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Oregon State faces discrimination and retaliation complaints from employees

Oregon State University is in Corvallis, Oregon.
Bryan M. Vance
Oregon State University is in Corvallis, Oregon.

Amid a whirlwind of news surrounding the departure of Oregon State University President F. King Alexander, the state’s largest university is also facing legal complaints from its employees.

Alexander’s departure was announced Tuesday when OSU’s Board of Trustees officially accepted his resignation. That’s the same day an employee filed a whistleblower lawsuit against OSU and officials including current acting president Ed Feser.

In her complaint, Grace Kuo, former Dean of the OSU College of Pharmacy, says the university aided and abetted in retaliation against her when she reported student concerns of racial discrimination and sexual harassment last year.

According to court documents, Kuo states she attended a meeting last summer in which students in the College of Pharmacy raised concerns “related to discrimination, racism, bias toward students who speak English with an accent and sexual harassment.”

Those students told Kuo, and other officials at the meeting, that their complaints had gone to Gary Delander, then Executive Associate Dean of the College, but he either did not respond to the complaints, made inappropriate responses, or did not adequately follow up.

“The students reported that Delander variously told them to solve the problems on their own without the Administration’s support,” the legal complaint reads. “Students reported feeling shut down, insecure and unsafe coming to school and being in the pharmacy building.”

Kuo said she told Feser, the OSU Provost now acting as president, and Susan Capalbo, Senior Vice Provost, about the students’ concerns and Delander’s inaction.

In the lawsuit, Kuo states that both Feser and Capalbo advised her to ask Delander to step down from his administrative position, which she did.

Following her demotion of Delander, Kuo said she was informed by OSU Foundation staff that certain alumni were unhappy about that decision.

Shortly after, a letter was sent to Provost Feser from various college of pharmacy alumni stating that they would be withdrawing donations, scholarships and other contributions because of Kuo’s demotion of Delander.

“Defendant Feser was extremely angry,” the lawsuit states. “He said it was all [Kuo’s] fault and that she had made a serious mistake. He insisted on going forward with a ‘leadership assessment’ for [Kuo.]”

Following continuing conversations over pressure from alumni, about four months later Kuo was demoted from her Dean position to a tenured professor.

Kuo is demanding a jury trial and damages to be determined at trial, but no more than $750,000.

OSU spokesperson Steve Clark said in a statement Wednesday morning that the university disputes the allegations made in Kuo’s complaint.

He said OSU actively supports and encourages members of the community to report misconduct through its website home page as well as frequent communications to the university community, and it clearly states policies that prohibit discrimination of any kind, which includes retaliation.

“Deans serve at the pleasure of the provost and are judged by their contribution to the university, their college and their performance. Dr. Kuo was returned to her position as a full faculty professor,” Clark said.

Earlier this month, OSU also received a complaint filed through the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries claiming that the university did not make reasonable accommodations for Candace Baltz, an employee with a disability, as well as denying her protected leave and firing her.

Baltz worked as the Director of Orange Media Network, OSU’s student media organization, in 2015. In 2019, she became Director of OSU’s Experiential Learning & Activities.

In her complaint, Baltz states that she has a “life-threatening allergy” and that she was repeatedly put at risk by her supervisor, Damoni Wright, and others not honoring her accommodations.

“[Wright] created events with environments that aggravated my disability, and did not communicate my accommodation needs to those who needed to know in order to accommodate me,” Baltz’s complaint reads.

She also said she was “excluded from leadership development projects and not acknowledged as a member of leadership” and that she was also denied a wage increase.

Baltz said she met with an investigator from OSU’s Equal Opportunity and Access office, but an investigation was not opened and her concerns were not addressed.

Last summer, she said she sought out protected leave without pay due to her disabilities. Shortly after, Baltz was informed that her then-supervisor, Wright, did not approve her leave, and she was given notice that her contract would not be renewed.

Baltz also states in her complaint that Wright had a “history of harassing and terminating or constructively discharging significantly more white women compared to people of other races and genders.” Baltz is white and Native American.

OSU’s spokesperson, Clark, said the university also disputes Baltz’s claims. He said the university has a commitment to prohibiting discrimination based on disability, and it provides equal access and accommodations to employees and students.

“The university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Access is engaged actively in training, education and putting in place accommodations for students and employees to engage equally in work at OSU, academic programs, research, service and other activities of the university,” Clark said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Meerah Powell