University of Utah Health Care CEO Dr. Vivian Lee steps down post-cancer center conflict

Vivian Lee, MD, PhD, stepped down Friday from her roles as senior vice president for health sciences, medical school dean and CEO of University of Utah Health Care in Salt Lake City, after a high-profile controversy involving the director of the university's cancer center.

Dr. Lee announced the news to faculty and staff Friday: "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."

The feud erupted when Mary Beckerle, PhD, director and CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute was fired over email on April 17. Dr. Becklerle, who has led the cancer center for 11 years, claims no reason was given for her removal. Billionaire philanthropist Jon Hunstman Sr., who helped found the institute, called the move a "power grab," threatened to sue the university, took out full-page ads in two local newspapers protesting her firing and threatened to withhold a $250 million donation, according to KSL.com. Dr. Beckerle was reinstated April 25.

Throughout the ordeal, Dr. Lee declined to publicly comment on the matter. "I am aware too that more than a few have felt there should be some sort of reply to the very strong criticisms of leadership and actions, directed especially at me," she wrote in her resignation announcement to faculty and staff. "This absence is not because of a lack of strongly held alternative viewpoints and substantive positions, but rather a clear sense that the best interests of our university and of our entire community are to collegially embrace one another and all move forward together."

Mr. Hunstman said he did not regret Dr. Lee's resignation and called her a "one-person wrecking crew," according to KSL.com. He also called her integrity into question in relation to the application of a $12 million donation from Patrick Soon-Shiong, MD, which is currently under review by the state Office of the Legislative Auditor General, according to KSL.com.

Dr. Lee responded to the criticisms of her character in her resignation statement: "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." She added, "I am hoping my decision today will help in putting that completely in the past."

During her six-year tenure leading the health system, Dr. Lee emerged as a leader in driving value-based outcomes and investigating the costs of care. Under her leadership, the university recruited 400 new faculty members and launched initiatives in neuroscience, diabetes, global health, precision medicine and genomic sequencing, among others, according to a statement from University President David Pershing, PhD.

"She has been described by her colleagues as a visionary leader who maintains high standards for herself as well as others," Dr. Pershing said in the statement. "Dr. Lee has led a remarkable transformation of our academic and research operations and has been at the forefront of innovations in healthcare delivery at the national level."

Dr. Lee plans to stay on at University of Utah as a radiology professor. Dr. Pershing plans to announce her interim replacement soon.

 

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