Former NIH director defends record amid charges of racism, bias at agency Healy cites steps taken in her tenure

July 14, 1993|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Even as employees of the National Institutes of Health told a congressional panel yesterday of agency-wide racism and discrimination, former Director Bernadine Healy defended her record and said she took "aggressive steps" to improve the treatment of blacks and women at the agency.

In recent months, the agency has come under criticism from both workers and the Montgomery County NAACP for not promoting blacks and often treating them with disrespect. In May, allegations of sexual harassment rocked the agency, but the House subcommittee hearing was the first to focus on the issue of racial discrimination.

"We have taken many steps -- aggressive steps to become part of the solution and not part of the problem," Dr. Healy said, citing her creation of a task force to study the charges and make recommendations as well as her efforts to place more blacks in senior positions.

Despite these efforts, Jalil Hameen Mutakabbir, NIH's black employment program manager, said change has been far too slow. In fiscal year 1992, she said, white women were hired for 80 percent of the positions earmarked for minorities.

Managers at the agency "have many subtle ways of denying highly qualified black employees equal employment opportunities," she said.

TC Members of the House Post Office and Civil Service panel heard from several employees at the $10.4 billion Bethesda-based research agency who testified that blacks are often overlooked for promotions and raises and have even been physically abused.

"There is a problem with respect," said Dr. Healy, a Bush administration appointee who stepped down from her post June 30. "I honestly don't know the answer. I've thought about it. I've worried about it."

Under questioning from Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Maryland, a freshman Democrat who had called for the hearing, Dr. Healy said one senior employee was recently removed from his post because of the sexual harassment charges. But she said no disciplinary action has been taken in response to allegations of racial discrimination.

She explained that many of the charges of discrimination in the past have been anonymous, making it difficult to pursue legal action: "We cannot have a reign of terror where anonymous complaints lead to action against individuals."

Dr. Healy also said she was "indeed shocked" when she first heard talk of favoritism and nepotism. At one meeting she attended, one staff member told her, " 'Everybody knows about nepotism here.' Well, I wasn't part of that everybody."

Asked about the reason for the alleged discrimination, the former director said that, perhaps, "it's something in the macho culture of science." Another possibility, she said, is that there is little turnover and few new openings in the top ranks of NIH.

Nevertheless, Dr. Healy said, "We really have to do something to change the culture at NIH, to create a culture of respect and fairness."

Dr. Healy, who has been talked about as a Republican candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Ohio Democrat Howard M. Metzenbaum, insisted that she "acted aggressively" on the issue of discrimination and helped bring more women and blacks into the higher management of NIH.

Sometimes, she said, the disciplinary actions taken were not strong enough. "But we had to live with it because of the peculiar bureaucratic system we burden under."

Among the steps Dr. Healy cited:

* Significantly increasing the presence of blacks in leadership roles. Between 1987 and 1992, she said, the number of blacks in senior level positions increased from 114 to 224, or almost 50 percent.

* Reviewing workplace behavior in each institute and making adherence to Equal Employment Opportunity guidelines "a critical performance element in all managers and supervisors' performance standards."

* Hiring 30 additional counselors in the Office of Equal Opportunity to handle claims of discrimination as well as restructuring the office to "improve case management."

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