UC Regents must address discrimination on campus

Ameena Golding/Staff

How many sex discrimination and harassment complaints against the University of California does it take for the UC Board of Regents to understand that it has a very serious problem on its hands and take action?

I am a longtime plaintiffs civil rights and employment attorney in Oakland and a proud alumnus of the UC Berkeley School of Law. The lawyers at my firm, including myself, have become increasingly aware of the problem of sex discrimination, harassment and retaliation within the University of California system.

So, let me get specific. The most recent case I filed involves an Asian woman, Yi Qu, who worked as an engineer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. There, Dr. Qu alleges that she experienced discrimination because of her race and sex, as she allegedly was ignored and excluded from work-related activities. Her formal complaint alleged that her supervisor told others to “forget about damn Yi (Qu).” Dr. Qu then alleged in her complaint that she was twice demoted in order to give her job to what the formal complaint describes as an “unqualified white male.”

Dr. Qu filed a complaint with the university alleging this discrimination, which she reported to have experienced on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, according to the formal complaint, the university failed to adequately address the serious issues Dr. Qu raised. This injustice must change.

My firm recently dealt with another case of race and sex discrimination involving a well-qualified anesthesiologist, Chinwe Okoye. An investigation by UCLA’s Discrimination Prevention Office found that she was discriminated against based on gender and race. In a formal complaint, it details how Dr. Chinwe Okoye was enrolled in a highly selective pain medicine fellowship at UCLA, where she came under the supervision of a prejudiced doctor who treated her noticeably differently from her colleagues, allegedly because of her race, her sex and the fact that she was pregnant at the time. The complaint describes how this mistreatment put Dr. Okoye under constant stress and anxiety in her work environment, which contributed to her high blood pressure and hospitalization. In the formal complaint, Dr. Okoye claims that these contributed to her poor health, ultimately causing her to give birth five weeks prematurely.

Okoye ultimately resigned from the fellowship completely. Interestingly, after she resigned, the university did its own investigation and substantiated the claims of race and sex discrimination by the offending physician supervisor. From my experience, this favorable finding is very unusual because, in my opinion, universities care too much about preserving their reputations. In spite of the positive finding for Dr. Okoye, however, the formal complaint details how the university did not offer her “any remedy,” and the supervisor who was found to have discriminated against Dr. Okoye “maintained all her rights and privileges at UCLA.”

Another example of a widely publicized case that involves accusations of sex discrimination is that of Vanessa Kaskiris. Kaskiris is one of five women who were in the campus Endpoint Engineering and Infrastructure team who have complained about discrimination based on sex. In an editorial that Vanessa Kaskiris wrote for The Daily Californian, she ends with a plea to the university, stating that time may be up for “giving tone-deaf campus administrators a second chance.” I wholeheartedly agree.

The recent #MeToo movement has dramatically empowered women to step forward about harassment and other forms of abuse and violence. Women are entering politics and other positions of power at a previously unheard-of rate. 2018 is being referred to as the year of the woman. Perhaps we need more women making decisions at the university. Perhaps this would stop, or at least slow down, the endemic tolerance of sex discrimination and harassment that goes unchecked. The university needs to fully commit to protecting its employees from discrimination, harassment and retaliation, quickly investigate the allegations, and take the complicated yet honorable steps to make things right — both at the individual level and as an institution. Only then will this distinguished university live up to its purported ideals.

It’s time!

J. Gary Gwilliam is an attorney and senior partner at Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer in Oakland, California.