OHSU Leaders Promise Changes Against 'Structural Racism'

OHSU Hospital photo.jpg

Oregon Health & Science University is hiring a consultant to root out racism in its hiring practices and equal opportunity department, which is supposed to provide protection for Blacks and other minorities who experience discrimination.

That decision was embedded in a response from OHSU’s president and top diversity executive to a blistering email from the institution's Black Employees Resource Group about racism at OHSU. BERG’s initial email, obtained by The Lund Report, blasted OHSU as “an enabler of racism” for not taking “substantial action” in response to several noose incidents on campus since 2017, including one this past spring in an online work session. BERG also said Black employees at OHSU  “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.”

In response, OHSU President Dr. Danny Jacobs and diversity chief Dr. Derick Du Vivier said they recognized the need for change at OHSU:

“We acknowledge the necessity of identifying and confronting structural racism at OHSU and dismantling it with fervor and intention. There is much that needs to be done and as quickly as possible,” PDF icontheir letter said.

It welcomed BERG’s criticisms in trying to hold OHSU accountable: “Your efforts and contributions help us prioritize our efforts,” the letter said. “We see this vital effort as one of learning and growth rather than from a position of being defensive.”

The letter, initially obtained by The Lund Report and then released by OHSU, outlined efforts the administration is making against racism, but they were largely dismissed by BERG members as window dressing, sources said.

In response to five requests from BERG, the letter said OHSU had changed its discrimination, harassment and retaliation policy, was in the process of putting up signs on campus saying racism would not be tolerated and had promoted Du Vivier to senior vice president.

“He will have expanded authority and responsibility to lead the charge to transforming OHSU into an anti-racist organization,” the letter said. 

The response also outlined administrative procedures to increase the diversity of applicant pools and said OHSU would hire a consultant to examine human resources and the affirmative action department for structural racism. 

“We are actively looking for ways to mitigate bias in processes and practices,” the letter said.

A spokeswoman said OHSU will use the firm Workplace Change to review its practices. The Portland-based company, led by Serilda Summers-McGee, a Black woman with two masters degrees, is a "culturally progressive human resources firm that creates measurable change in America's workplaces," according to its website.

BERG members told The Lund Report they were unimpressed with OHSU’s response. 

“They refuse to put Black employees in a position to lead despite white leadership admitting they don't know how to start and continuously asking the Black community what they should do to make things better,” one source said. “They ask us for advice and then do the opposite.”

Though OHSU has worked up signs, they appear to be directed towards protecting patients, BERG membes said. "OHSU needs to be safe so people can heal," the sign says in bold letters. Underneath, there's another sentence in smaller type about treating everyone with kindness and respect.  The third sentence under that -- in smaller type -- mentions racism and discrimination.

"At this point it feels like the people leading this are as stupid," one souce said. 

BERG members said they’ve met repeatedly with top management, including Jacobs and Du Vivier, about racism at OHSU. They’ve been pushing for months for the university to put more Blacks in leadership positions. Only 3% of OHSU employees are Black, and only 1.3% have faculty positions. 

One source called OHSU’s response “spin” aimed at maintaining the status quo.

“Why is it so hard for OHSU, an institution that has an African American at the helm,” to implement “a zero tolerance policy regarding racist acts by its employees, students and vendors? This should not be this difficult,” the source said.

BERG members also questioned OHSU’s assertion that it has spent $14 million on diversity, a statement made in an earlier response sent to The Lund Report.

“Someone needs to account for that money because it is certainly not on diversity or recruiting, hiring (or) retaining more (people of color),” a source said.

Another source called on OHSU to issue an apology or provide restitution. Several Black employees said they've been traumatized by several noose incidents since December 2016, including one this past April when a staff member posted a noose during an online work session. Jacobs condemned the incident and said that "strong disciplinary action" had been taken against the employee. But that person was not fired.

“A lot of us believe the regime that enabled racism is still in charge and responsible for trying to fix their mess,” a source said.

The letter proposed that BERG and the administration hold more talks with a mutually approved mediator. But the group appears to be tiring of discussions. Members said they’ve spent a lot of time and energy outside their regular jobs trying to push change and feel that they’ve largely been ignored.

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

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