Harassment victims speak

Last March, 16 students and alumni filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that Yale had violated Title IX regulations by allowing a hostile sexual environment on campus. Though several of the complainants have spoken publicly about their concerns, there have been few personal accounts of sexual misconduct — and how the University responded to such allegations. Both the News and the University have submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to see the complaint, but both were denied. Now, two alumnae who were victims of sexual harassment at Yale have come forward to share their experiences. The News has reviewed legal documents and correspondences of those involved in each case. One alumna added her testimony to the original Title IX complaint; both of their cases remain unresolved. Here are their stories.

Case 1 — Class of 2010

The student first met her would-be adviser, an assistant professor, when she was a freshman in fall 2006. From the outset, she said, he expressed an interest in her work and invited her to join his lab. In spring 2009, the then-junior joined the professor’s biomedical research lab at The Anlyan Center, a research facility at the medical school.

The student said she began to notice that her professor had an “eccentric” personality, and often joked with researchers in the lab. He often remarked that women had no place in science, but because of his personality, the student said her fellow researchers did not take him seriously.

He also made inappropriate comments about the student’s appearance, both in the presence of other lab members and in private. These fluctuated between overtly sexual compliments and insults.

She first began to take these remarks seriously after spring break in 2009, when the professor began discussing his preference for women dressed in skimpy clothing. After insulting the student by unfavorably comparing her appearance to that of a graduate student, he encouraged her to wear tighter clothing, adding that he would like to see her in a tight T-shirt. She sent him an email asking him to refrain from inappropriate comments and he replied with an apology.

But he continued this behavior and eventually began to joke that the two should have sex. At one point, he suggested that the student should give him a lap dance in order to receive higher wages in the lab.

The student said she decided to stay in the lab despite her professor’s increasing harassment. In fact, he served as her senior thesis adviser, she said, and she was unwilling to abandon her project midway through her research. But the professor did not seem to take her commitment to the project seriously: After she finished her thesis, he told her he would give her an “A” but would not read the paper.

The professor had served as a mentor to her before and even during the harassment, providing advice and gaining her trust. In light of his personality and the larger context of their relationship, the student said she found it difficult to categorize his remarks as a sexual harassment and discrimination.

After graduating in spring 2010, the alumna joined The Anlyan Center as an employee, intending to continue and eventually publish her research. There, she remained under the supervision of her adviser. In the months leading up to her graduation, the professor had frequently remarked that a sexual relationship between he and the female student would not be prohibited once she finished her degree.

While the first months at the center passed uneventfully, the woman’s supervisor soon began to pursue his employee sexually. In one instance, he made two separate physical advances before he accepted the woman’s rebuff.

“When someone hires you and they do this — when this is one of your first employers, it really colors your expectations of employers and your future professional career,” the woman told the News. “As a really impressionable person, it creates all these questions about whether getting a job is about being attractive to your an employer or whether it’s about your actual work. It creates these questions about how much the quality of your work will matter.”

In early October 2010, about four months after she joined the lab as a full employee, the adviser sexually assaulted the woman. He refused to stop for over a minute despite her attempts to make him do so. She quit one month later.

The alumna said the stress of the harassment and assault left her physically ill, and she occasionally broke out in hives due to anxiety. She said the experience threatened her self-worth and academic and professional performance, adding she felt discouraged from pursuing a career in science.

“He would always put my scientific abilities down, telling me that I would not get far in science but [would be able to succeed by] sleeping with a rich guy,” she said.

Shortly after leaving her lab, she met with the chair of her research department and explained her situation. The chair expressed sympathy and offered her another research job on the same payscale, which she accepted. But the alumna was not able to continue her old research, which meant her new job had “almost zero scientific payoff,” she said.

During her last week of employment in the lab in October, the alumna sought advice from a female faculty member in another department whom she trusted. The faculty member was receptive to the woman’s story and contacted Yale College Dean Mary Miller. While the alumna waited for a response, she met with Yale College Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry and Peter Parker, chair of the Yale College Sexual Harassment Grievance Board.

