OHSU Employees, Students Prompt Efforts to Address Racism

Dr. Brian Gibbs, the director of its Center for Diversity and Inclusion, says “unconscious bias” lies at the root of the problem.

Reports of systemic racism have prompted action and recent headlines out of Multnomah County, but at Oregon Health & Science University a similar set of concerns has drawn less public attention.

At the country level, Chair Deborah Kafoury is taking immediate action, saying she intends to hire a national consulting firm with expertise in dismantling racism in public institutions, along with elevating all complaints to the highest level.

“We know there is institutional racism at Multnomah County. This is an organization that was built on the backs of people who didn’t have a voice,’’ she told more than 100 managers and supervisors at their quarterly meeting. “It will be long, hard process. It's going to take a lot of open conversation and reflection. I do know that we are committed, your Board of Commissioners is committed."

The most recent survey among employees and students at OHSU indicated similar problems. That survey was conducted three years ago – in 2014 -- yet this is the first time that its findings have been made public, following a public records request by The Lund Report. A similar survey was done in 2010, and interestingly, one response remained the same -- employees did not feel valued and included as members of the OHSU community.

The survey results were shared with executive leaders, directors, managers and supervisors, who were asked to share the results to their employees, according to Tamara Hargens-Bradley, associate director of OHSU Strategic Communications.

But unlike Multnomah County where workers came forward with their allegations, no one from OHSU has spoken out publicly. “Survey respondents had an opportunity to provide anonymous comments. For privacy reasons, we won’t share the details of those comments,” Hargens-Bradley said.

OHSU doesn’t track the number of senior managers who might have left because of perceived racism. “Employees, including senior managers, leave OHSU for any number of reasons, e.g., a spouse/partner is offered a job elsewhere, to be near family, retirement,” she added.

For the time being, OHSU says it has no intention of conducting another survey.

The 2014 survey showed:

Among 21 percent of employees who responded (1,189 of 5,729) had witnessed or experienced diversity-related discrimination at work in the last 12 months, while under-represented minorities and LGBTQ employees experienced this conduct at much higher rates than the majority, and employees said the managers at OHSU didn’t know how to handle a diverse workforce.

Employees with disabilities were 20 percent more likely to have experienced or witnessed discriminatory conduct.

Under-represented and LGBTQ employees, the disadvantaged and employees with disabilities believe they have to work harder than their colleagues to achieve the same results; they’re less likely to recommend OHSU as a place to work and they don’t believe they have the same opportunities to advance their careers at OHSU.

Only 56 percent of employees (3,010 of 5,356) agreed that OHSU’s training programs that are intended to help culturally and linguistically diverse patients are effective,

Among senior managers, 35 percent (9 of 26) and 33 percent (169 of 512) of management respondents indicated they were seriously considering leaving OHSU. The highest percentages were among Black/African American, American Indians and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders.  

And, there was a consensus by under-represented and LGBTQ students, the disadvantaged and those with disabilities that they need to work harder than other students to achieve the same results. Black/African American students. LGBTQ students, the disadvantaged and students with disabilities said they felt respected but didn’t feel valued and included in the OHSU community.

The number of students who experienced or witnessed discriminatory was high and disproportionately concentrated among women, under-represented minorities, LGBTQ students and those with disabilities. Also many students felt the OHSU curriculum did not deal with cultural competence or racial and ethnic disparities.

Steps Taken by OHSU

After the survey results were compiled, OHSU completed the first of its diversity action plans. Then, in April 2016, the university hired Dr. Brian Gibbs to oversee its Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

Gibbs, who spoke at length with The Lund Report, said OHSU has taken aggressive measures to combat racism. But he acknowledged that “unconscious bias,” often lies at the heart of the problem, and that racial attitudes are difficult to overcome because they’re embedded deep within our psyches.

“We’re a product of how we were raised as individuals in our respective communities,” he said. “As individuals we’re limited to what we were exposed to in our childhood, ways in which our world was shaped. Those attitudes don’t change immediately when we come into healthcare. We bring those same biases with us.

