Three former UC San Diego administrators say they were asked by a state-appointed investigator whether the school’s chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, has exhibited bullying or other abusive behavior toward members of the university’s staff.
The investigator has been working for the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), which is reviewing an internal complaint made by an unnamed person.
The three former employees say the investigator also asked them if any of Khosla’s current or former staff had engaged in bullying — a word that can refer to many things, including insults, humiliation or threats.
The investigator’s questions “were related to whether conduct violated the UCOP’s anti-bullying, anti-discrimination, anti-harassment policies and the code of ethics and principles of community,” said Stephanie Barry, UC San Diego’s former chief alumni officer.
Barry is one of three women who publicly disclosed their discussions with the investigator to the Union-Tribune.
The others are Judy Lane, former executive director of special events and protocol, and Kristina Larsen, the former assistant vice chancellor for academic personnel.
Larsen is a San Diego attorney who specializes in harassment and discrimination cases. She has been advising Lane and Barry in their dealings with UCOP. Larsen also represents another former UC San Diego administrator who was interviewed by the investigator.
That person chose to remain anonymous.
Larsen said, “The Chancellor and his staff insulted, berated, humiliated, and isolated my clients, among other things. One described feeling as if she were suffering from PTSD after leaving UCSD.
“I am glad the University of California is investigating.”
Khosla, who has been chancellor since 2012, declined to discuss the specific comments made by Barry, Lane and Larsen. He referred the Union-Tribune to UCOP, which said that it could not comment on whether an investigation is underway.
However, UC San Diego issued a statement Tuesday that says the university “is committed to creating a safe, supportive and positive environment for all of our employees.
“As part of this commitment and to continually strive to improve the work environment at UC San Diego, each year the Chancellor’s Office conducts a detailed staff survey that allows employees to anonymously rate their overall satisfaction and personal experiences at work.
“We are proud of the positive results of these surveys during the past several years, and they are publicly available on our web site.
“In addition to the annual employee survey, UC San Diego offers a number of ways for employees to provide feedback and raise concerns about their workplace, including confidential and anonymous channels. Complaints about inappropriate workplace conduct are taken seriously and thoroughly reviewed and investigated.
“Since the Chancellor’s arrival on campus, UC San Diego has made advancing the diversity of faculty, students and staff a top priority. We have a strong track record of hiring and promoting women and underrepresented minorities in top leadership positions and we continue to pursue this mission.”
Lane, Barry and Larsen held key positions at UC San Diego.
Barry is a UC San Diego graduate who became director of alumni affairs in early 2016. She took over a program that has been struggling to track and connect with former students.
Fewer than four percent of the university’s alumni made financial gifts to the school in fiscal 2018, a figure that has been dropping.
At the time of her hiring, a campus official called Barry a “visionary.” Less than 18 months later, she was fired. She says the university told her it “wanted to go in a different direction.” UC San Diego declined to discuss the issue.
“I have worked well in many jobs, and like everyone, I’ve learned to navigate difficult work situations,” Barry told the Union-Tribune. “I have never encountered the degree of toxicity and mean-spirited leadership that I was subject to as Chief Alumni Officer.”
Lane worked for UC San Diego for nearly 20 years, retiring in early 2018. She was responsible for organizing special events that were held to promote the university and cultivate donors.
Larsen, who graduated from UC San Diego, worked at the university for more than 15 years, leaving in 2014. She specialized in academic personnel issues.
Khosla is a cybersecurity expert who came to San Diego from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he was dean of the college of engineering.
He has presided over a period of extraordinary growth.
UC San Diego’s enrollment has increased by nearly 10,000 since Khosla’s arrival, making it among the fastest-growing schools in the country. The campus also raised a record $285.8 million in private gifts and donations last year, according to UC Regents. And it raised a record $1.2 billion for research, keeping UC San Diego on the list of the nation’s top 10 research universities.
UC President Janet Napolitano sent a message to the entire UC system in July 2016 making it clear that the university would not tolerate bullying or abusive conduct.
“There is some confusion among employees about what bullying is and how to address it,” Napolitano said in the message, promising to help clarify the definition as time went along.
She said she would be guided by a state law that defines abusive behavior as “conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.”
The 2016 message came with a guidance sheet that said abusive conduct could include offensive language, humiliation, making someone the brunt of pranks or practical jokes, and isolating a person from normal work activities, among other offenses.
The interviews the UCOP investigator conducted with Lane, Barry and Larsen are linked to a complaint of unknown origin that was made to the UC system. The person who filed the complaint has not been unidentified, nor has the specific nature of the complaint been revealed.
The UC system says it has various ways for “employees, applicants, students, patients, vendors, contractors and the general public” to surface complaints.
An improper activity can involve anything from fraud and coercion to gross misconduct or “any condition that may significantly threaten the health or safety of employees or the public,” the UC says.
The UC does a preliminary inquiry and determines whether a full investigation is warranted. It is not clear whether the UC San Diego is in the preliminary stage, or has gone further.
The person who makes the whistleblower report generally has the right to learn how things turn out. But that might be prevented for legal or public interest reasons, the UC says.
Robbins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.