Huntsman Cancer Institute controversy could turn into a huge mess

There is an interesting dynamic playing out this week up at the University of Utah, and just a mile south in the U of U Research Park headquarters of the Huntsman chemical/cancer-fighting empire.

For those of us who watch political and personal power struggles in this state, it is both a fascinating and troubling public display.

Most of our readers know what has happened: Late last week the president of the U., David Pershing, and his vice president for health services, Vivian Lee, dismissed Dr. Mary Beckerle as Huntsman Cancer Institute director and CEO.

Jon Huntsman Sr. then responded with calls for the firing of Pershing and Lee, and the reinstatement of Beckerle.

To put it mildly, this is really a big mess.

UtahPolicy is told Pershing is trying to put this genie back in the bottle – with some leaders hopeful the matter can be resolved this week.

But whether hurt feelings (and a lot of money) can be healed over is yet to be seen.

Add to all of this that the Huntsman family now owns The Salt Lake Tribune – which editorialized over the weekend for the ouster of Pershing and Lee – and we see perhaps for the first time how the political/media tables in this town have been turned.

There are three power structures in Utah that you really don’t want to butt heads with:

— Of course, No. 1 is the leaders of the LDS Church. This has been the case since the founding of the Mormon faith in Utah, over 150 years ago.

— But in recent times you can add the names of Huntsman and Miller.

The Huntsmans have given more than $1 billion to cancer research, and raised another $1 billion for the Huntsman Cancer Institute (the research center) and the Huntsman Cancer Hospital (the treatment facility), all built above the U. of U. hospital and related facilities high on a hill overlooking the valley.

— And the family of the late Larry H. Miller, led by wife Gail Miller, have through a special trust basically given the people of Utah the Jazz, the NBA franchise here, and the team’s arena in downtown Salt Lake City.

When Huntsman Sr. controlled the chemical empire he was reported by Forbes as the richest man in Utah.

Now, with the divestiture of the firm’s stock to sons and daughters and to the cancer-fighting foundation, Huntsman’s wealth is smaller.

And into that wealth void steps Gail Miller, recently listed as the richest person in Utah.

These days, you take on any of these three institutions – and the people who run them – at your own risk.

You may have noticed that no political leaders, including Gov. Gary Herbert, are stepping into the fray trying to mediate this mess.

Huntsman Sr. says it is a “power grab” by the U. administration, trying to gain operational and financial control of the HCI and hospital, which he says are making money.

While U. officials are remaining quiet, I’m hearing that they have for some time tried to rein in Dr. Beckerle, who reportedly was more interested in reporting back to Huntsman on her administration, rather than dealing with Lee, Pershing and other U. administrators.

But now personalities are involved, a dedicated director has lost her job, and the implications – Pershing put off a Friday meeting where Huntsman officials were prepared to donate another $120 million to the institutions involved – of real financial harm are immense.

Officially, Herbert has little power here – he nominates folks to the Board of Regents, which oversees all of Utah’s colleges and university.

Pershing serves at the pleasure of the regents.

Meanwhile, the U. of U. board of trustees, which oversees the U. itself, is stacked with other Utah business and big-money leaders – recognize the names Price, Gardner, Eccles and Sorenson?

And the U. has said that Beckerle’s dismissal was run past “senior” members of the trustee board.

The chair of the trustee board is H. David Burton, who as head of the Mormon Church’s bishopric a few years back oversaw the building of the multi-billion-dollar City Creek Center and other important temporal relations with Salt Lake City and Utah state government.

Now outside of the LDS Church’s hierarchy, he still carries a lot of water with the church leadership.

But Huntsman Sr. is the son-in-law of the late LDS Apostle David B. Haight, and served in one of the Quorums of the Seventy himself. And his connection to church leaders is also strong.

In short, in the Beckerle matter, if the pressure isn’t quickly relieved, and solutions found, there is the making of a political/media/U. of U. financial mess that could take years of work to rebuild – if it could ever be so.