OHSU Promises Investigators Will Examine Workplace Culture, Policies

OHSU Hospital photo.jpg

Oregon Health & Science University’s president and board chair said Thursday that its recently announced workplace investigation of complaints of sexual assault and racism will take a “wider lens” in examining the policies and culture at OHSU.

The investigation will be co-led by Eric Holder, a U.S. attorney general under former President Barack Obama, and Nancy Kestenbaum, a former federal prosecutor. They have both conducted workplace investigations of discrimination and harassment for Covington & Burling, a law firm based in Washington D.C., and are currently looking into complaints about racism and discrimination at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“Some of the concerns and challenges OHSU faces are not unique to our university, and that is why we have called upon the Covington team,” the statement said. “They will apply their experience conducting reviews for other complex organizations to a close examination of our culture, processes and procedures.” 

The statement, which was posted internally and then issued in a news release, was signed by Dr. Danny Jacobs, OHSU's president, and Wayne Monfries, chair of the board. It said that the investigation was prompted in part by a lawsuit by a former employee against the institution and a former anesthesiology resident, Dr. Jason Campbell. That suit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Portland, accuses the institution of fostering a culture that covers up harassment, protects the culprits and retaliates against victims who complain.

But the statement said the investigation will go beyond the lawsuit: “Although the recent litigation against OHSU and a former resident is one reason why we have commissioned this investigation, that lawsuit will be addressed through a separate legal process,” the statement said. “This investigation is not about a single incident, and it’s not about individual people. Rather, Covington’s investigation will examine our culture — including our policies, programs and procedures — from a wider lens to help us identify root causes and identify or create ways to address areas requiring improvements.”

Specifically, the statement said the investigation will look at:

  • “Systemic inequitable treatment, discrimination, harassment, bullying or intimidation based on race, color, religion, national origin, disability, age, marital status, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression in the OHSU community.
  • How OHSU has handled, and should handle going forward, reports of inequitable treatment, discrimination or harassment based on these characteristics, or based on other differences due to power dynamics, or retaliation for reporting these types of improper conduct.”

At least three women have sued OHSU for gender bias in recent years. The recent lawsuit, which seeks $45 million in damages, alleges that Campbell sent 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. It also 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.

OHSU has denied the allegations.

The attorneys for the complainants in the suit said they're not hopeful that Holder and Kestenbaum's investigation will lead to change at OHSU.

"With this move, OHSU's financial priorities regarding sexual misconduct do not appear victim centered," said Kim Sordyl, a Portland-based attorney.  "The community gets PR updates, but nothing on how OHSU is addressing safety, especially in light of the most recent news of the allegations of sexual violence by another one of its residents.  Furthermore, OHSU has placed its HR Committee Board members Ruth Beyer and Chad Paulson in charge of working with the investigation team.  We have evidence that those Board members have years of detailed knowledge of sexual misconduct, and apparently failed to act until we filed this lawsuit."

Michael Fuller, the victim's other attorney said: "Last month we gave Eric Holder 1,395 pages of confidential witness statements and evidence of misconduct at OHSU. As of today, we've heard nothing back from his office."

The institution has also OHSU has faced years of complaints from Black employees over repeated noose incidents. Investigations of those have either found no culprit or led to no one being fired, as Black employees have demanded. Last year they sent a letter to the administration that was obtained by The Lund Report that accused the administration of enabling racism.

OHSU is also being investigated by a national accrediting organization following the sexual abuse lawsuit. If the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education finds wrongdoing, it could issue a warning, put OHSU or its anesthesiology program on probation or withdraw accreditation from one or both. The Chicago-based council issues accreditation to institutions and their graduate programs that provide on-the-job training for doctors who’ve finished medical school. Accreditation is required for an institution to receive federal funding and for physicians to become certified by a national medical board.

The OHSU statement said the investigation amounted to a significant investment but did not release details about the cost. OHSU has not responded to a request from The Lund Report for the contract or the sum it's paying Covington.

“We believe that the investigators’ extensive experience and expertise will result in a comprehensive and independent analysis that would otherwise be impossible,” the statement said. “This work is imperative to improve our institution and is critically important to our long-term success. It is also the right thing to do. We look forward to embarking on this journey with you all.”

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


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