Updated Friday at 4:04 p.m.
Black employees at Oregon Health & Science University are furious.
On Monday, they sent a blistering email obtained by The Lund Report to top administrators, board members and union representatives, accusing OHSU of ignoring recommendations from Black employees, failing to act on complaints of racism and declining to take “substantial action” in response to noose incidents over the past two years.
“While other similar institutions are making significant changes in the way they operate, OHSU, despite having four noose incidents at its institution, is dragging its feet and ignoring its most knowledgeable asset as it relates to anti-racism,” the email said.
That asset, the email said, is BERG, OHSU’s Black Employees Resource Group, which includes about 200 members.
The said that Black employees “do not trust” the organization’s Human Resources department after “multiple examples” of employees reporting racist incidents “only for HR to gaslight and send employees back to their respective departments with no resolution.”
Entitled a “Call to Action,” the email said OHSU has patronized its Black employees by claiming they are a partner in an effort to end racism at the institution while ignoring or denying their requests.
“All of BERG is of one mind in saying we are tired of being disrespected, and being used to push a false narrative of change in order to maintain white supremacy which has permeated within OHSU for decades.”
One source was more blunt: “They’re using us as blackface so they can do nothing,” the source said.
In response to the email, OHSU released a statement from Dr. Derick Du Vivier, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We greatly appreciate the advocacy of the Black Employee Resource Group and acknowledge that there is a great deal of work to be done in our journey to becoming a truly anti-racist institution, Du Vivier said. "A number of initiatives have been implemented and many more are planned to lay the groundwork to affect significant change. We deeply appreciate the time, energy, effort and emotional investment the BERG has made in helping OHSU change its culture and identifying the most important priorities. We remain committed to an meaningful partnership with them.”
The statement OHSU has taken to change the culture on campus, including revising the company's code of conduct to make displaying hateful imagery a violation; boosting the $14.8 million budget for mentoring and training and other diversity work by $1.5 million; adding a day of paid leave to mark Juneteenth and making research labs submit plans for combatting racism.
Though the list is long, BERG accused the university of making changes around the edges. "These programs amount to a whole lot of babble and no substance," it told The Lund Report.
The group sent an email to administrators on Friday, blasting them for not responding to them first. at OHSU's statement. An OHSU spokeswoman told The Lund Report that administrators were going to respond directly to the group.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 7,000 people at OHSU and was among the recipients, said it supports BERG’s efforts to hold OHSU accountable.
“The status quo at OHSU needs to change,” AFSCME’s statement said. “An organization with the wealth and resources that OHSU has should be setting an example. Senior leadership must welcome BERG to the table when decisions are being made, not put them in a position where they need to issue a call to action -- especially on a matter that OHSU claims is a priority.”
Frustration and anger among Blacks, who account for only about 3% of OHSU’s staff or more than 16,000, has continued to grow for years, even after the appointment of Dr. Danny Jacobs, who is Black, as president in 2018.
Employees told The Lund Report that the climate has become more toxic with successive noose incidents. The first one, in December 2016, was found taped on a poster that said “Stress Reduction Kit.” The administration did not fire the employee who was responsible, and many people dismissed it as a joke that wasn’t intended to be racist.
Then in November 2019, staff found a noose slung over a cone in a construction zone restricted to workers and employees on the Marquam Hill campus.
OHSU’s investigation did not identify the culprit.
This past April another noose appeared -- this time it was posted by an employee working remotely in an online work session. Jacobs said the person was punished -- but they were not fired.
And in June, a noose was found at a construction site in Southwest Portland that's part of a joint project among OHSU, Portland State University and Portland Community College.
In its email, the resource group called called OHSU “an enabler of racism” for not taking any “substantial action” in reaction to these cases.
“Where other organizations pressed hate crime charges against individuals that did this, OHSU did nothing,” the email said, linking to a Washington Post story about the arrest of a student accused of putting a noose in a University of Illinois elevator and the termination of an employee who flung a noose at black employees.
The email listed from BERG that it said OHSU either ignored or declined to enact, including declaring the institution has a zero tolerance policy for racism that includes accountability and putting a Black professional in charge of stamping out racist behavior.
Following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the ensuing nationwide protests, Jacobs publicly condemned racism and pledged to fight it at OHSU, acknowledging that it was a problem on campus.
“It is glaringly evident that we have work to do in this regard,” he said in a statement.
He outlined several steps, including mentoring minorities to help them advance, stopping the use of prisoners for laundry services and holding more town halls, something that he's already started.
But on the ground little has changed, BERG maintained in its email.
Last November, OHSU settled a discrimination lawsuit filed by a janitor who sued the institution, saying he was fired for being Black. In the settlement, OHSU admits no wrongdoing and in exchange agreed to pay Bob English $25,000.
Then in June, OHSU was accused of racial bias in its statewide study on the prevalence of COVID-19, according to a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
In the end, OHSU ended the study after being granted $6 million in state funds.
But what prompted the email wasn’t the study. Sources said that they learned that the Oregon Nurses Association had asked OHSU to include a Black Lives Matter event in their contract and that the administrators told the union that OHSU was already working with BERG on this.
“That was a flat out lie,” a source said.
The Oregon Nurses Association confirmed that it had proposed a Black Lives Matter proposal to OHSU. "The OHSU team has not accepted, rejected or provided any counterproposals," the nurses union told The Lund Report. But OHSU did offer to release a joint statement, the union said.
The Black Employees Resource Group said it wants measurable and meaningful change. The letter included 14 “points of action” it would like to see happen. They include making a specific public commitment to diversity staff, especially at the leadership level; tie compensation for all leaders, managers and supervisors to the success of diversity initiatives; and use more Black businesses in the procurement of outside services and contracts.
You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.