Miller responded to the alumna one week after the female faculty member emailed her. Miller told the alumna she was very interested in meeting with her to discuss her experience. But when Miller learned that Gentry and Parker had already spoken with the alumna, Miller notified the alumna that she believed those two administrators would see the case through. And Gentry and Parker referred the woman to Valarie Stanley, director of Yale’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, for further assistance.

The alumna said that the professors and administrators she spoke to until Miller’s referral were helpful and supportive, but her experiences with the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs were less positive.

The alumna recounted her story to Stanley, but spoke only in vague terms about the most serious assault the professor had perpetrated, which had driven her to resign from her job. Stanley did not press the woman for further details. She proposed that the alumna could send a “strong” letter to her former employer outlining his inappropriate actions and behavior. She also said that the alumna could choose to file an informal complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs — but she declined to mention that the woman could file a formal complaint if she wished.

When the alumna inquired into the formal complaint process in early November 2010, Stanley told her that the process would be more “involved” and “court-like.” She also told her that it would be difficult to punish the professor for his inappropriate behavior once the woman joined his lab full time, since it did not occur during her time as a student. Ultimately, the alumna said she felt Stanley was trying to discourage her from filing a formal complaint. She elected to file an “informal complaint” by allowing Stanley to investigate the contents of their discussion. Stanley told the alumna to expect to hear from her within a week.

The alumna said she believes Stanley conducted an investigation that included interviews with the alumna’s supervisor and female members of the lab. When Stanley and the alumna met in December 2010, one month after their first conversation, Stanley told the woman about her interview with the supervisor. Stanley said he had confirmed much of his employee’s account — but he maintained that the alumna had consented to his sexual advances. Stanley and the alumna made no plans to talk again after this meeting.

The alumna said she believes the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs is not equipped to deal with investigations into sexual assault.

“The [office] deals with everything, from sexual harassment to affirmative action. They need to have someone who specializes in sexual harassment and assault,” she said. “They need to do a better job of giving [students and employees] a sense of what their options are. For example, no one ever mentioned the option of counseling, or directed me to SHARE [the Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources & Education Center, which provides counseling and advocacy to victims of sexual violence or harassment].”

Stanley did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.

In January 2011, the alumna contacted the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs to inquire about the status of her complaint. She was informed that the University had “taken appropriate action” in an email from Stanley.

“I couldn’t accept what I saw as the University’s negligence,” she said. “So at this point I hired a lawyer. My law firm, working from a perspective of wanting to prove [my supervisor’s misconduct], fleshed out the details of the [second case of sexual assault] from me. When something like that happens it’s completely traumatizing, and I was shut off about it when I first spoke to Yale.”

The alumna’s attorney drafted a demand letter in February 2011 which outlined the professor’s wrongdoing and detailed Yale’s “cursory and inadequate” response to the alumna’s complaint. The letter asks Yale to compensate the woman for backpay, lost income, medical expenses, emotional suffering, attorney’s fees and damages.

A lawyer representing the University called the woman’s lawyer in early March and explained that administrators had not realized the full extent of the second instance of sexual assault. The lawyer added that the University had not realized that this instance in fact constituted sexual assault, punishable by law.

Soon after, the Yale lawyer requested that the woman and her attorney visit New Haven for an interview about the case. They assented and came to the city in late April to meet with Yale’s lawyer and Donna Cable, associate vice president of employee relations. The woman gave her account of the harassment and assault and answered questions from Yale’s lawyer. He asked who she had told about the second incident of sexual assault and whether she had any documented accounts of this evidence. She listed one written account from the time — her diary — and listed two individuals with whom she had discussed the assault, including a therapist she visited to address her trauma and lingering stress.

“At no point did they have me speak to someone specializing in sexual harassment,” she said. “Days later, they asked for [my diaries]. They claimed to want to assemble a tribunal to fire my advisor, and that they needed the [diaries] as evidence.”

Until September, the woman said Yale’s lawyer would not return her attorney’s phone calls. But on Sept. 20, the Yale lawyer reached out to the woman’s attorney to request her counseling records.

