A Racist Tweet by Columbia Psychiatry Chair Ripples Through New York’s Elite Medical Circles
Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman was suspended from the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia and asked to resign from the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Some say the reckoning is just beginning.
Columbia University suspended the chair of its Department of Psychiatry yesterday over a racist tweet suggesting a Black model could be a “freak of nature.”
On Monday, Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman — a renowned psychiatrist and former president of the American Psychiatric Association — quote tweeted a photo of South Sudanese model Nyakim Gatwech stating “whether a work of art or a freak of nature she’s a beautiful sight to behold.”
The condemnation was swift and near universal, with the fallout extending deep into New York’s elite psychiatric and medical establishment. In addition to his indefinite suspension from Columbia, pending an investigation by the university, Lieberman was terminated from his position as the chief of psychiatric services at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
And earlier this week, the state Office of Mental Health, which operates the New York State Psychiatric Institute, asked Lieberman to resign as director, a government-funded position that paid him almost $250,000 annually in 2020 and 2021, according to payroll records reviewed by THE CITY.
“The Office of Mental Health took immediate action after learning of Dr. Lieberman’s offensive and inappropriate comments on social media. As of February 22, he is no longer affiliated with OMH or the State of New York,” said agency spokesperson Jessica Zahn.
In the hours before his resignation from the Psychiatric Institute, Lieberman sent his colleagues an email saying he was “deeply ashamed and very sorry.”
“Although tackling unconscious bias is an ongoing part of these efforts, it starts internally. An apology from me to the Black community, to women, and to all of you is not enough. I’ve hurt many, and I am beginning to understand the work ahead to make needed personal changes and over time to regain your trust,” Lieberman said in his email.
Lieberman has since deleted his tweet and eventually his entire Twitter account, offering “sincere apologies for any offense taken and indiscretion. Living and learning,” he tweeted.
Lieberman did not respond to requests for comment.
A Deeper Reckoning
Lieberman’s actions have spurred a broader conversation about biases in the medical field, where his position afforded him a tremendous amount of power over career-defining grants and fellowships, according to interviews with people who’ve worked with him, some of whom did not want to be named publicly for fear of retribution.
One former trainee of Lieberman told THE CITY that no one was “surprised” by his remarks. Although Columbia and New York Presbyterian focused on the tweet, the trainee said, “it’s about so much more.”
“He’s really powerful,” the woman said. “Everyone had a very low opinion of him but no one says or does anything about it.”
“If you write a grant, he has to write the letter of support,” she added.
Others who worked with Lieberman described him as dismissive of women and people of color and prone to making misogynistic comments.
“He’s a destructive personality who has done a great deal of damage, who is only now being held accountable after decades of impunity,” said Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and violence expert now on the faculty of the Columbia-affiliated Union Theological Seminary. “We need to set limits on individuals who bully and strong arm to amass power for themselves while at the same time injuring individuals and society.”
“The brazenness with which he seemed to believe he could do something like this is something I never experienced in a colleague, let alone a chairman,” Lee said.
On Wednesday morning, a dozen doctors calling themselves the Coalition of Concerned Analysts of Color at Columbia sent a mass email to the psychiatric department demanding Lieberman’s resignation.
“We do not support such views and condemn these beliefs and actions. Nor do we support a department that continues to employ anyone holding them, especially those in positions of greater power, as they are not reflective of our beliefs and values as psychoanalysts,” read the email obtained by THE CITY.
Columbia did not respond to questions over whether Lieberman would continue to collect a paycheck while he’s suspended or if they were aware of his conduct.
At a department-wide virtual meeting on Wednesday, New York Presbyterian President and CEO Steven Corwin called Lieberman’s tweet “egregious” and not “representative of our culture or value system and was cause for the action that we took,”
“Many of you have expressed grave concern over the tweet — the nature of its racist, sexist, misogynistic and derogatory comments. Rest assured that we agree with that and took that as evidence that Dr. Lieberman could not continue to function in his administrative capacities,” Corwin said.
‘I Don’t Trust Him or the People He Trained’
Lieberman’s comments offer an opportunity for reflection in the medical field that goes beyond “virtue signaling,” said Dr. Neil Aggarwal, who has a private psychiatric practice and conducts search at Columbia as an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry.
“When I talk about equity and I think when my colleagues talk about equity, we’re talking about more than simply being in a room or simply being acknowledged as existing. We’re talking about a real commitment of financial resources,” he added.
Lieberman’s resignation and suspension is just the “first step” said Elle Lett, a medical student and postdoctoral fellow at the Palliative and Advanced Illness Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote about Lieberman’s remarks on Medium.
“This man held the sentiments that shaped the department. This is a reckoning for institutional change,” Lett told THE CITY. “I don’t trust him or the people he trained to be stewards of the mental health of Black women.”