Exclusive: OHSU Investigates Noose, Finds No Culprit, Does Damage Control

OHSU campus by Lynne Terry.jpg

Updated Wednesday, Dec. 18 at 10:45 a.m.

Oregon Health & Science University has wrapped up an investigation of a noose left on campus without identifying the culprit.

The noose was found early last month slung over a cone in a construction zone restricted to workers and employees on the Marquam Hill campus.

The university sent staff a short internal message on Monday, indicating the matter was closed. The message angered many African Americans on campus, who felt it was dismissive. Many commented on an internal server. With negative reactions piling up, OHSU responded with a long message on Tuesday saying the university takes the noose incident seriously and won't tolerate racial bias.

That message appeared to be something of an apology for the first statement, which said: “Twenty-nine witnesses were interviewed, including the contractor who reported the noose, 25 employees who regularly work in the area and three people identified by video or badge reader records as having been in the area within the 24-hour period before the noose was found." No one entered the area outside working hours based on badge readers and video, it added. 

“African American employees who regularly work in the area where the noose was found were interviewed and indicated they are comfortable in the work environment and have never felt threatened or harassed by co-workers or management,” the message concluded.

It's not clear how many African Americans work in the area. Overall, blacks account for 3 percent of the nearly 16,400 people employed by OHSU, or about 460 people, according to the latest published statistics. Using the sentiment of a few examples was insulting, one source said.

“It felt like ‘just another thing for your darkies to get over,’” the employee said, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “It felt like we looked and we couldn’t find anything so you guys have to deal with it.”

In response to a request for comment, OHSU sent a link to a public release posted late Tuesday by OHSU President Dr. Danny Jacobs and Greg Moawad, interim human resources chief: "The noose is a symbol of hate, bigotry and racial violence against African Americans, and OHSU strongly condemns it and all other forms of harassment. We deeply regret that this incident has harmed people and are firm in our resolve to provide a safe, respectful environment free of harassment, discrimination, intimidation and retaliation." 

That statement echoed the message shared internally earlier Tuesday with staff: “The community’s safety is our highest priority. ... we want to send a message to the person or person(s) who placed the noose that this behavior isn’t tolerated and that we will remain vigilant.” The statement said that the noose was found in an area near research animals and an MRI and that there were cameras nearby, but that the noose was placed in a “common hallway and egress route” without surveillance.

“It was likely that this location was selected intentionally for that reason by the person responsible,” the message said, adding: “We are committed to making our space as safe as possible. When something like this happens inside our space and likely by a member we have allowed into our community, we are dependent on each other for our collective safety.”

It said OHSU always re-evaluates security after such an incident but that safety officials did not feel that any changes in this case would help employees feel safer.

The message asked staff to report anything of note. It acknowledged that OHSU has a problem with discrimination and bias. 

“As many have mentioned, OHSU has a lot of work to do to improve the culture and ensure the safety of all of its employees,” the message said.

OHSU vowed to use “harsh punishment” against anyone who displays hostility towards others.

This was the second noose discovered at OHSU in nearly three years. In the previous incident, a physician’s assistant who taped up a tiny noose on a “Stress Reduction” poster said it was a joke. That person still works at OHSU. 

After this latest noose was discovered, dozens of African Americans at OHSU said they feel under threat, according to statements made by African American staff and faculty received by The Lund Report:

  • “I feel like the atmosphere here encourages such a finding. I feel like the toxic relationship that this university has with black employees is the reason this happened and will continue to happen.”
  • “As a person of color who has experienced racism personally here at work and now being subject to this outright abhorrent symbol of violence and deep racism is disconcerting.”
  • “I’m not black but my children and wife are. I felt disgusted and ashamed it happened at OHSU … a place I love and respect.”
  • “It was shocking because this was the second incident and there shouldn’t have been a first.”
  • “I can think of no justifiable reason to put any noose anywhere. I think basic cultural awareness and decency by any adult in America in 2019 requires that of all of us.”
  • “I have had trouble sleeping since it happened, and it is hard to be motivated to come to a place of work where people feel comfortable committing such hate crimes.”

OHSU has a diversity committee, but critics said it's done little to improve the atmosphere One employee said the institution needs to go beyond paying lip service to diversity initiatives and take action by recruiting black talent.

“You can’t lie about the numbers,” they said, referring to the few blacks in a position of leadership. Jacobs, who’s African American was hired in August 2018 as president, replacing Dr. Joe Robertson, who is white and retired because of health problems. But Jacobs is among a very thin minority. The latest statistics show that most black people at OHSU -- about 75 percent -- are in lower paid union jobs. Among faculty, only 0.8 percent are black, and 2 percent of unclassified administrative staff are black. 

“People need to be in places where they can actually say something and it matters,” the employee told The Lund Report. 

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected].

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