The alumna said she is prepared to file a lawsuit against the University in October regardless of their response. While it still remains to be seen whether the University intends to fire the professor, the complainant feels that Yale has tried to delay its response to her complaints.

“I think that their priority, unless this goes to trial, is to sweep this under the rug,” she said. “The University hasn’t expressed concerned for well-being and hasn’t bothered to be in touch. I would like to see Yale care more. I would like to see a tribunal actually assembled to discuss whether [my former supervisor] should be fired or not.”

Case 2 — Class of 2010

An alumna who wishes to remain anonymous due to an ongoing investigation under the University-Wide Committee endured sexual harassment from a Yale professor during her time as an undergraduate. The harassment also continued after the professor contracted her as a research assistant and translator following her graduation.

The female student first became close with her male professor during the 2009-’10 academic year, when he advised her senior essay in political science.

The professor was friendly from the start, often inviting his advisee to discuss her thesis over a bike ride to East Rock. His interest was also more than academic: Once, he offered her a ride home from the airport before she told him which airport she would fly into on her return trip.

The adviser insisted that he and his student share a more personal relationship than one would expect between instructor and student. The woman said she noticed that he often tried to “relax the terms of our relationship” when she attempted to regard him in a professional manner.

“In retrospect, [his words exemplify] what sort of relationship [my adviser] wanted to establish with me; not one predicated on formalities or even niceties, but one that was intimately personal, in which he wished that I knew more ‘about him by now,’” the student wrote in an email to the News on Thursday. “I felt that he was treating me in a discriminatory way on the basis of my being female.”

The relationship between the two grew more uncomfortable for the student. In March 2010, the adviser invited the woman over for brunch and became upset when she did not accept his offer of wine, asking, “Well, then what are you here for?”

While she felt confused and uncomfortable, she attributed the interaction to a misunderstanding and wrote him an apology the next day.

Before graduation, the adviser invited the political science student to conduct research for several of his academic projects, which would be funded by the program he leads for an academic center on campus.

He invited the woman to accompany him on several academic trips as a research assistant and translator. She accepted one of these offers, signing a contract printed on Yale University letterhead. Before the trip, the professor informed the woman in an email that he planned to travel through the East Coast city she was living in that summer, and invited himself to stay with her at her home.

Shortly after Commencement, she joined the professor on his 10-day trip.

She quickly realized that the professor had ulterior motives. When attempting to book a hotel reservation for the two, the professor only expressed interest in rooms that held a single king-size bed. The woman was able to secure a hotel room with two beds by requesting the room from a hotel employee in a language the professor did not speak.

She said his behavior throughout the trip made her extremely uncomfortable: He questioned the woman about a new rule Yale had implemented that prohibited all sexual and romantic relationships between undergraduates and instructors. When she replied that she approved of the rule, he seemed “quizzical” and told her he had been accused of sexual harassment during a previous teaching job at another university. He explained to the woman that his accuser’s account of his supposed harassment was too blunt and aggressive; he said he would use a subtler approach if he were to harass someone. The woman felt that this, and several other incidents on the trip which she asked the News not to describe in detail, constituted sexual harassment.

At the end of the trip, the woman returned to the East Coast city she lived in with her boyfriend — a Yale student — for the summer. She was still completing work for the professor despite the strange events that took place on trip.

The professor arrived in the alumna’s city three days after the trip ended as planned.

Although the student had made it clear that she was in a committed relationship, the professor became very upset when he arrived at her home to find her boyfriend living with her. The professor claimed that he was distressed that her boyfriend was still a Yale student.

The student said she tried to handle the situation carefully for fear her job was at risk.

“I felt that I should handle myself in a way that did not endanger my position [of employment]. I was aware that, as I rejected his advances, he became increasingly bitter toward me, and also unnecessarily critical of my life choices,” she said. “I put up with his advances, first, because I felt that as an alum I had no channel for reporting my grievance, and second, because I understood that there was a growing threat of [his] seeking to establish a quid pro quo relationship with me, that entailed my having to remain silent.”

