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Brain Surgeon Gets Another Chance

July 21, 2010

When Arthur Day joined the medical school faculty at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston on July 1, he brought more than his decades of experience as cerebrovascular neurosurgeon with him.

Moving halfway across the country from Harvard University-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Day arrived in Houston with the baggage of three gender discrimination lawsuits filed against him or his hospital in recent years. The latest one ended with a jury finding the hospital liable for subjecting a female surgeon to a hostile work environment and retaliation (though not for discrimination), and Day responsible for slander and intentional interference in the surgeon’s business relationships. (Note: This paragraph is corrected from an earlier version that incorrectly stated that the jury held Day responsible for creating a discriminatory and hostile work environment. The jury made no such finding against Day. Inside Higher Ed regrets the error.)

That kind of past might make some universities and hospitals reluctant to hire him for a job that will surely involve lots of interaction with female students and residents in the process of building their careers, but it appears that, to the faculty and administrators making hiring decisions at the Houston medical institution, often called UTHealth, Day’s professional credentials have overshadowed his allegedly less-than-professional conduct.

“Dr. Day is an accomplished educator, clinician and researcher who has helped train some of the most talented and skilled surgeons in the nation,” said Larry R. Kaiser, president of UTHealth, in a statement. “His career achievements are truly exceptional and we believe he will bring important strengths to our neurosurgery department.”

Day has been appointed professor, residency program director and vice chair for education in the medical school’s neurosurgery department. As a professor and program director, he will play a supervisory role for students and residents, potentially putting him into situations similar to those under which alleged discrimination occurred at Brigham and Women’s. Through his assistant, Day declined to comment.

A female medical student at UTHealth, who last week alerted Inside Higher Ed to Day's hiring, called it "an outrage." Students, she said, have "heard that the women faculty are very upset." She did not want her name used in this article, saying she was "pretty fearful of retaliation."

Photo: Courtesy of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston

Arthur Day

In a statement, the medical school’s dean, Giuseppe Colasurdo, described Day as “a true academic leader and a nationally recognized authority in the treatment of intracranial vascular lesions and minimally invasive spine surgery. His skill set further enhances the diverse talents of our neurosurgery team and strengthens the neurosurgery services offered in the region.”

The university's media relations office declined to provide access to Kaiser and Colasurdo, offering only brief written statements from each. Neither statement addressed the claims made against Day or indicated whether he would undergo training or monitoring at UTHealth, though Inside Higher Ed asked for answers to those questions and others.

After a four-week trial in early 2009, a jury found Day and Brigham and Women’s liable on several charges raised by Sagun Tuli, Harvard’s first and only female spinal surgeon. The jury ordered the hospital to pay Tuli $1 million in damages for her working conditions and another $600,000 after concluding that the hospital retaliated against her for complaining. Day was required to personally pay $20,002 to Tuli for interfering in her business relationship with the hospital, and for slandering her. (Note: This paragraph is corrected from an earlier version that did not specify that the $1 million and $600,000 awards to Tuli were ordered to be paid by the hospital, and not by Day, who was not found liable on those claims. Inside Higher Ed regrets the error.)

Day and the hospital are both in the midst of appeals, and lawyers for both did not respond to requests for comment.

In the lawsuit, Tuli alleged that Day made comments like, "You are just a girl, are you sure you can do that?" during surgery. In sworn affidavits, other female hospital employees said that Day often called Tuli and other women he worked with “girls,” would sometimes display an 8-inch phallic statue on his desk, and downloaded sexually explicit images onto a nurse’s personal digital assistant. Tuli and the two other women who filed suits against Day are all of Indian descent, and court proceedings included some mentions of racist comments

A dozen senior medical school faculty at UTHealth contacted by Inside Higher Ed for comment declined requests to comment or did not return e-mail or voice messages. Through an assistant, Dong H. Kim, chair of the neurosurgery department and a former student of Day’s, first agreed to an interview and then declined to comment, directing requests to the UTHealth media relations office. The university’s equal employment opportunity office also referred interview requests to media relations.

One Tuli supporter, Linda Brodsky, a New York pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist who advocates for gender equity in medicine, said she “would expect or hope that [administrators at UTHealth] had taken into very serious consideration the kind of issues that had been presented in the past about his behavior” before hiring Day. “If he’s gone through rehabilitation and is a changed man, then maybe they’re getting a very good professor.”

Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, said that “employers have long been on notice that they have the obligation to provide their employees with a safe, discrimination-free workplace.”

Anti-discrimination training and a mechanism for students and employees to report complaints “may be particularly important now” at UTHealth, Graves said, referring to Day’s arrival there. “If the university has a clear process in place and has developed an employment culture that does not include harassment, this type of conduct won’t be tolerated there.”

Brodsky noted that all eyes will be on Day’s behavior. “People around him are aware of this. I’m sure everybody will be watching very closely,” she said. “I would expect that he will have learned his lesson and that he will be a credit when it comes to coeducational workplace environments.”

She added: “I hope he makes good use of his professional second chance and I will remain optimistic until he proves otherwise.”

 

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