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Oregon Lawmakers Call For Investigation Of Harassment, Discrimination On Campuses

A bipartisan resolution follows high-profile complaints against Oregon Health & Science University and Oregon State University.
Clouds hover over the Oregon Capitol building.
Oregon State Capitol in Salem. | BEN BOTKIN/THE LUND REPORT
May 5, 2021

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is pushing a bill to investigate how university administrations handle sexual abuse and racial discrimination complaints.

The bill, Senate Joint Resolution 30, which was introduced on Monday, would establish a joint committee to look at what policies and procedures administrations have to protect faculty and students and how universities handle complaints. The bill follows a high-profile sexual assault lawsuit filed in late February against Oregon Health & Science University that accused the institution of fostering a culture in which sexual assault and harassment are permitted while victims are punished. OHSU settled the case late last month, agreeing to pay $585,000.

“We have a problem with sexual harassment at some of our universities,” said Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, at a news conference on Wednesday. “The Legislature needs to take a leading role, and I think that’s what this is about.”

Thatcher is a chief sponsor of the resolution along with Sens. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, and Kayse Jama, D-Portland. In the House, Reps. Christiane Drazan, R-Canby, and Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, added their names. 

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Gelser joined Thatcher in the online news conference.

Gelser, who earned a master’s degree from Oregon State and is married to one of its professors, said she was especially concerned about allegations against that university. In March, the former dean of OSU’s College of Pharmacy filed a lawsuit that accuses the administration of retaliating against her after she reported student concerns about racial discrimination and sexual harassment. OSU has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, which follows the resignation of OSU’s president, King Alexander, over his handling of sexual misconduct allegations while he was president and chancellor of Louisiana State University before taking the helm at Oregon State.

The bill would establish a Joint Committee on Respectful and Safe University Campuses to investigate university policies and actions, including how they handle complaints and treat victims. The committee would hold public hearings, with the ability to subpoena witnesses and documents. It would appoint one or more investigators to audit campuses and report findings and recommendations by Dec. 31.

The committee would focus on Oregon’s seven public universities and OHSU, which is a public corporation. It would not look at private institutions, like Linfield College, where the president, Miles Davis, is under pressure to resign amid accusations of sexual misconduct and anti-semitism.

Oregon’s seven universities are in line to receive nearly $840 million over the next two-year budget cycle, if lawmakers approve Gov. Kate Brown’s proposal for 2021 to 2023. OHSU, which is a public corporation, receives about $37 million a year in taxpayer funds to run its education programs in medicine, dentistry and nursing. That’s just a drop in the budget: OHSU’s overall operating budget is nearly $4 billion a year.

That’s enough for OHSU to afford spending more than $2,000 an hour for the services of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. OHSU’s president, Dr. Danny Jacobs, along with the institution’s board chair, Wayne Monfries, hired Holder through his law firm, Covington & Burling, to investigate OHSU’s policies and procedures in handling sexual harassment and racial discrimination complaints amid national headlines over the lawsuit. Holder’s fee has raised eyebrows, with Thatcher referring to it during the press conference.

Holder’s team is interviewing faculty, staff and others who have complaints about how OHSU has handled allegations of harassment, including several noose incidents which prompted Black employees at the institution to accuse the administration of being an enabler of racism. Some people who’ve spoken with Holder’s team said they’re informed and efficient, though some faculty doubt the investigation will ever be made public or prompt much change.

One switch has happened, however: Dr. Emily Baird, residency program director in the anesthesiology department last year, has been replaced by Dr. Ryan Fink, according to OHSU’s website. Baird allegedly protected Dr. Jason Campbell, an anesthesiology resident, who was accused in the lawsuit of sending the victim pornographic pictures and texts and of pressing against her with his erection. The lawsuit said Campbell had bragged about having Baird wrapped around his finger. 

OHSU did not respond to a request for comment about Baird's apparent demotion, nor did a spokeswoman address the resolution. In a statement, she said: "We believe Covington's extensive experience and unique expertise will result in a comprehensive and independent analysis that will service the long-term best interest of OHSU and our public mission." The statement added that the institution "shares the resolve to create a safe and respectful place to learn, teach work and serve Oregonians."

Besides the Holder investigation, OHSU also faces an inquiry by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, which approves the on-the-job training programs for medical school graduates. The council is also looking into allegations raised by the lawsuit, which named faculty members it said had failed to sexual harassment. If the council, which will visit OHSU twice, finds wrongdoing, it could issue a warning, put OHSU or its anesthesiology program on probation or withdraw accreditation from one or both. Accreditation is required for an institution to receive federal funding and for physicians to become certified by a national medical board.

As for the bill, it’s now on the desk of Sen. President Peter Courtney, who could kill it by inaction or send it to a committee for consideration. His former chief of staff was Connie Seeley, now chief administrative officer and chief of staff at OHSU. 

“As lawmakers, we have to take responsibility for ensuring our campuses are safe for everyone,” Gelser said. “This legislation will help restore some of that trust.”

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