Mediation ends mudslinging


Gag order issued in disgruntled equine surgeon's settlement against veterinary college

COLUMBUS, OHIO — An equine surgeon's lawsuit against The Ohio State University (OSU) settled via mediation last month, ending a dispute linked to a staff shakeup, deflated teaching hospital revenues and a petition to fire the veterinary college's dean.

Plaintiff Dr. James Robertson says he's pleased with the outcome of his case. A gag order bars either party from revealing parameters of the agreement.

Still, there are outspoken proponents for both sides. Robertson alleged discrimination and retaliation following his forced reassignment from equine surgery to anatomy instruction in April 2006. He also challenged the university's attempt to keep him from practicing in the private sector while employed by the state. University officials support Robertson's removal from clinical practice at OSU based on a 2005 external report that criticized his teaching style. They deny discrimination and retaliation allegations.

The conflict, which snowballed since 2003, was featured recently on the front page of The Columbus Dispatch. The article detailed financial troubles in the equine teaching hospital since Robertson's exit. Officials confirm revenues are down $1.3 million compared to the previous year. OSU numbers also reveal a 39-percent drop in surgical and medical cases during a nine-year period.

OSU leaders insist the equine teaching program is rising out of the slump, which has more to do with competition from the private sector and Ohio's eroding equine market than any personnel war. Equine surgery revenue is up 26 percent and the ambulatory caseload ranks No. 1 in the nation, they say. In a two-page letter to students, OSU Dean Thomas Rosol, DVM, maintains that the Dispatch article failed to tell the whole story. He touts an array of college accomplishments and promises that the equine teaching program, now fully staffed with six surgeons and three internal-medicine specialists, is drawing more cases, although the search for two neurologists continues.

"We want our students to understand the reality of the numbers reported," Rosol explained to DVM Newsmagazine prior to the mediation agreement. "It's true that they are down, but they are on their way back up. The environment in the equine teaching hospital is so much better now. Still, no one likes seeing their name in the paper."

Bad press

At least not in the Dispatch article, which lent 24 paragraphs to airing unflattering personnel issues involving the renowned equine surgeon's reassignment, the program's once "toxic" environment and the one-man crusade of Robertson's former boss, Dr. Albert Gabel, to reinstate his protégé with a petition featuring 49 DVM signatures to oust the dean. Article details linking Robertson's lawsuit to the teaching hospital's declining revenue were unfair and damaged OSU's reputation, college supporters say.

"This program needs to move on, but there is a very small percentage of people who are keeping this in the news," says Dr. Rustin Moore, chair of the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences and head of OSU's equine section. "There are agendas being driven by factors beyond our control. I'm confident that in the end we will persevere and be a great program. We're going in the right direction."

Robertson supporters like Gabel disagree. He characterizes college politics as "rotten" and calls the program a "disaster."

"Sure, Dr. Robertson's people skills might have made him unpopular, but he's one of the best soft-tissue equine surgeons in the world. They made a mistake driving him out of that place."

Personnel files

Not according to results from the 2005 external review, which Rosol ordered to identify weaknesses in the struggling equine program and map ways to fix them. University higher-ups deliberated on the nine-page report four months before deciding how to handle the "tough" recommendation to remove Robertson from the clinical environment, a post he held his entire career. The report outlined fear among students and staff unease due to Robertson's "explosive nature," insiders say.

"This report made it clear: Do something about Dr. Robertson and rebuild the program, or wait until the problem goes away," Rosol explains.

Robertson considers that report no more than a contrived retaliation attempt against him for aiding a technician's sexual-harassment claim against a resident. The technician reportedly filed a lawsuit against OSU, which is in arbitration, Robertson's attorney Ray Lee states.

"I worked in that clinic for 28 and a half years, and then I was amputated," Robertson says. "I had to learn a new trade after devoting my entire career to surgery. I was devastated. I can't say more than that. I've become very careful because of my experience."

Moving on

Robertson plans to retire from aca-demia next month and enter private surgical practice that's likely to compete with the college for patients. "My attitude is that I'm moving on with the next phase of my life," he says. "There are always challenges in your career. I look at it that way."

Rosol appears equally eager to move ahead: "If you're going to be dean, you can't let this bug you. But the mud is not just being thrown at me. It's being thrown at the college, and that's sad," he says.

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