In justifying his decision to stay with his former student — and to ask her to share a hotel room with him during their 10-day trip — the professor cited his desire not to spend funds that could be funneled towards charitable projects. This put the political science major in a position in which her personal discomfort was weighed against her social and humanitarian values.

After the professor left her city, he emailed the woman asking her to call him as soon as possible.

“I called him, and he told me that he was disappointed in me. He falsely accused me of not having told him that I had a live-in boyfriend and said that he could no longer trust me,” she said.

When the alumna returned to New Haven on Aug. 30, 2010, and reported to the Yale center for which she had been conducting research and translations, she was met only with confusion: The center had no record of her employment, even though she was listed as a fellow on the center’s website. She presented her contract as evidence of employment.

She returned to the center the next day to further explain her situation to a female administrator. She told this staff member about the sexual harassment she endured over the summer, but received little support in return. She said the staff member told her she wished the woman had not told her about the harassment because it put her in an awkward position: The administrator said she knew the professor in question had a live-in partner.

The professor became furious after he was contacted by the center regarding the woman’s job status.

He emailed the woman and told her she had “embarrassed” him. Additionally, he said the contract he asked her to sign at the beginning of summer was only intended to help her find housing in New Haven. She was not officially employed by Yale as a result of signing, he said.

On Sept. 19, 2010, he emailed the woman again, telling her she did not deserve payment for the work she had completed over the last three months.

A friend of the woman who was still a Yale student contacted his residential dean to ask for advice on the woman’s behalf. Word of her complaint was passed along to Susan Sawyer, associate general counsel for the University. Sawyer directed the alumna to the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs on Sept. 16.

The alumna’s efforts to file a complaint through that office were met with long waits and little administrative support. In November, the academic center for which she had worked emailed her to say she could pick up a paycheck for her work. When she responded, she received no response. The woman finally met with Valarie Stanley, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, on Dec. 6.

The woman asked Stanley about the email she had received from the center regarding her pay. The woman said Stanley told her the email had been sent prematurely, and that she could only receive the pay if she agreed to sign a nondisclosure agreement for the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs.

Hoping to put an end to a process that she already considered too twisted to pursue any longer, the alumna consented.

“After having spoken to a few lawyers, I determined that my rights had been violated on several counts,” she said.

Several months passed without further resolution before news broke of a Title IX complaint filed against Yale in late March 2011. The complaint, signed by 16 Yale students and alumni and filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleged that the University’s policies contributed to a hostile sexual environment on campus.

Upon hearing of the complaint, the alumna contacted one of the complainants quoted in an article printed in the News. The complainant encouraged her to file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, which she did on April 20.

The nondisclosure agreement she signed for Yale’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs figured heavily into her complaint.

“I had been forbidden to speak about a very important and traumatic event in my life with anyone other than my family and attorneys, when [nondisclosure agreements] are more typically used to forbid disclosure of the terms of confidential settlements, not those that explicitly defile public policy,” she wrote in her complaint to the Office for Civil Rights. “I signed it under undue pressure and in a state of distress. … Yale’s insistence on my signing … to receive even the most minimal compensation for services rendered was, in my opinion, unacceptable and contrary to the most basic principles of fair resolution.”

Since filing, her complaint has been merged into the original formal complaint filed by 16 Yale students and alumni on March 15, and was also referred to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor and Women’s Center adviser Melanie Boyd became aware of several rough details of the alumna’s case through a friend of the alumna, and encouraged her to come speak to her.

Boyd informed the alumna that she could file a complaint with the Sexual Harassment Grievance Board regarding the incidents that occurred during her time as an undergraduate up to one year after graduation. The timing was lucky: The alumna had only two days left before she crossed that deadline.

She compiled a complaint, but because the grievance board dissolved over the summer to make room for the new University-Wide Committee, her complaint was forwarded to that new body.

She is still waiting to hear from the committee about her complaint.

David Burt contributed reporting.

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