The Mount Sinai Health System in New York and four leaders of its global health teaching program are defending themselves this week against an embarrassing lawsuit alleging they fostered a workplace culture so toxic and hostile -- to senior female leaders in particular -- that many of those who designed and built the program were compelled to resign.
The 174-page complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by seven women and one man who are current or former employees of Mount Sinai's Arnhold Institute for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine. The filing claims numerous sex and age discrimination practices in withering detail, and specifically blames the program's director, 36-year-old Prabhjot Singh, MD, PhD.
Other defendants include Dennis S. Charney, MD, the Icahn School of Medicine's dean; Bruno Silva, MFA, director of design and product development; and David Berman, the program's chief of staff.
Singh was in his last year of residency at Mount Sinai when Charney picked him in 2015 to direct the institute, according to the lawsuit. The program's mission is to help physicians and medical students learn tools for practicing in underserved, resource-poor environments, both in the U.S. and around the world.
Abusive, dismissive, and hostile
As soon as Singh took over, the suit claims he "declared that he wanted to work only with young people [and] promptly set about denigrating and humiliating the Institute's existing employees who had been responsible for its success, most of them older women He was abusive, dismissive and hostile." The suit further charges that he selectively hired young men in their 20s and 30s (in the Silicon Valley startup model) instead of going through normal recruitment procedures.
He was said to do nothing to stop Silva from making pejorative comments about the office of one of the plaintiffs, a Pakistani Muslim, such as "it smells like shit in here" or "it smells like curry," and calling female employees and donors "bitches" and cruder slurs. The suit accuses Berman of being "known for violent screaming at women ... heard by everyone in the office, which Singh nonchalantly ignored."
The complaint also alleges that Singh frequently "lied to donors including USAID [United States Agency for International Development], falsely claiming that the AIGH had deployed a wonderful high-tech system for mapping health data in rural communities." Instead, the project was a vague set of specifications and unfinished code.
One of the plaintiffs, Humale Khan, "was astonished to see how unabashedly Singh was willing to submit fabricated data to a government body." Singh said the system, called ATLAS, had 16% coverage of secondary health services and a total of 224 ATLAS core users, according to Khan, when in fact, "ATLAS did not have any users, core or otherwise."
Singh also exaggerated ATLAS' capabilities to representatives of the Gates Foundation and Vulcan Inc., the suit claims.
And, the lawsuit claims, Singh ignored required human research subject protections.
When it became apparent that there wasn't enough time to obtain required institutional review board clearance for a planned research project in Guatemala, one of the plaintiffs advised Singh to postpone the project to get that authorization. Instead, Singh "changed tack" to avoid the approval, saying that the project instead was for "quality improvement not research."
Kevin Starr, who was said to direct Mulago and Arnhold Foundation funds that supported the global health program, did not respond to a request for comment.
"Is this bad? Yes, it's a pretty grisly situation," said plaintiffs' attorney John McAllister, who said his law firm specializes in sexual harassment claims involving universities and large corporations. "And there's an awful lot of people deliberately not paying attention, it appears to me, to allow this to keep going on for so long."
"The human resources departments, the equity departments, they can only go so far when the institution actually wants to protect the people who they think are making money for them or [who] are important to them or are the favorites of the people in power. That's the way this works," McAllister said.
Two of the plaintiffs agreed to speak with MedPage Today about their experiences after Singh took over. One, Natasha Anushri Anandaraja, MD, said she was forced out -- after 17 years building the program -- after Singh came on board. She said Singh was selected over another candidate, the University of California San Diego associate dean of global health sciences Steffanie Strathdee, PhD, who was far more qualified. (According to the lawsuit, the school's search committee had "strongly recommended" Strathdee for the directorship.)
Singh "was given free rein over a large amount of money, and a blind eye was turned to ... the way he hired and fired and treated personnel," Anandaraja said.
Rather than grow the global health program, Anandaraja said, Singh cut it by 60%, and cancelled activities with international partners in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Central America and Asia. Instead, Singh wanted to focus on "practice transformation" to help clinicians streamline their patient flow and become more efficient, which saves money and produces better patient outcomes. "I don't know if that promise was ever fulfilled, but the global health education and care we were giving to underserved communities was destroyed in that process."
Likewise, Holly Atkinson, MD, now age 66, who was director of the institute's Human Rights Program, said she, too, was forced out after Singh "systematically degraded her for many months" and cut her pay 40%, incorrectly saying that her program lacked financial support. She believes that she was targeted because of her age. "A number of younger men were brought in as senior management," she said.
Atkinson emphasized that the practices detailed in the lawsuit match those described in the National Academies' 2018 report on patterns of sexual harassment of women in academic settings, which called out verbal or non-verbal hostility and relegation to second-class status as commonplace.
"These are the things that this case really illustrates, and that's what we experienced. Women can find their careers being derailed."
Many of the accusations in the lawsuit paint a picture of a workplace fraught with Singh's bizarre behaviors and moods. For example, Singh is said to have frequently criticized work by women subordinates in front of others without explaining what was wrong, engaged in "weird staring contests at meetings, evidently trying to intimidate his female subordinates," and was said to "gaslight" and emotionally manipulate them.
When some of the plaintiffs took their grievances to Mount Sinai's human resources and legal departments, they were ignored, the lawsuit claims.
In an emailed statement, Mount Sinai said no discrimination took place. "Consistent with the School of Medicine's longstanding commitment to equity and inclusion, when employees in the Institute for Global Health brought concerns to our attention last year, we promptly initiated an internal review after which appropriate steps were taken. We deny the allegations of discrimination. We will not comment further on pending litigation other than to say that we intend to vigorously defend the action."
The statement also included a "[c]ommunication shared with the Mount Sinai community" last week, which said the complaints "did bring to our attention management issues at the Institute that led to the creation of an oversight committee, to which we appointed deans and senior faculty, to monitor and guide the management and activities of the Institute."
Mount Sinai also created "a formal policy that specifically addresses the mistreatment of students and postdoctoral fellows," as well as a "Deanship for Gender Equity in Science and Medicine." The school appointed Carol R. Horowitz, MD, professor of population health science and policy, to that role.
Singh remains director of the Arnhold Institute.
Nevertheless, the lawsuit has sparked protests against misogyny, discrimination, and bullying in academe, including a petition signed by more than 250 Icahn School of Medicine students. They said the allegations that focus on their institution were deeply disturbing. The lawsuit also was mentioned in a commencement address by former medical student Cati Crawford on May 9, who said, "To Mount Sinai, an institution that outwardly claims a commitment to equity and social justice, we say, 'Time's Up.'"
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