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Political Notebook: UCSF Faces Questions on Commitment to LGBT Issues

by Matthew S. Bajko
Tuesday Feb 19, 2013

A campus debate at UCSF over the university's commitment to LGBT concerns has broken out publicly due to questions about the status of its Center for LGBT Health and Equity.

First created in 1998, the center was the first-of-its-kind in a health education setting. Founding director Shane Snowdon is credited with pushing forward LGBT-inclusive policies and curriculum both at UCSF and medical schools across the country.

Last summer Snowdon resigned after being hired by the Human Rights Campaign to oversee its LGBT health initiatives. Since then UCSF has yet to hire a new person to oversee the campus center, which is technically just an office and not a full-fledged LGBT resource center found at many universities.

The delay in hiring for the job spawned speculation among UCSF faculty and staff that the LGBT center could be eliminated. The issue prompted a meeting last fall between the UCSF Chancellor's Advisory Committee on LGBT Issues and Dr. J. Renee Navarro, vice chancellor for diversity and outreach, to discuss the status of the position.

In recent weeks, as word spread on campus that the job was being re-categorized from that of a director to being a diversity program manager/LGBT specialist, it sparked further alarm because LGBT issues would no longer be the sole focus for the new hire.

Critics of the decision lashed out at both Navarro and UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellman in an email they sent anonymously to staff of the Bay Area Reporter and to aides of several gay lawmakers in Sacramento.

"In an era when campuses around the country are expanding their LGBT services and LGBT health concerns are receiving widespread attention, we suspect you'll agree that this dramatic cutback in UCSF support for LGBT people and concerns is not acceptable, particularly in the city with the highest percentage of LGBT residents in the country," stated the email, whose author declined an interview request fearing they could be disciplined or fired for speaking out.

Snowdon told the B.A.R. that she shared the concerns that her former position was being diminished.

"I think it would be a loss to UCSF both on the education side and the medical center side," said Snowdon. "Speaking as someone now doing work nationwide, it is UCSF LGBT curriculum that has informed the LGBT curriculum work at most of the nation's medical schools. I would be concerned about the future of that."

The campus posted a hiring notice about the revamped job last week, and it caused further alarm as nowhere in the online posting does it mention by name the Center for LGBT Health and Equity.

It states that the job's main responsibility will be "the design, execution and assessment of diversity and outreach programs that advance the strategic goals of the Office of Diversity and Outreach and the UCSF Campus including UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Beniofff Children's Hospital."

A more detailed description on a seven-page employment form for the position explains that it will have "a special focus on the LGBT community" but also be working on "general diversity programs" for people with disabilities and veterans. According to the form, the person should spend only 25 percent of their time managing the LGBT health center.

The bulk of the time - 50 percent - the new manager will be expected to oversee a wide range of diversity events and programs, including LGBT specific ones. Another duty is to "enhance UCSF's image in local/national LGBT communities so UCSF is seen as a top choice to work or study for people who identify as LGBT."

Criticism of the job posting led Navarro to send out an email to LGBT staff and faculty Tuesday, February 12 to clarify the person's duties and address the concerns. She emphasized in bold lettering that the job includes being director of the LGBT center for health and equity.

"This is a very important position for diversity work at UCSF and I am excited about the fact that we are moving LGBT issues into the core of our diversity efforts," wrote Navarro.

In a phone interview with the B.A.R. Navarro reiterated her commitment to maintaining the LGBT health center and said the changes being made to the position are because the campus' diversity work should not be done in silos but as part of a team.

"It will allow us to really move it to the next level so it is integrated in our conversations on diversity," she said.

She delayed hiring a new person partly because of the uncertainty surrounding UC's budget prior to the passage of a tax measure on the November ballot. Navarro also said she "needed time to do my due diligence" and seek guidance from the UCSF LGBT community "to understand from them what is needed in this position."

She found it "hard" to read the sentiments aired in the email sent to the paper and lawmakers.

"It means people don't understand what I am creating here," said Navarro, who started in the vice chancellor role in December 2010. "Shane has done an amazing job and laid a really strong foundation at the university here as well as regionally and nationally. I want to do that foundation justice."

She has formed an eight-person search committee to help select qualified candidates for the job and expects to have hired someone "sooner rather than later." She will be meeting with the LGBT advisory committee to discuss the selection process February 20.

