UCLA Medical Center Stung by Lawsuit

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  • A race discrimination lawsuit filed against UCLA Medical Center and the University of California Board of Regents is drawing increasing attention and raising questions about the temperature of the working environment for distinguished African-Americans.

    The suit alleges that Dr. Christian Head, a nationally recognized head and neck surgeon and an associate professor at the medical school, was depicted as a gorilla in a slide shown at a celebratory party attended last year by faculty, staff and residents.

    The show, supervised by Dr. Gerald Berke, who chairs the Head and Neck Surgery Department, consisted of some 30 to 40 slides. Half of them reportedly featured Dr. Head.

    One slide showed a photo of a large, hairy gorilla with Dr. Head’s face Photoshopped on it. The gorilla was being sodomized by a white man wearing Dr. Berke’s Photoshopped face.

    Dr. Marlene Wang, who supervises Dr. Head, reportedly burst out laughing, along with most of the approximately 200 guests at the party. The vast majority of them were white. Wang, according to news reports based on the lawsuit, joked that Dr. Head was “being screwed by his boss.”

    Dr. Joel Sercarz, a professor of surgery was not among the group of amused revelers.

    In an e-mail sent to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, he said, “I appreciate your concern about diversity and tolerance, but why allow my colleague, Dr. Christian Head, an African-American physician, to be depicted at a UCLA event with his head superimposed on the body of a gorilla?”

    Dr. Head, who is tenured and ranked third nationwide among surgeons performing his specialty, in 2002 received the National Cancer Institute Faculty Development Award from the National Institute for Health. Since then, he has been the recipients of 10 other prestigious awards and 10 research grants.

    Before his UCLA appointment, Dr. Head established the UCLA Johnson Center Cancer Tumor Lab, acclaimed worldwide by peers and patients alike.

    Dr. Sercarz has not received a response from Chancellor Block.

    When Dr. Head, who is an associate professor, filed official complaints, according to the lawsuit, they were met with retaliation. The suit alleges that his “number of clinic days were reduced and his hospital privileges were threatened.”

    Not only are the medical center and the board of regents named as defendants in the suit, which seeks general and compensatory damages for lost salary, front and back pay, bonuses and benefits, but Drs. Wang and Berke as well.

    Moreover, according to the lawsuit, Dr. Wang’s supervisor and peer evaluations of Dr. Head’s performance were consistently “nothing but negative” until the medical school’s late dean, William F. Friedman, ordered her to stop, citing the 2004 Equal Employment Opportunity Resolution enacted after she called him “an affirmative action hire.”

    Dr. Friedman died in August, 2005, at which point Dr. Wang “picked up where she left off,” Dr. Head said in an interview with Betty Pleasant, the highly regarded columnist with Wave Community Newspapers.

    BlackAmericaWeb.com was unable to reach Dr. Head before this article was posted.

    However, Ronald Hasson, president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the NAACP, an advocate for Dr. Head, said, “We are very concerned about any institution that has a situation in which an African American is depicted in such negative manner.”

    It does not appear, Hasson said, that the Board of Regents, the chancellor, or medical center have taken “sufficient or appropriate steps to send a (strong) message to minorities about it or that the incident was put on “a high level of seriousness.”

    Hasson said, “Although we are aware that some action was taken on the part of UCLA, that does not release the medical center from the responsibility to take more serious action against these individuals.”

    Their public contempt for Dr. Head’s position, image and reputation, Hasson said, required “a level of reprimand. In the very least, a letter of warning should have been placed in their personnel files.” University officials should also have considered “their removal from positions of authority,” Hasson told blackamericaweb.com.

    The officials, Hasson added, “should look at this incident and address it immediately, so not only Dr. Head, but all minorities can see that they have taken this seriously.”

    Instead, Hasson said, “some of these people have been promoted and given even greater opportunities.”

    As a result, he said, “there appears to be a hostile environment; Dr. Head has not been protected or made to feel comfortable in this environment.”

    A call to the Board of Regents was not returned before this article was posted. An aide to David T. Feinberg, president of the UCLA Health System, referred backamericawreb.com to the university’s media relations department, which, in turn, e-mailed a statement it released May 11.

    “The allegations of reprehensible and derogatory behavior made against UCLA in a recent lawsuit, in a You Tube video (which has more than 60,000 views) and in a Change.org petition are of serious concern to the campus community.”

    In February, however, the university charged that Dr. Head’s lawsuit is “inflammatory.”

    The e-mail received by BlackAmericaWeb.com now contends, by contrast, that “the type of behavior alleged is contrary to the values we hold dear and seek to advance and such behavior would not be tolerated.”

    Dr. Head and his attorney, the e-mail claimed, “were repeatedly advised (of grievance and disciplinary procedures) and encouraged to utilize them, but they chose not to do so.”

    While “privacy laws and pending litigation,” the e-mail noted, “prevent (UCLA officials) from commenting further on the specifics of the allegations, it is important to note that they are only allegations, not proven facts.”

    Willis Edwards, a member of the NAACP’s 64-member national board and a former Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch president, conceived the on-line petition. As of last week, the petition had reportedly garnered 1,700 signatures.

    Although Edwards’ failing health confines him to a hospice, he created the on-line petition and coordinates it

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