Friday, December 30, 2011

UCLA's PR strategy, plain as day: a tragedy, not a crime

It's an interesting process transcribing a conversation into written text. Conversation is so fluid; it's as much as about the way things are said as what is being said.

After transcribing the 7-or-so minutes of conversation that Kevin Reed (UCLA's vice chancellor for legal affairs and apparent press contact for this case) had with KPCC's Larry Mantle on the Los Angeles area show AirTalk, it was terribly clear to me what UCLA's PR strategy is:
  • Emphasize that this was a tragic accident, not a crime. 
  • Admit no wrongdoing on the part of UCLA, the institution
  • Play up Sheri Sangji's experience to a relatively ignorant general public
  • Emphasize that UCLA EH&S policy is for researchers to wear lab coats
  • Express quizzical ignorance as to why she was not wearing a lab coat
  • Keep telling people that UCLA is, 3 short years later, a national leader on academic lab safety (really?)
  • Express that this criminal proceeding is shockingly unfair and unwarranted. 
I find the moral/ethical aspect of this strategy troubling; it seems wrong to me for an institution to attempt to avoid blame by washing itself of responsibility for the incident. But it's the adversarial nature of our legal system (not that I would have it any other way!) that seems to general maximalist positions in the other direction from the prosecution. 

I'll be revisiting this conversation, I suspect. It's the longest bit of talking that I'm aware of from UCLA's perspective. Russ Phifer's comments from a safety officer and chemistry perspective are valuable, as is the legal perspective of law professor Laurie Levenson.

There's also a bit of news in the matter in that UCLA is providing counsel for Professor Harran; that's an interesting decision on both their parts. I wonder if there will be a severing of those ties, if things go poorly.

Under the jump is my transcribing of the conversation. The interviewer is Larry Mantle, the host of KPCC's AirTalk. I've tried to be as faithful as possible to the conversation, but I've cut out all the ums and ahs. Any mistakes are mine and mine alone.

Q: What is the university's response to these historic charges? 

We're shocked by these charges; they do nothing to deal with this tragedy. The heart of the campus absolutely bleeds for Sheri Sangji's family. This was a path-changing tragedy for the university when it happened on December 29, 2008. 

We've always dealt with it as a tragedy -- it was and we understand how we need to and have taken enormous strides to set a new and higher standard for laboratory safety at UCLA and at academic research facilities nationwide and we believe that is the right lesson to learn from this tragedy. ...and that it is not a crime and that the DA's last minute decision on the eve of the lapsing of the statute of limitations to slap these charges down is indeed an injustice. It does nothing to advance the cause of laboratory safety, something that we will continue to work on tirelessly. 

Q: Tomorrow is the 3 year anniversary of this tragedy on the UCLA campus. The district attorney's office not willing to join us until the arraignment of Professor Harran takes place. He's out of town and is expected to surrender to authorities, according to his attorney when he gets back into town.  So let's talk though about what's led up to the filing of these charges. There was an investigation that shown that the laboratory was cited for safety violations before this tragic accident occurred and as I understand it, that investigation showed that UCLA had not taken all the corrective action that were called for in that report. Is that correct? 

That's partially correct, Larry. This was an internal inspection done by our own health and safety team, a routine inspection that, at the time of the accident, took place about 300 times a year.  Since the accident, for example, in 2010, we did over 2000 of such routine inspections and we now do surprise inspections to look to see whether our researchers are wearing appropriate protective equipment, the sort of thing that we think could have changed the path of this tragedy 3 years ago. 

The inspection that took place in October of 2008 did disclose some solvents that weren't stored properly. Those may not have been dealt with before the accident. They had nothing to do with the cause of the accident. One of the issues that did contribute, we think, to the extent of the injuries, or potentially did, was the failure of Ms. Sangji to be wearing a lab coat that day. And it is true that, in October, when the inspectors came into the laboratory, they discovered several people not wearing lab coats. Those individuals were instructed on the spot to put their laboratory coats on, it was university policy then that anybody working with hazardous materials wear a lab coat. 

That was training that Ms. Sangji was given, it's training that she tragically didn't follow that day, we don't know why. But it was an instruction that was given on the day of that inspection, and it was a correction that was made on the spot the day of that inspection. 

Q: Is it the university's responsibility though, when someone is doing this kind of work that calls for the wearing of a protective lab coat, that there needs to be someone in a position of authority in that lab who mandates that the person put on the coat immediately when they're not wearing one?

We're all professionals, Larry.  Sheri Sangji was an experienced chemist. You said she was a student in your intro. She actually was not a student. She was a professional chemist. She got her undergraduate degree at Claremont in chemistry, she worked in private industry before we hired her, she was chosen out of several hundred applicants because of her great skill and experience as a chemist. 

