University Hospital’s former diversity and inclusion officer says her efforts to eliminate bias were demeaned and she was pushed out of her position due to racism, which pervades New Jersey’s only public acute-care facility.
Dr. Chris Pernell’s Sept. 2 departure — which the hospital announced in a statement as a resignation “to pursue new opportunities” — came as a shock to many observers who viewed the Ivy League-educated administrator as a strong chief executive candidate. Her exit came just months after more than 100 leaders from across the state signed an open letter to Gov. Phil Murphy and the Newark hospital’s board of directors calling for Pernell, 46, to replace Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who stepped down in March to become under secretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration.
Pernell, who is Black, told NJ Advance Media that University Hospital officials hampered diversity efforts, scrutinized her more than other administrators and retaliated against her for expressing interest in the open CEO position. She said her decisions — including employee hiring — were constantly questioned, she was accused by a male executive of lying about her COVID-19 community vaccination efforts and the hospital launched two “baseless” noncompliance investigations into her conduct in two years.
At the heart of the investigations was the insinuation, “How dare you, as a Black woman, aspire to that [CEO] role? How dare you get out of place?” she told NJ Advance Media in her first public comments since her departure.
“This last investigation was a bridge too far,” Pernell said in a nearly three-hour interview last week at her apartment complex in Short Hills, referring to the probe into whether she misused state resources to pressure staff to support her candidacy.
“I told them, ‘I’m being targeted as a Black female.’ I said, ‘This is an attempt to push me out and make me less competitive [as a CEO candidate].’ I felt it was retaliation and to inflict reputational harm. I felt demeaned and disrespected.”
University officials declined to address Pernell’s accusations.
“University Hospital does not comment on personnel matters, but wishes Dr. Pernell well in her future endeavors,” a spokesman said in a statement from the hospital and its board of directors. “As New Jersey’s public academic health center, University Hospital remains focused on its mission to provide exceptional care to every patient, every time.”
The Murphy administration also declined to comment on Pernell and her accusations about the state-owned hospital, which is overseen by a 12-person board headed by Tanya Freeman, a Black family law attorney based in Morris County. Elnahal, a former New Jersey health commissioner, also declined to comment.
Pernell excelled in her role, according to a University employee who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal and a former colleague. She earned a $350,000 annual salary to address health care inequities and improve patient experience, but said some hospital officials resented her work — and the way she approached it.
“I was going to be aggressive,” said Pernell, a graduate of Princeton University, Duke University School of Medicine and Columbia University’s public health graduate program. “I was very clear about it. I always say I’m a system breaker. It’s my goal to bend, break and redesign systems … We were going to talk about white supremacy.”
The alleged discrimination she experienced was hardly an anomaly at the hospital, according to a longtime University employee.
“University Hospital is not just a place where there’s bias against Black women. Black individuals in general are not given a fair shot at University Hospital,” said the employee, who spoke with NJ Advance Media on the condition she not be identified, fearing retribution for speaking out. “There’s racism at all levels at University Hospital.”
Pernell did not rule out legal action against University and refused to sign an agreement saying she wouldn’t sue, she said. Pernell, who worked at the hospital for three years, also declined to sign a non-disclosure agreement, resulting in the loss of an annual performance bonus of about $100,000 she argues she had already earned, she said.
“My experience is in no way singular,” said Pernell, who is also a clinical assistant professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “It’s hard [for Black women] to be competitive for higher opportunities. We don’t feel seen and heard.
“What was happening to me was happening to other Black women at the hospital.”
Pernell’s departure certainly raised eyebrows.
Her public profile rose during the pandemic, when the telegenic administrator became a sought-after figure on TV news programs, sharing her insights on public health, COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on people of color. Her voice carried added gravitas given the loss of her father and two other family members to the coronavirus.
This year, the NAACP named Pernell among the 100 Black leaders who changed America.
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey told NJ Advance Media that Pernell, a board member of the Essex County Correctional Facility Civilian Task Force — which he heads — has proven herself a committed and innovative advocate for equitable public health.
“I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Dr. Pernell on the task force, which has been assigned the responsibility of improving medical and behavioral health for persons at the Essex facility,” said McGreevey, who was among the leaders who signed the open letter touting Pernell’s CEO candidacy.
“Dr. Pernell oversaw a medical subcommittee that provided an exhaustive and detailed evaluation of medical practices as well as a set of recommendations to improve health care delivery. She and the committee worked with the Essex County leadership and set forth strong and clear recommendations, which are being evaluated for adoption.”
Despite sterling credentials and the support of other high-profile officials such as U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. and Dr. Perry N. Halkitis, the dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, Pernell was an imperfect administrator in the eyes of some hospital officials.
She publicly criticized then-President Donald Trump in October 2020 on CNN, angering some colleagues who argued that the public hospital relies on state funding and should steer clear of politics.
Some executives at the 519-bed facility found her overzealous in her duties as the diversity and inclusion officer, according to Pernell. And some perceived that she was openly campaigning for the CEO position when Elnahal left, behavior they viewed as inappropriate and unseemly.
In March, University named Mary Maples, its chief legal officer, as interim CEO of the hospital — North Jersey’s sole Level 1 trauma center, which cares for the largest share of uninsured and underinsured patients in the state.
Maples was not as supportive of Pernell’s initiatives as Elnahal, the former diversity officer said.
