Power struggle erupts at Utah cancer institute over director’s firing | Science

Mary Beckerle (right) meets with former Vice President Joe Biden during his visit to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in February 2016 as part of the cancer moonshot initiative.

Adam Finkle for Huntsman Cancer Institute

The abrupt dismissal of the head of a Utah cancer center is causing backlash from its faculty—and its major philanthropic funder—in a struggle over the center’s autonomy from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. And nearly 2000 researchers have signed a petition calling on the university to reverse its decision.   

For 11 years, prominent cell biologist Mary Beckerle has headed the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), which is based at the university but receives its funding largely from philanthropic donations, revenue from its cancer hospital, and grants from state and from the National institutes of Health. In an email to some clinical staff on Monday, university President David Pershing and Vivian Lee, senior vice president for health sciences, announced that Beckerle would step down “effective today,” but would “remain on faculty as a distinguished professor in biology.” Beckerle, who has not responded to Science’s request for comment, told The Salt Lake Tribune that she had learned of her dismissal in an email less than an hour earlier.

Details have been scant from the university, which also did not respond to a comment request. But Beckerle’s colleagues contend that the move amounts to a hostile takeover by the university aimed at capturing the cancer clinic’s revenue, and other prominent scientists are rallying unquestioningly around her.

“I find it unimaginable that this would happen,” says cancer biologist Harold Varmus of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City and former director of the National Cancer Institute, which funds HCI as one of its designated cancer centers. “If you think about great cancer directors around the country, her name comes to mind immediately.”

Beckerle’s dismissal is “a real insult to the whole academic establishment that we all have been working to build up, and … an insult to American scientific leadership,” says University of California, San Francisco, biochemist Bruce Alberts (former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science). Alberts served with Beckerle on the leadership board of the American Society for Cell Biologists, based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Alberts is among more than 1800 signers of a petition on the website change.org calling for Beckerle’s reinstatement, which was delivered to Pershing’s office after a protest march from HCI yesterday.

Billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman, the Utah philanthropist whose funding helped build the center and has supported it since 1995, was apparently blindsided by the move, which came…

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