Investigators find OHSU failed to support diversity, accountability and misconduct reporting

By Rob Manning (OPB) and Amelia Templeton (OPB)
Dec. 9, 2021 11:18 p.m. Updated: Dec. 10, 2021 2:47 p.m.

Administrators expect to pay the firm led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder $6.5 million for the investigation.

OHSU campus buildings taken from the waterfront. The Portland Aerial Tram cabins are crossing in the lower portion of the photograph.

OHSU campus buildings taken from the waterfront. The Portland Aerial Tram cabins are crossing in the lower portion of the photograph.

OHSU LIBRARY/Cyril "Kent" Anderson

Oregon Health & Science University has failed to support principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, and community members don’t feel the institution supports people coming forward with reports of misconduct, nor does it hold people “equally accountable for misconduct.”

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Those are among the broad conclusions of a 51-page report authored by a team of investigators led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and partner Nancy Kestenbaum of the firm Covington & Burling LLP, and published Thursday by OHSU.

OHSU commissioned the report following high-profile incidents that raised questions about how the academic health center handles sexual harassment and other misconduct. This includes the 2019 departure of the former head of OHSU Emergency Medicine following an internal investigation, as well as a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former social worker against a resident doctor, Jason Campbell, who achieved brief fame in viral videos.

The former social worker alleged that many people at OHSU knew of her allegations of harassment against Dr. Campbell but failed to report him to HR. Instead, she claims, he was protected while she was shamed.

That case was settled for $585,000. OHSU publicly apologized to the plaintiff but did not admit to violating any laws. The plaintiff declined to participate in the recent investigation, the report states.

“We found that OHSU has appropriately committed itself to a path that encourages diversity, equity and inclusion and values appropriate conduct,” Holder said in a statement released with the report. “We also determined that in the execution of these goals OHSU has challenges that it must overcome.”

The report also detailed a remarkable 12-year leadership void at the top of the teaching hospital’s human resources department. The school had no vice president of human resources for five years. At other times, the top HR job was filled by interim directors, including the school’s former security chief.

The report made a series of recommendations, among them:

  • clarify diversity, equity and inclusion goals;
  • integrate those goals into OHSU operations;
  • strengthen accountability measures;
  • and hire experienced leadership and adequate staff for the human resources department.

In a response to the report, OHSU President Danny Jacobs said the institution has work to do “to overcome the past and change the future so that OHSU can become a place where everyone can thrive.”

The OHSU board of directors has unanimously approved Danny Jacobs as the next president. “I am humbled and honored to join this excellent team,” said Jacobs. “It’s clear to me that OHSU is a special place, deeply woven into the fabric of the community, and by community, I mean all of Oregon’s 96,000 square miles. That’s very exciting to me.”

The OHSU board of directors has unanimously approved Danny Jacobs as the next president. “I am humbled and honored to join this excellent team,” said Jacobs. “It’s clear to me that OHSU is a special place, deeply woven into the fabric of the community, and by community, I mean all of Oregon’s 96,000 square miles. That’s very exciting to me.”

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OHSU

Jacobs also acknowledged people who have been wronged by OHSU in the past, saying, “we are sorry for anyone who has experienced inequitable treatment, discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation or retaliation while working or learning at OHSU.”

OHSU hasn’t received Covington & Burling’s final bill but expects the firm’s report to cost $6.5 million.

Reports that Holder was charging OHSU $2,000 hourly and his partner Nancy Kestenbaum was charging $1,300 hourly prompted an outcry from OHSU faculty and a state legislator earlier this year.

“This is an expensive but critical investment in the future of Oregon’s academic health center and will undoubtedly save money in the long run,” OHSU spokeswoman Tamara Hargens-Bradley said.

A broken institutional culture

The report begins with a deep look at OHSU’s institutional culture. More than 19,000 employees work at the academic research center.

Covington & Burling used a hotline, email, and a series of anonymous focus groups to interview hundreds of employees and students to assess the institutional culture.

Those interviews and focus groups painted a picture of an institution where people — particularly women and people of color — experience discrimination and harassment and view the system for reporting those problems to be fundamentally broken.

For example, 29% of female focus group participants and 12% of male participants indicated that they had personally experienced sexual harassment at OHSU in the three years prior to the investigation.

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Additionally, 80% of the people of color in the focus groups reported witnessing or personally experiencing unfair or differential treatment at OHSU within the last three years.

But, according to the report, people felt there were few benefits and significant risks to reporting misconduct. They feared professional retaliation and felt complaints were mishandled — with ultimately little accountability for misconduct.

The report notes that employees’ fears of retaliation may be exacerbated by OHSU’s standing as the only major academic medical center in Oregon, making it hard for people to find other comparable positions locally.

“The process tends to only make things worse for the reporter. It would be career damaging and wouldn’t prevent anything similar from happening again or to others,” one participant was quoted saying in the report.

The reports lays out several major factors that undermined the institutional culture at OHSU.

First, a pattern of hypocrisy where the institution’s actions or public communications conflict with its stated values around diversity, equity and inclusion, or with misconduct issues.

For example, the report notes that four incidents involving nooses have occurred on campus in the past five years: one involving an image posted to an internal online chat, and three involving nooses found in different parts of the campus.

When a Black employee group wrote to the executive leadership raising concerns over how the four incidents were handled, OHSU responded first to the media before answering its own employees.

In other cases, the institution publicly praised employees who were leaving as a result of misconduct investigations.

The report describes OHSU’s Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as rudderless, in the words of its own staff.

The center’s personnel described their office as an organization “tasked with asking Black and Latino employees to go to events and show their face.”

‘Things fall through the cracks’: Lost complaints and poor record keeping

The firm reviewed more than a thousand complaints formally filed through OHSU reporting channels. Those included 310 reports for failure to provide disability accommodation, 271 for bullying, 122 for race discrimination, 80 for sexual harassment, 69 for race harassment, 51 for gender based harassment, 40 for disability discrimination, 34 for gender discrimination, 31 for pregnancy accommodation and 29 for sexual assault.

However, the firm found that OHSU uses several different databases to track complaints — and the institution failed to include critical information in many of the reports. Half didn’t include a date the investigation closed, and in cases where Covington could determine the investigation had been closed, many didn’t state the outcome of the investigation.

OHSU’s poor record-keeping creates a significant risk that complaints are lost or not processed. It also makes it harder for HR to identify repeat offenders, or to understand trends — like unequal discipline for employees in particular racial or ethnic groups.

HR department is understaffed and devalued

Covington & Burling’s report tied many of OHSU’s cultural problems back to an undervalued, short-staffed human resources department.

OHSU has not had a consistent, experienced, permanent leader at the top of the HR department since 2009.

“OHSU has not handled the chief HR position in a manner consistent with the position’s importance,” the report stated.

The position was vacant for years, and then held by a succession of people who lacked adequate experience for the job, or who were only serving in an interim or consulting capacity.

The report also looked in detail at a critical mid-level HR management position, Human Resource Business Partner, that handles many initial reports of misconduct.

OHSU has just 18 people in that role. Industry benchmarks suggest it should have three to four times that number to adequately support its employees, according to the report.

Finally, Covington found that OHSU allows managers — and not HR — to ultimately determine the level of discipline employees face after an investigation, leading to inconsistent disciplinary decisions and a perception of favoritism, particularly for employees viewed as top performers.

According to one executive, that approach allowed managers to treat some subjects like “they are a genius just having a bad day.”

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