"I want to make sure people are assured of our strong commitment to the LGBT community," said Navarro. "We have a long history of that commitment and we will continue to excel at and remain committed to that."

Navarro insisted in both the interview and the email she sent out that the campus LGBT advisory committee vetted the job description and "it was received positively."

UCSF biochemist Christopher Waddling , a member of the LGBT committee, told the B.A.R. that most of the concerns initially raised about the position were addressed.

"Vice Chancellor Navarro listened and she heard what we were saying. She changed the qualifications to meet a lot of our needs," he said. "I don't think we got everything in the job description we wanted, but that is fine."

It is to be expected that the job would change with the hiring a new person who can shepherd it into new directions, said JoAnne Keatley, director of UCSF's Center of Excellence for Transgender Health. Keatley is a member of the LGBT advisory committee and was asked to be on the search committee reviewing applicants for the new job.

"I do feel there is ample opportunity to create additional goals and organizational aims depending on the candidate chosen and that person can create their own involvements in this position," said Keatley.

With Snowdon continuing to advocate for LGBT health issues nationally in her new job, and a variety of organizations also focused on the same goals, Keatley said there is less need now for the UCSF job to have the same national scope as it did when it was first created.

"I don't think for a minute whoever goes into this position will be restricted from taking part in those discussions," said Keatley, board co-chair of the National Coalition for LGBT Health. "I also don't think it is realistic for the university to fund that position for advocacy nationally."

There is a greater need, said Keatley, to have someone tackling the needs on campus of LGBT students, faculty and staff.

The new person's focus, at first, should be internally on UCSF, agreed Waddling.

"I think the idea initially is to have the person looking a little bit more at the university itself, and by university that includes the whole UC system," he said. "It is going to be different than what the previous person did."

Waddling expects there will many qualified candidates applying for the job.

"To be perfectly honest this is a position that a lot of people are going to apply for who are highly qualified for it and any one of whom will make a good person," he said.

Nonetheless, the brouhaha over the status of the center job has led to a public airing of concerns that UCSF leaders do not want the campus to be out front on LGBT issues. As the school's focus increasingly turns toward its new campus in Mission Bay and advances in biotechnology and other emerging health fields, some contend areas UCSF has long been a leader on, such as AIDS and LGBT health, are being shunted aside.

"I am LGBT myself and I don't think the campus is concerned about LGBT issues at all. The leadership is not really concerned about that," said one gay faculty member who did not want his name used because he is not tenured and was fearful of repercussions from speaking publicly. "People are dismayed and troubled about where the campus is headed given where we have been."

Laurie Wagner, an administrative assistant at UCSF and former member of the LGBT advisory committee, blamed the lack of communication about the status of the LGBT center director job for raising tensions on campus.

"I think its unfortunate that they haven't been more forthcoming with the overview of how the decisions were made. That is one thing I think has made many people anxious," said Wagner.

Having the position divided into various focuses in addition to LGBT concerns, added Wagner, could make it difficult to find someone with the same "caliber of leadership" as Snowdon.

"In addition to the process being painful, Shane had such a high profile nationally and within the UCSF system that it is a real loss that we are reduced to having someone advocating for us whose position covers LGBT issues only part of the time as opposed to the full-time position she had," said Wagner.

New Peninsula LGBT political club forming

For decades San Mateo County has had its share of elected LGBT politicians, but the central section of the Peninsula has been lacking its own LGBT political club.

Now a Redwood City resident wants to give the area's LGBT Democrats a stronger voice politically. Jeffrey Adair , the southern vice chair for the San Mateo County Democratic Central Committee, is starting the countywide group.

The club will be called Peninsula Stonewall Democrats. It will be open to any registered Democrat - members don't have to live in San Mateo County - and cost $25 to join. Adair said the group would issue endorsements in local races and assist out officials such as gay state Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park).

"This is needed because of the growing LGBT population in and on the SF Peninsula and lack of representation and a voice in local and state politics from this area. It's getting better, but we'll make it better," Adair, who has owned J Floral Art in Menlo Park for 23 years with his husband, Craig Kozlowski, told the B.A.R. in an email last week.

The group's first meeting will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 19 at Sammy Zelcer's 1258 Hair Studio, which is located at 1295 El Camino Real in Menlo Park.

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