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Dr. Vivian Lee resigns post at University of Utah

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Dr. Vivian Lee, the CEO of University of Utah Health who was at the center of a heated controversy for the firing of the Huntsman Cancer Institute director last week, resigned Friday.

"In a more private way, it is fair to say that some of the strong invective directed at my integrity and character, which 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 in Utah we have come to call home," Lee said in an email sent late Friday afternoon to University of Utah Health employees. "I am hoping my decision today will help in putting that completely in the past."

Reaction to the news was swift — from U. President David Pershing's praise for Lee's accomplishments during her six-year tenure, to an unapologetic Jon Huntsman Sr. calling her a "one-person wrecking crew" whom he is not sorry to see leave.

Lee became the focus of public debate over control of the Huntsman Cancer Institute after she and Pershing dismissed institute CEO Mary Beckerle by email on April 17. The ensuing protests from faculty and threats from Huntsman to withhold a $250 million donation culminated in the university's board of trustees reinstating Beckerle to her job on Tuesday.

The board also changed who the cancer institute reports to, moving it from Lee's jurisdiction as senior vice president for health sciences to reporting directly to the university president.

Neither Lee nor Beckerle responded to calls for comment on Friday.

In her email to staff, Lee detailed her accomplishments, but said the move is the right thing to do.

"I have worked as hard as I could to carry forward the mission of our entire health sciences community and of the university," Lee wrote. "Taking account of the events of the last two weeks, I believe the best interests of the university are now served by the decision I am taking today."

Lee is stepping down as vice president as well as from her roles as CEO of University of Utah Health and dean of the School of Medicine. She will remain a tenured professor of radiology.

In an emailed statement, Pershing thanked Lee for her work leading the U.'s medical program to national heights.

"Dr. Lee has led a remarkable transformation of our academic and research operations and has been at the forefront of innovations in health care delivery at the national level," Pershing said.

"On behalf of the entire leadership at the University of Utah, I want to express my gratitude for Dr. Lee’s extraordinary achievements and the courage and commitment she has shown over the past six years."

Mixed response

Huntsman, the billionaire who helped found the Huntsman Cancer Institute in 1993, maintained a different view when reached Friday evening.

"She was very divisive," he told KSL. "It will take the university many, many months to recover."

Last week, Huntsman claimed Lee fired Beckerle out of jealousy and called Lee a "vicious, vitriolic woman" and "the least ethical, least disciplined woman in the world."

He also referred Friday to her connection to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong with regard to a $12 million donation to the university that has come under scrutiny and recently prompted a review by the state Office of the Legislative Auditor General.

"We all need to get back to helping the patients," he added.

There was mixed response from Lee's colleagues at the university.

Grant Lasson, associate vice president of strategy at University of Utah Health, said he was deeply disappointed at Lee's departure.

"I feel a great sense of loss for Dr. Lee and her family," Lasson said. "I think she came here as a guest in our community, she did her best, she got treated in a way that nobody should."

Lasson said he worked for Lee for five years and felt like her reputation was unfairly damaged by those who criticized her in media reports.

"The person I knew was caring of people, made her best efforts always to do the best for the university and was full of integrity," he said.

Lee's departure was welcomed by some staff. Trudy Oliver, a professor in the Department of Oncological Sciences and a researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, expressed gratitude.

"I think she's done some positive things for the university while she was here. I think her actions in the recent Beckerle event were questionable and lacked transparency and because of that, caused some undue harm to our reputation," Oliver said in a statement.

But Ed Clark, chairman of the U.'s Department of Pediatrics, said the university will be worse off with Lee's absence.

"This is a devastating event for the University of Utah," Clark said. "It's difficult to see how we can recover from this tragic loss of an iconic, effective leader."

U. board of trustees Chairman H. David Burton told KSL that he was made aware of Lee's resignation late Friday afternoon.

"She was a valuable asset to the university," Burton said. "We wish her well (in her future endeavors) but we’re very appreciative of what she’s accomplished."

Pershing said in his statement that an interim replacement for Lee will be named and the university will begin a national search to fill her posts.

Reason for firing?

Earlier Friday, a Huntsman Cancer Foundation executive blamed a faulty written analysis of Huntsman Cancer Institute's ability to attract grants from the National Institutes of Health as a factor in the firing of Beckerle.

