OHSU Hires Obama's Former Attorney General To Investigate Racism, Sexual Harassment

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Oregon Health & Science University has hired Eric Holder, attorney general in the administration of President Barack Obama, to lead an investigation of complaints about gender and racial discrimination and sexual harassment.

In announcing the decision internally, OHSU's president and board chair said that OHSU needed a well-respected investigator to help the administration achieve its objective of creating an anti-racist and inclusive culture that was free of harassment.

"We have determined that OHSU needs a nationally respected investigator with deep expertise in handling racial and gender issues in large, complex organizations," wrote Dr. Danny Jacobs, OHSU's president, and Wayne Monfries, chair of its board. "To that end, OHSU has retained former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder of Covington & Burling LLP to conduct a comprehensive, independent investigation of OHSU's workplace environment related to sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation and racism."

Holder returned to work as a partner at Covington when he left the Obama administration in 2015. Covington, headquartered in Washington D.C., has offices worldwide, including in London, Brussels, Beijung, Johannesburg, Seoul and Dubai. Stateside, Holder has years of experience conducting workplace investigations. In 2016, AirBnB hired him to review its anti-discrimination policies after complaints of racism; the following year he investigated sexual harassment complaints against a manager by a former employee of Uber; and in 2019, Starbucks hired him to delve into its policies on civil rights, diversity and inclusion. And in January, Seattle Children's Hospital in Seattle announced that Holder would lead an investigation of institutional racism, equity, inclusion and diversity practices.   

The note, which was also published on OHSU's public website, said that Holder will work with a former federal prosecutor, Nancy Kestenbaum, who has investigated reports of sexual misconduct, harassment and discrimination for other educational institutions. The two are also working together on the Seattle Children's Hospital inquiry.

Institutional racism will be one focus of Holder's inquiry at OHSU following accusations last September by Black employees that the institution enables racism. They say the administration has failed to take substantial action in response to several noose incidents since 2016. No one has been fired over them, including an employee who posted a noose during a work session last year. Just this month another incident emerged with a racial slur that was found on a locker.

Black employees have repeatedly told The Lund Report that they are frustrated and angry and want change.

Dr. Danny Jacobs has responded with internal messages promising to foster a culture free of gender and racial discrimination, and sexual abuse and harassment.

At least three women have sued OHSU for gender bias in recent years. Another former employee filed a sexual assault lawsuit against the institution last month. It accuses a former anesthesiology resident, Dr. Jason Campbell, the TikTok doc, of sending the victim harassing text messages, social media messages and pornographic photographs. It says he also came into her office at the Portland Veterans Affairs hospital next to OHSU and pushed her into a desk with his erection. The lawsuit alleges that OHSU was complicit, ignoring sexual harassment complaints about Campbell while fostering an environment that protected abuses and retaliated against victims. It said several faculty members, including Dr. Esther Choo, an emergency department professor and nationally known advocate for women's rights, knew about the harassment but failed to report it as required by OHSU rules.

Michael Fuller, one of the victim's lawyers in the case, said Tuesday his firm was proud to have Holder investigate the university. But on Wednesday he released a statement with Kim Sordyl, the victim's other lawyer that said: “OHSU is facing accountability and losing its accreditation because of its culture of perpetuating race and sex discrimination, and misconduct. Hiring Holder doesn’t equate to holding accountable OHSU’s leaders for the harm and suffering they’ve enabled. We will be ensuring Holder receives the full scope of what has happened under OHSU’s failed leadership—no reportis going to revise history. We need accountability, not another boilerplate report that tells us what we all already know.”

The plaintiff's lawyers also Filereleased a document listing critical coverage of Holder for letting bankers off the hook when he was attorney general and for supporting Big Pharma, among other things.

The victim in the lawsuit also released a statement saying that Holder will likely exonerate OHSU: "We need closure, not coverups. Holder won’t hold accountable the powerful people behind the criminal culture—but we the victims will.”

The reaction among OHSU employees who responded by posting on the company's internal website was mixed, with some welcoming the announcement and others casting it in a negative light. Several people also brought up the question of mandatory reporting, and asked why those who did not report the harassment still have their jobs.

"I want to echo the concerns of everyone else here who brought up the mandatory reporters and all the people named in the lawsuit retaining their positions," one woman wrote. "Until that changes, I don't think any of us will feel safe. I have little to say about Eric Holder except that I hope your choice to involve him will not distract from the concerns we've brought up in these forums and the fact that they have yet to be institutionally addressed."

In its answer to the complaint, OHSU denied any wrongdoing of its faculty or staff. It said it moved Campbell off-site, investigated the allegations, found them credible and was about to fire him when he resigned. It also said that Choo was not required under Title IX to report the harassment because the victim did not work at OHSU at the time. Title IX is a federal law that bans sexual discrimination in schools.

Nevertheless, the allegations have sparked an investigation by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, which approves intern, residency and fellowship medical programs. If it were to find an unprofessional environment that allowed harassment, it could put OHSU on probation and withdraw its accreditation. 

In response to the complaint, Jacobs promised a thorough review. The internal message on Tuesday said the investigation will aim to identify shortcomings and make recommendations.

"Based on the investigation's findings, OHSU will evaluate potential policy changes, accountability, other best practices and targeted investments to ensure every OHSU member feels safe, respected and valued in their workplace," the message said.

The public note said that the board's human resources committee -- led by Ruth Beyer, the board's vice chair, and including Monfries and Chad Paulson, the board director -- will work with Holder to establish the scope of the investigation and a timeline.

"Please expect to hear more about the next steps that will be taken within the next week or so," the note said.

The university's public relations department did not immediately respond to a request about the cost of the investigation.

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.

 

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