She was trained in the procedure that she was conducting that day, she'd successfully conducted the very same experiment several weeks before without any danger to herself and certainly without any accident happening. We do try to take care of our own, there are limitations on our ability to make people follow the rules and wear their lab coats. I can tell you that one thing we've done since this tragedy is institute surprise inspections of laboratories so that people get the message that wearing laboratory coats is not an option, it is now required any time a researcher is in a laboratory working at a bench, regardless of the hazard that they're dealing with at that moment, and in fact, we take it so seriously that our own chancellor, Chancellor Block, joined our EH&S inspection team on the very first round of these surprise inspections. The reason he did that was to make sure the message was clearly understood among the researchers that we take this very seriously, at the highest levels of the institution and that we're going to hold each other accountable for following safety rules. 

Q: In the written statement that was released, I believe it was yesterday, by UCLA media relations and public outreach, one of the biggest points that was made in that is that, since the time of this tragedy, that UCLA has really become a model for safety in laboratories. It created the Center for Laboratory Safety that other universities and research organizations now look to UCLA as a prime example of how to do this right. 

But should that really play a role in whether criminal charges are filed against the university or this particular professor, because that's based on what happened 3 years ago, not about the way the institution has responded to it since? 

But Larry, it absolutely plays a role in justice. It is what this institution has done to learn from this tragedy. 

It was the mandate of Chancellor Block after this tragedy that we would be a leader nationally and we, I believe, have become that leader nationally. Our EH&S director is called upon to lecture around the country on the lessons that we learned from this tragedy, our chemical safety plan is borrowed by institutions around this country, we've produced videos that show the safe handling of these kinds of volatile chemicals. 

Those videos have been used by institutions around this country. It was a wake-up call, not just for UCLA, but for research laboratories around the world, and we think that is exactly where our focus ought to be, not trying to defend against fallacious charges of felonies about an accident that happened 3 years ago. 

Q: Kevin Reed is the vice chancellor for legal affairs of UCLA, responding to yesterday's filing of criminal charges against UCLA professor. 

Patrick Harran who was supervising the laboratory and the work of laboratory employee Sheri Sangji who was severely burned, later died from her injuries about two-and-a-half weeks after she suffered them on December 29, 2008. Mr. Reed, what about the fines that the university if convicted of these charges. My understanding that we're looking at 1.5 million dollars on each of the 3 counts, potentially. Might the university look at settling this case for a lower amount to avoid a trial? 

That's quite premature, Larry  -- we haven't even been served with a summons at this point. We expect to fight these charges. We think that they are baseless and certainly UCLA isn't going to enter into any sort of agreement in which we're confessing to a crime when we know that a crime did not occur. It was an accident, pure and simple. 

Q: Also, on the issue of the charges that Professor Harran is facing, will the university be providing for the legal defense of Professor Harran as a part of his terms of employment?

Yes, of course. Professor Harran, we believe, has been absolutely unjustly charged in this case, we have been providing him with counsel and expect to continue to do so. 

Q: Do you have any clarification yet as to whether Professor Harran would be concurrently tried as well as the university, whether this would be combined or whether it would likely be separated out? 

We have no indication on that as of this moment. 

Q: Have you spoken to District Attorney Cooley as to this case? 

No, we have not. 

Q: And is that something you're hoping to get a meeting with him, early in this process, right after the arraignment takes place? 

No, we think that the justice process is sufficient to deal with these allegations. We trust the judges that will hear the arguments that we'll make early on and we trust the jury that will ultimately hear the case, if it comes to that. 

Q: I want to thank Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs for UCLA for talking with us, Kevin Reed, thank you very much.


  1. You can't expect UCLA to not defend Harran. If they don't defend their professor, you're gonna find many other professors there who have a sudden desire to leave.

  2. UC could make an incredible contribution to the overall culture of safety in academic chemical research by not defending him. Many employers have a statement about indemnification of employees against the cost of a legal defense… but it usually includes clarification remarks about how the employ must have been operating in good faith and responsibly in accordance with the safe and legal accomplishment of his/her duties…. And I think some of us rather wonder if UC might bail when they realize they could and maybe should do this. -- Linda Swihart

  3. As a former 25 year CalOSHA investigator, I can tell you that the tack taken by UCLA is textbook employer defense strategy in every case of this type. Deny, deny, deny. They apparently don't grasp the concept of a crime. When you have been caught once before in the same lab violating a regulatory statute and you violate that very same statute again leading to a fatality, that my friend is a criminal act NOT an accident.

  4. A9:02p:

    Want to talk more? E-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com.

  5. Simple and interesting post.The author used good language and also correct information and i like the format of writing.


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