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Acting OSU president a defendant in whistleblower lawsuit

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While the Oregon State University Board of Trustees was discussing the terms of President F. King Alexander’s resignation Tuesday morning, a lawsuit alleging OSU administrators aided and abetted retaliation for reporting sexual and racial harassment was filed in Multnomah County by a former Oregon State dean and current professor.

The man tapped to be the university's acting president, Edward Feser, executive vice president and provost since 2017, is listed as one of the defendants in the case.

Grace Kuo, dean of the College of Pharmacy from June 2019 through December, is the plaintiff in the case, which alleges the university violated state laws on anti-discrimination and whistleblower protections. In the complaint, Kuo alleges that Feser and other Oregon State administrators took disciplinary action against her after she disclosed concerns from Oregon State students then-Executive Associate Dean of the College of Pharmacy, Gary Delander, had been dismissive of complaints regarding racism and sexual harassment.

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Kuo was demoted from dean to a tenured professor position in December and Delander stepped down from his former role in January.

Steve Clark, OSU vice president of university relations and marketing, said he was not aware of the suit when reached for comment by Mid-Valley Media on Tuesday.

“Employee matters, including litigation, are not discussed publicly,” Clark said. “We’ll take the matter of this case under advisement.”

Clark provided a subsequent statement later Tuesday evening.

“The university totally disputes these allegations, and will rigorously defend the university and those OSU employees named in this complaint,” Clark said.

Along with Feser, the defendants in the case are Oregon State University, senior vice provost for faculty affairs Susan Capalbo and William Comer.

“Students brought forth concerns related to discrimination, racism, bias toward students who speak English with an accent and sexual harassment,” the complaint says of a meeting with students on June 11. “The students said they were aware that these complaints had gone to (Delander). According to the students, Delander either did not respond to their complaints, made an inappropriate response or did not adequately follow up with their complaints.

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

The complaint says after the meeting with students, Kuo and Charlene Alexander, vice president and chief diversity officer, brought the stated concerns about Delander to Feser and Capalbo. Feser and Capalbo advised Kuo to ask Delander to “step down from his administrative position, but ask that he remain at his faculty appointment,” according to the complaint.

Kuo then met with Capalbo for two hours to “review the decision to have Delander step down from his administrative position,” on June 13, according to the complaint. On June 15, the complaint says Kuo met with Feser, who approved of the decision at the time. It was later that same day Kuo asked Delander to step down. Kuo alleges it was only a matter of days before she began to experience retaliation for the decision.

“On June 19, 2020 (Kuo) was informed by OSU Foundation staff that certain alumni were angry with (Kuo) for the Delander decision,” the complaint states. “Apparently, Delander had been communicating with alumni to bring pressure on the Administration to change its decision and remove (Kuo) from her position.”

The complaint says that on June 25, less than a week later, Capalbo told Kuo the demotion was on hold and that Capalbo wanted to talk with Delander alone.

After that conversation, Kuo said Capalbo “denied that her notes reflected that Delander was to step down” on July 2. Kuo also says Capalbo accused her of having “poor communication skills."

The complaint says that on July 10, Feser told Kuo that he was expecting to receive a letter signed by hundreds of alumni and donors complaining about Kuo and the decision to demote Delander, and that “Feser threatened (Kuo) that she had better not do anything to interfere with his decision making.”

A letter was sent to Feser by Comer and other College of Pharmacy alumni on July 13, the complaint says. Comer says in the letter that he and other alumni were concerned with Kuo’s leadership after her demotion of Delander. Comer also said alumni would withdraw foundation funding, donations, scholarships and other forms of support as a result of Kuo’s decision.

The complaint says Feser called Kuo on the same day to “suggest the Executive Committee would be taking over the daily operation of the College and that (Kuo) was henceforth to delegate operations to them,” with Feser adding the “alumni are getting noisy.”

Later on July 13, Feser contacted Kuo to tell her he intended to initiate a “leadership assessment” of Kuo because of “noises out there” about her leadership. Feser demanded she sign a letter written by him directed to faculty, staff and students that apologized for “having implied that she did not value Delander’s ‘many years of service’ to OSU,” according to the complaint.

The complaint says the retaliation continued from there, and in rapid succession

Capalbo sent Kuo a letter she had drafted on July 16 for Kuo to sign and send to all alumni and faculty, the complaint states. Capalbo’s letter included a statement for Kuo to “acknowledge her neglect and to apologize,” for demoting Delander, although Kuo maintains it was a joint decision.

Also on July 16, Charlene Alexander told Kuo that Feser said his office was “handling the situation,” while confirming she was present when Feser and Capalbo advised Kuo to ask Delander to step down, according to the complaint.

On July 20, a furious Feser met with Kuo and Capalbo, the complaint says. Feser told Kuo it was all her fault and said she “made a serious mistake.” Additionally, Feser told Kuo he planned to proceed with a “leadership assessment” of Kuo.

Kuo’s attorney, Martin Dolan, did not immediately return a request for comment.

K. Rambo can be contacted at 541-812-6091 or k.rambo@lee.net. Follow on Twitter via @k_rambo_.

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