Susan Sheehan, chief operating officer of the foundation, told KSL that the report was poorly researched, didn't reflect well on the institute because of erroneous methodology and may have persuaded Pershing to sign off on Beckerle's firing.

"I do know that Dr. Pershing was given information that showed that Huntsman (Cancer Institute) was underperforming in its competitiveness for (National Institutes of Health)-style grants," Sheehan said. "I think probably that was factored in."

The university thus far has refused to provide a reason for firing Beckerle, saying only that her termination was a personnel issue.

Sheehan is the first to comment publicly on the rationale for Beckerle's firing.

Sheehan said Lee handed her a copy of the grants report in a December meeting that also was attended by Pershing. Sheehan said she was stunned by what was in the report, and she challenged its findings at the time.


"They're actually really up on what they're securing from the (National Institutes of Health)," Sheehan said of the institute. "They've actually had an increase. I said, 'How are you doing that analysis because I believe things are better than they've ever been.'"

Ashlee Bright, spokeswoman for the cancer institute, touted the facility's ability to secure grants.

“HCI has a strong track record of securing NIH funding for our cancer research, particularly in light of an unpredictable climate for federal funding for research grants,” Bright said in a prepared statement Friday.

The institute reported Friday that it had received $37.7 million in grants and contracts from the National Institutes of Health in 2016, and $61.1 million in such grants and contracts overall when accounting for similar sources, such as the American Cancer Society and others. In 2015, the institute received $34.8 million from National Institutes of Health, part of a $55.9 million overall figure.

Statistics for earlier years weren't immediately available.

Sheehan said the report employed an "apples to oranges type of analysis" that unfairly portrayed Huntsman Cancer Institute and relied on faulty financial comparisons.

"It was a flawed comparison," she said. "Somebody was comparing the overall big, rolled-up picture of Huntsman (Cancer Institute) compared to one $10 million research project."

Sheehan didn't know who authored the report, but said its findings were not adequately scrutinized by the university. The report was later reviewed by the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, which "learned that the analysis was flawed," she said.

"I think they just didn't get the side of the story from the institute itself," Sheehan said. "That was what was wrong with this whole process. Mary Beckerle never got the chance to present her side of the story, nor did the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. If you don't know what's being said, you don't know how to dispel misunderstandings."

The foundation is an organization that exists to raise money solely for the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Beckerle's termination, Sheehan said, boiled down to a failure to communicate.

"I think this whole thing could have been averted had there been stronger communication," she said.

Contacted about Sheehan's remarks Friday, U. spokesman Chris Nelson said the university had no comment.

Under microscope

Beckerle's firing and reinstatement put a microscope on Lee.

On Tuesday — the day of Beckerle's reinstatement — Burton said the executive committee of the board of trustees initially supported the decision to fire Beckerle, but added that they reinstated the director and CEO with a new, improved perspective that he called "20/20 hindsight." He also called the process of rehiring her a "learning session for the board."

"The issues, at the moment they were presented to us — we did not have any reason not to support the administration," Burton said.

Burton declined at the time to comment on whether trustees were satisfied with the answers given about Beckerle's dismissal.

Also Tuesday, board of trustees Vice Chairman Phillip Clinger took responsibility for board members who were not on the executive committee not being fully briefed.

"Had I done a better job of communicating the message, we wouldn't have trustees right now feeling that they didn't know the whole story," he said then.

The seeming tension between the university and the Huntsman Cancer Institute could have had catastrophic financial consequences, according to Huntsman. He told KSL this week that the U. would have lost out on a $250 million donation from Huntsman Cancer Foundation had it not reversed course and reinstated Beckerle.

A few prominent university officials who have been dismissed by Lee have publicly questioned her method of leadership.

Numerous attempts to reach Lee for comment have been unsuccessful, but 13 department chairs and co-chairs released an open letter this week offering their "full and unwavering support" of Lee and praised her for raising federal grant money levels 25 percent since the beginning of her tenure, which started in 2011.

The letter was posted on the petition site and had received more than 900 signatures by Friday afternoon. A comment on that site attributed to Gordon Crabtree, chief financial officer of University of Utah Health, censured those who have criticized Lee.

"Who would have thought that demeaning Dr. Lee in the public forum would be considered acceptable behavior by many who chose to 'pile on,'" the comment says. "I have worked with Dr. Lee for many years and consider her one of the brightest and progressive leaders I have ever known."


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