscape. … We must protect our institution which has an obligation to care for more than 1.7 million patients a year, do groundbreaking research and train new health care professionals every year," Wilets said.
"Transformational leadership involves difficult decisions that can be both disruptive and unsettling, but are necessary to move an institution forward."
In the email announcing the end of Beckerle's tenure, Pershing and Lee praised her for bringing Huntsman Cancer Institute to "new heights" and said she was staying at the university "as a distinguished professor in biology."
However, the announcement didn't address why Beckerle was fired or discuss any other circumstances of her termination and the university has not commented on the reasoning behind the decision.
Huntsman also claimed Friday that the university has not paid $65 million in obligations to the Huntsman Cancer Foundation for improvements and expansions on the Huntsman Cancer Institute campus.
He told KSL Friday that he plans to file lawsuits within "a week or two." He specifically mentioned a defamation lawsuit on Beckerle's behalf.
Huntsman added that a $250 million donation from the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, to be distributed over eight years, was actively being negotiated on the same day Beckerle was fired.
"(Pershing) was negotiating with us and telling us, 'Oh, we're so excited for the next eight years,'" Huntsman said. "And (Pershing was saying), 'We'd like the director of (Huntsman) Cancer Institute to report directly to me. … It's a large enough institute to report directly to me because it's a large enough institute that she (Beckerle) should have that authority by now.' We were just in that discussion when the word (of her dismissal) came to us."
Huntsman also criticized Gov. Gary Herbert, saying the governor's response to Beckerle's dismissal shows he was not taking the situation seriously enough.
"The governor said, 'Well, I'm going to look into it. My wife told me there's something going on up there.' I just about died — just about died," Huntsman said.
I'm just ready to cry every day. This is my life's work. Our family's put every penny we've made into it.
–Jon Huntsman Sr.
"I supported him. He succeeded our son, Jon (Huntsman) Jr.," he told Wright. "Doug, I'm just ready to cry every day. This is my life's work. Our family's put every penny we've made into it."
Herbert's office declined to comment Friday when reached by KSL.
Huntsman also attacked H. David Burton, chairman of the U. board of trustees.
"(Burton) is the one who ruined Utah Transit Authority, and now he came over and now he's chairman of the board of trustees," he said. "I told the governor last night, 'Can't you pick somebody in this state who is pro-cancer (research) and who is willing to make Utah stand tall and strong?'"
Burton did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Huntsman praised the success of the institute and insisted that his recent feud with the university is an aberration compared to previous school administrations.
"We've had 24 years of wonderful partnershiping and working with the University of Utah," he told KSL. "In those 24 years, we've supported one another, we've worked together, it's grown very, very fast."
Huntsman also said he remains committed to what he called a world-class facility.
"I just hope (people) will understand that we have a great center. It's going full-bore. We have the best treatment in the world. It's been recognized as one of the top five in the whole world," he said. "It's a tragedy that when things are going so well, they come out of nowhere and try to pillage us and take the money."
Beckerle served as director and CEO of the institute for 11 years. Kathleen Cooney, chairwoman of the Department of Internal Medicine, was named interim director of Huntsman Cancer Institute earlier this week. No details about finding a permanent replacement for Beckerle have been released.
About 100 protesters — among them researchers, students and patients — delivered a letter to Pershing's office Monday demanding an explanation for Beckerle's firing. By Friday afternoon, more than 2,100 people had signed an online petition on change.org calling for her to be reinstated.