Updated: Nov. 3, 4:18 a.m.
Yale’s treatment of sexual misconduct cases has again come under fire, this time for its handling of a medical school researcher’s accusations against the School of Medicine’s former cardiology chief Michael Simons.
In 2013, medical school researcher Annarita Di Lorenzo and her husband, medical school cardiology professor Frank Giordano, filed a formal complaint with Yale’s University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct. The complaint alleged sexual misconduct and professional retaliation perpetrated by Simons, who was the school’s cardiology chief at the time, according to faculty members interviewed and The New York Times. The Times first reported the story on Saturday.
Following a report from an independent fact finder, the UWC recommended Simons be removed from his position and be ineligible for any other high administrative roles for five years, the Times reported. But Provost Benjamin Polak — who is the final decision maker on UWC cases involving faculty members — decided to issue a reduced penalty that included an 18-month suspension and mandated sexual harassment training.
Polak’s decision, as well as the medical school’s handling of the case, has drawn the ire of several faculty members at the medical school.
Still, Polak maintained that he could not comment on the specific case. In emailed statements to the News, he insisted that his decisions are based on facts presented in the UWC’s report and the recommendations in each case.
“I provide a careful and unbiased review of all cases that come before me, and I am confident in the integrity of our policies and procedures,” Polak wrote in a Saturday evening email.
Eleven faculty members interviewed expressed concerns that the provost had acted inappropriately in modifying the punishment. They also said Polak’s decision lacked transparency.
The justification for Polak’s deviation from the recommendation of the UWC was not made public, said a medical school faculty member who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
“What’s the point of going through the whole [UWC process] if it then gets overturned or modified substantially?” the faculty member said.
Three medical school faculty members interviewed said external interference with the UWC’s recommendations reflects poorly on the UWC process and Yale’s sexual misconduct policy as a whole.
Medical school professor Shirley McCarthy said she was deeply concerned that the authority of the UWC had been undermined by Polak’s actions.
“I think after the [UWC] made a decision — for any administrator to manipulate that decision looks bad for Yale,” medical school professor Joan Steitz said. “This isn’t the type of leadership I would hope for.”
According to the Times, several sources within the medical school raised concerns about Polak’s neutrality in the matter. They wondered if his judgment might have been skewed by the fact that Katerina Simons, Simons’s wife, is a lecturer in the economics department, of which Polak was formerly the chair.
UWC regulations state that a decision maker must withdraw from proceedings if any circumstances lead them to believe that they cannot judge the case fairly. Parties to the case may also object to the decision maker — objections that the chair of the UWC is empowered to adjudicate. However, a member of the UWC who spoke anonymously because committee members are not supposed to discuss internal proceedings said there are no written rules describing what constitutes a conflict of interest.
Polak denied any bias on his part or that his decision was influenced by external factors to the case.
“I would never allow outside influences to affect my decisions,” he said.
According to UWC procedures, after a hearing, the committee submits its recommendations for punishment to the “relevant decision maker” — the provost in cases where the respondent is a faculty member. That decision maker has the final authority to decide whether and how a punishment will be implemented.
In their case brought before the UWC, Di Lorenzo and Giordano claimed Simons had sexually harassed her from early 2010 to 2011, beginning with a love letter, according to the Times. The Times added that Di Lorenzo attempted to distance herself from Simons. She eventually moved to Cornell. Simons allegedly retaliated by postponing career advancement opportunities for Giordano, a fellow YSM cardiologist and Di Lorenzo’s boyfriend at the time, the Times wrote.
After The Times contacted Yale last week, the University announced that Simons “had decided” not to return to his post as chief of cardiology. In the same article, Simons admitted that he had pursued a junior colleague.
Simons, however, denied that he abused his position as chair of cardiology to retaliate against Di Lorenzo or Giordano.
“My professional decisions have always been based only on talent, merit and that which is in the best interest of Yale, its staff and students,” Simons wrote in a Sunday email to the News. “Any other inference is simply not true.”
Following the hearings, the UWC recommended that Simons be removed from his position because he had created a hostile work environment for Di Lorenzo, the Times article said. The article added that Simons publicly derided Giordano and that the UWC found Simons had exercised “improper leadership and compromised decision-making regarding Giordano.”
Even though Polak’s ultimate decision was not what the UWC recommended, he said he did not “overrule” the UWC findings. Rather, he said his actions fell within his jurisdiction.
“I have the discretion to accept the UWC’s penalty recommendations or to modify them based on the facts of the case as presented to me,” Polak said. “This means that I can accept recommended penalties or increase them or decrease them.”
Polak declined to comment on the specific number of times his final decision has differed from the UWC’s recommendations. Still, he said that he has taken all three possible options following UWC findings — increased penalties, accepted them unchanged and lessened them.
“My decisions have never been influenced by anything but the facts presented to me,” Polak said. “To suggest otherwise, or to suggest that I would behave in any way ‘simply because I could’ is denigrating to the UWC process. I am deeply troubled that anyone would make this incorrect assertion.”
In her time as dean of Yale College, Mary Miller said, she modified UWC recommendations on more than one occasion. Unlike the provost, who decides UWC cases where a faculty member is a respondent, the dean of Yale College decides cases where the respondent is a Yale College student.
Both Miller and Thomas Pollard, former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, declined to comment on how many UWC recommendations they modified while in office.
“Let me assure you that it is never easy to accept nor to modify the panel’s recommendation,” Miller said.
University President Peter Salovey said Yale is committed to creating a workplace free of harassment and intimidation.
“Yale must — and will — provide a positive environment that supports growth, advancement and opportunity for everyone: students, faculty and staff,” Salovey wrote in an email to the News Saturday. “I have confidence in the UWC procedures and their fairness.”
Salovey added that he would rely on Robert Alpern, dean of the School of Medicine, to pursue concerns regarding the school’s work environment in collaboration with the newly appointed Task Force on Gender Equity.
In an email sent to the medical school community Saturday evening, Alpern shared the New York Times story and said the task force — established in September — will work to focus the medical school’s efforts to address concerns about gender and the work environment at the school.
“I am entirely committed to ensuring that the school must not countenance behavior that is harmful, harassing or demeaning,” he said. “Without question, these are serious issues that I, as dean, and we, as a school, must address as one of our highest priorities.”
However, McCarthy said that rather than convening a new task force, the University should start by evaluating the findings of previous reports on gender equity.
For example, she added there was an outside report commissioned to investigate “gender and minority equity” last December, but she said the results have yet to be released.
“What we don’t need is another faculty committee that’s just going to waste a lot of people’s time doing yet another report that’s going to get buried,” Steitz said.