But Pernell says she felt the sting of racism well before Elnahal — who hired her as the hospital’s first diversity officer and was an advocate for her work, she says — left for Washington D.C.
The hostility began shortly after her arrival in 2019, Pernell says, when she tried to implement diversity and inclusion initiatives, such as implicit bias training, metrics on the hiring of local residents and equitable opportunities among employees to advance within University.
Colleagues told her some top executives considered her approach “too aggressive,” she said. Others, such as senior human resources officials, indicated they wouldn’t follow through on mandated initiatives unless Elnahal ordered it, according to Pernell.
“I felt like I had to validate the role I was in,” she said.
In a meeting one day attended by a dozen hospital executives, she mentioned that she spoke at a number of community pediatric COVID-19 vaccination events.
“In an entire room of executives,” Pernell said, “this white male executive said, ‘No you didn’t.’ I was accused of lying. I went to my desk, and got flyers to show that I’d done just what I just explained. …
“So whether it was something small or trivial like that, or something larger, around my scoping out new roles and hiring staff at competitive salaries, I received a fair amount of pushback around my decisions, and I do believe it was tied to that fact that as a Black woman leader my expertise was scrutinized and questioned in ways that others were not.”
Pernell did not name the accusing executive.
White women face sexism at University, she said, but the barriers were multiplied for women of color.
“I met frequently with Black staff across all levels of the organization,” the former diversity officer said, “who felt that they did not have a fair shot at advancing and who felt that they were not in positions or salaries commensurate with their credentials, or who felt that they had less access to power versus white staff.”
Pernell’s sharp criticism of Trump on national television resulted in the hospital’s first noncompliance investigation into her conduct in November 2020.
Her pointed comments to CNN anchor Brianna Keilar the previous month about Trump’s photo op trip in an SUV from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to the White House while infected with the coronavirus came shortly after her 78-year-old father died from COVID-19.
“I’m going to tell you exactly what I thought. I thought it was like spitting on my father’s grave,” Pernell said on CNN. “I felt it was like a punch in the gut to my sister, who’s still struggling to recover. It was just disrespectful to the 201,000-plus brave, patriotic Americans who lost their lives because of the recklessness … coming out of the White House.”
Pernell called Trump “a leader who had failed to lead and has asked us to perform political theater instead of sticking to the facts and sticking to the truth.”
Her comments angered some colleagues, who wrote a letter to Murphy and hospital leaders — which Pernell shared with NJ Advance Media — signed “Concerned Employees of University Hospital.” It demanded the leadership “remove her from her position or tamp down on her behavior.”
Pernell, who also lost two cousins to COVID-19, then doubled down on her criticism of Trump in an editorial on CNN’s website, writing “the President of the United States is a clear threat to public health.”
Some hospital officials were wary of controversy. Just two years earlier, University was an embattled institution crumbling under the weight of insufficient funding, outdated facilities, and a skeptical and disgruntled staff. Worse, a legacy of mismanagement and poor oversight, documented in a scathing 2018 report from independent monitor Judith Persichilli — now the state’s health commissioner — detailed how the hospital phased out pediatric services without authorization and its infection control program was unaware that three premature infants died during a bacterial outbreak in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Elnahal informed Pernell that her Trump comments had rattled some of her colleagues and angered some board members, she said. Although she wasn’t censured, she says, Pernell agreed not to identify herself as a University Hospital employee in future media interviews.
But the damage apparently had been done. On his way out, Elnahal warned her to watch her back, Pernell said.
The second investigation launched in July when officials accused her of publicly campaigning for the open CEO position and misusing state resources to pressure staff to support her candidacy, Pernell said.
The hospital hired an outside law firm to conduct the investigation, she said.
Before her exit, Pernell asked about the investigation’s findings during a meeting with Maples and Tracy Forsyth, the interim legal officer. She wasn’t given an answer, she said.
Meanwhile, Pernell said hospital officials, including Maples and Forsyth, expressed exasperation over social media posts by her brother, Bishop T. Pernell, an Essex County community figure who often publicly touted her qualifications to head the facility.
His posts struck many hospital workers as “immature” and crossing a line, according to the longtime University employee.
At one point, the hospital beefed up security outside the executive suites after a social media post by Pernell’s brother was viewed as a threat, she said. She says it was a religious passage that was misconstrued and he has since deleted it.
By Aug. 9, Pernell believed the hospital intended to terminate her. She told Maples that the second investigation left her feeling under siege and that she preferred to “leave with dignity” rather than be fired, she said. The interim CEO seized on the opportunity, asking in reply, “How they could help” make it happen, Pernell said.
Many staffers were stunned by Pernell’s abrupt departure, according to the longtime University employee.
“I’m shocked and taken aback to hear that she was pushed out,” the employee said. “Everyone seemed to love her.”
Pernell’s position has been filled on an interim basis, and the hospital will search for a permanent replacement, a University spokesman said.
Pernell says her role at the hospital was more than a job. It was a mission for a woman who grew up in the very community it serves.
“It felt like a life-comes-full-circle moment, working in my backyard,” she said. “I grew up in East Orange. My relatives settled in Newark after leaving the South. The opportunity to work at University Hospital was truly heart work for me.”
But in the end, Pernell was cut down by the same forces she had been hired to combat, the longtime hospital employee said.
“Her role here was to curtail racism,” the employee said, “but she faced the same issues as everyone else.”
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Elizabeth Llorente may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.