“What we have to do is to experience how our unconscious bias disrupts the goals of becoming more inclusive, and become more aware of those biases that mitigate our culture and become more inclusive.  Healthcare is no different than the dimensions of discrimination in housing, in employment, in education.

“We not only have to do this work at OHSU but throughout our city, state and nation. It’s difficult to enter the conversation to put us on a pathway where we’re more understanding. There’s an extreme amount of fear, historical wounding, a lack of translation -- that my pain is greater than yours. We we don’t have a way of disparaging one another because of our differences which makes it difficult to have the conversation.

“We at OHSU pride ourselves on our ability to provide healing, on doing more and being better. But there’s irrefutable evidence that these biases do exist.

“The question is how do we move an institution such as OHSU from just celebrating diversity to actually activating diversity? It’s a struggle but it will happen as we continue to become more diverse –- to become more inclusive ultimately. It’s not a destination but a journey, and OHSU is committed to this journey.

“There’s an exceedingly amount of fear around the conversation when something big happens. Often we don’t have the conversations within our organization while keeping the temperature low.

“The diversity issues that OHSU faces are emblematic of our society, not just OHSU. It’s a product of our society and the way in which we think about diversity. We need to clarify how we are as an institution not independent of the community, the city the state or our society in general and to discover that biases do exist, there’s irrefutable evidence to suggest that.”

“I don’t want to sugar coat this. Discrimination in hiring takes places. We’ve tolerated it for far too long. But we’re moving the needle in the way we hire and train new employees. As an institution we’re practicing at getting better in our aspirations to become more diverse. To become more of what we want to be takes more than a vision or a statement, or a story. Diversity equity and inclusion is representative of the world around us, and demographics continue to change.  It comes along with confronting ways that our brains process information. Bias is treating some people more positive than others. But we have to look at that and understand the norm that helps that to occur.”

OHSU is engaged in a campus-wide initiative by the executive leadership to elevate its commitment to inclusion.

“That’s a heavy lift,” he added. “Over the next two to three years, there’ll be a significant amount of disruption. The question we face is whether we want to be slow about that transition and be on the early curve. Thirty to 40 years from now we can say we’ve become what we’ve chosen to become. OHSU will  become more diverse and more inclusive because society demands that we do.”

Hagens-Bradley said OHSU has in place a number of programs and initiatives to ensure an inclusive, welcoming and respectful work and learning environment, which include:

OHSU Diversity Action Plan – a framework for implementing the university’s goals and strategies to address diversity and inclusion in everything we do. It is shaped by OHSU’s strategic plan, Vision 2020 and its core value: improving the well-being of people in Oregon and beyond.

Center for Diversity and Inclusion – the center leads and supports university-wide initiatives to create an environment of respect and inclusion for all. It fosters partnerships to enhance OHSU's missions with a range of resources and services, including consultations, resources and tools (Diversity Recruitment/Retention Toolkit, Diversity Resources Guide, Cultural Guide) databases and a myriad educational and enrichment activities, including employee resource groups and Diversity Student Interest Groups, comprising individuals and their supporters, from diverse and/or underrepresented backgrounds who share similar interests, offers opportunities for career development, social support, networking, mentoring and community participation, and help promote cultural awareness and employee engagement.

Diversity Advisory Council -- comprising faculty, students and staff, advises the president and the executive leadership team on enhancing diversity, multiculturalism and equal opportunity across all OHSU missions. The council supports diversity initiatives campus wide, from helping units understand the business case for diversity to providing practical resources for employees, students and community members.

Physical Access Committee – removes barriers preventing people with disabilities from meaningfully accessing campus facilities.

Affirmative Action Equal Opportunity – offers a variety of education and training services, including “Nuts & Bolts” training for managers and supervisors on preventing discrimination and harassment and the ADA reasonable accommodation process; Disability Awareness training for employees; Title IX training for faculty, staff and students; as well as several, on-demand, departmental sessions on civil rights and ADA-related topics.

Diane can be reached at [email protected].

Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed discussion of "systemic racism" to Dr. Brian Gibbs. He did not use the word "systemic" in interviews with The Lund Report, but did discuss racism. The story has been updated to remove that word.

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