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Komen board chair steps down, citing Howard University duties

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A prominent Howard University surgeon who chairs the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation is stepping down from the post but remaining on the breast cancer charity’s board, Komen officials said Thursday.

LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., 81, made the decision because of his duties as provost of Howard University, a Komen spokeswoman said. Leffall declined to comment. A person familiar with the board’s deliberations said Howard University wanted Leffall to distance himself from the Komen board — including taking a possible leave — since the controversy in February about Komen’s unsuccessful attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. The individual did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak for the board.

Thursday’s move is the latest in a series of leadership changes at Komen, and the first at the board level. Several executives at headquarters and affiliates have left or announced they are stepping down. Questions have also been raised about the charity’s fundraising ability. Komen’s senior leadership has sought to reassure affiliates and donors that it has learned valuable lessons from the public relations fiasco.

But the personnel moves raise questions about the organization’s commitment to new ways of doing business, according to some Komen employees. To replace Leffall as chairman, Komen brought back founding board member Robert Taylor, 83, from retirement. Taylor is a close friend of Komen founder and chief executive Nancy Brinker. Taylor retired in 2010 after nearly 30 years on the board.

The board changes, which take effect March 31, were announced at a regularly scheduled meeting of the breast cancer charity Thursday in Dallas. The 10-member board also approved adding a second seat for an affiliate representative.

Leffall began what was meant to be a two-year term as Komen’s board chairman last March; he previously served in the position from 2002 to 2007. He told board members this year that his additional duties at Howard made it difficult for him to continue in the post, according to a Komen board member who asked not to be identified.

A Howard University spokeswoman said Howard was not involved in Leffall’s decision to step down as Komen’s chairman. He was tapped last August to be interim senior vice president for health sciences; in December, he became provost and chief academic officer, combining previous duties in one job.

At Komen headquarters, where staff members have been asked to review budgets for the coming fiscal year because of anticipated revenue decreases, morale is extremely low, according to individuals familiar with the budgeting process.

The chief executives of the Greater New York and Oregon affiliates, among the most outspoken in their criticism of national headquarters’ handling of the controversy, are leaving. Three officials at the headquarters in Dallas have left or announced their resignations, a spokeswoman said.

Komen reversed course after the overwhelming public reaction to the news that it was no longer going to provide grants for Planned Parenthood breast cancer screening because of a congressional investigation into whether the group was using federal money to pay for abortions.

This month the foundation sent an online survey to its 122 affiliates across the country and all 275 Komen employees at the national headquarters. (Some affiliates have 10 to 20 employees; others have only volunteers.)

The survey included 15 to 20 questions and asked employees whether they planned to leave the nonprofit group within the next 12 months, according to one Komen employee who took the survey but declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. It also asked employees how they viewed Komen’s current leadership. The results of the survey have not been released.

Komen had also recently conducted a poll to find out how the public regarded the organization. “Knowing what the public is thinking is important because we’re trying to work our way back,” Komen spokeswoman Leslie Aun said.

The message that Komen received was clear. “The public wanted to hear that we were sorry and that we understand that we had done something they didn’t like,” she said. People also had the impression, she said, that Komen had turned its back on low-income women.

“We understand that people are unhappy,” she said. “Nancy Brinker has said this repeatedly, that we certainly regret the actions we’ve taken, and that we’ve begun the healing process and want people to realize that we’re still the organization helping women in our community deal with breast cancer.”

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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