A recent sexual harassment case at the School of Medicine has called into question the underlying framework of the University’s sexual misconduct procedures.
Following allegations that the medical school’s former cardiology chief, Michael Simons, sexually harassed a junior faculty member, the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct recommended that Simons be removed from his position and be ineligible for high administrative roles for five years. But following this recommendation, Provost Benjamin Polak, the final decision maker on UWC cases involving faculty members, reduced the penalty to an 18-month suspension. After the reduced penalty was made public by The New York Times on Saturday, some faculty, students and independent experts have questioned the efficacy of the UWC complaint process and, more broadly, the administration’s handling of sexual misconduct cases.
Still, 14 out of 16 students interviewed had no prior knowledge of UWC proceedings and this specific case involving Simons. Once informed, however, all expressed concern over the provost’s power as a final decision maker over the committee.
Hannah McCormick ’17, a facilitator with the Sexual Literacy Forum, said that Polak’s decision made her question the seriousness with which the administration approaches sexual harassment cases.
“I feel less protected by the administration now,” she said. “[The case] sets a precedent that if you come forward with a case, you’ll be taken less seriously by the administration.”
Elsie Yau ’17 said endowing one individual with the power to issue a decision that differs from the UWC’s recommendations undermines the role of the UWC.
She added that institutional changes — like the creation of the UWC in 2011 — would not be enough to effectively address sexual harassment on campus.
“It’s a lot about culture changes as well, especially if you have a culture of people who don’t take issues of sexual assault seriously,” Yau said.
The final decision maker should be involved with the investigation and hear any relevant testimony, said Eden Ohayon ’14 — who filed a complaint with the UWC in spring 2014. Under current guidelines, the decision maker — who is the provost when the respondent is a member of the faculty and the relevant dean when they are a student — only receives the panel’s recommendations after the hearing has occurred. He or she does not hear either the complainant’s or respondent’s testimony, Ohayon said.
“There are cases in which I hoped that the provost and dean would have used their power to overturn UWC findings, especially when the panel did not uphold Yale policy or recommend apt punishment,” Ohayon said. “But maybe it’s problematic to give one arbitrator unilateral power … I don’t think it’s realistic for someone so far removed from the process to make a fair, well-informed decision on all cases.”
McCormick expressed concern about how the case may affect students’ trust of the administration in the long run. She added that she was discouraged because her role in SELF involves assuring students that they can feel comfortable reaching out to the University if they have any concerns.
However, other administrators defended the UWC’s procedures.
“I review all complaints of sexual misconduct brought to the attention of the University, and I have seen cases where panel recommendations have been modified by decision makers to strengthen, mitigate, or modify penalties — actions that have been taken in accordance with standard UWC procedures,” University Title IX Coordinator and Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler wrote in a Sunday email to the News.
UWC Chair David Post said that when a decision maker decides to modify or reject a panel’s conclusions or recommendations, he or she must explain the decision to the UWC in writing.
“Far from undermining the process, the presence of the independent investigating, hearing and decision-making entities that are separate and distinct helps to ensure the integrity of the process,” Post said.
Polak said he could not disclose the details of specific UWC cases, and as a result, could not make public the reason for his decision.
In a Monday evening email to the Yale community, University President Peter Salovey defended both the UWC and the provost’s role in the committee’s proceedings.
“I want to assure you that the UWC has been faithfully and diligently pursuing its mandate to review complaints of sexual misconduct in a thorough, fair and unbiased manner,” Salovey wrote.
Salovey also called Polak’s actions consistent with the provost’s responsibility of handling cases of sexual harassment. According to UWC procedures, a complaint filed with the committee must be followed by a report from an independent fact-finder and at least one hearing. After the hearings, the UWC will decide whether or not the respondent has violated University policy, and if so, will recommend a punishment. The UWC’s suggestion is then presented to a “final decision maker” — in this case the provost because Simons was a faculty member — for approval or modification.
The ultimate goal for the University is to create an environment of trust and mutual support, Salovey added.
Salovey said that he was joined by Polak and Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Alpern Monday at the inaugural meeting of the medical school’s Task Force on Gender Equity. The formation of the new task force has been at least partly informed by the unfolding sexual harassment case, said Linda Bockenstedt, a medical school professor who is chairing the new committee.
Yale’s current sexual misconduct policies were enacted as part of an agreement between the University and the U.S. Department of Education. Yale was put under observation by the Department of Education following a complaint filed in March 2011 with the Office of Civil Rights, which alleged that the University had not acted appropriately to remedy a “sexually hostile environment” on campus, according to a June 2012 Department of Education press release.
As part of the agreement, Yale created the UWC and appointed Spangler as its inaugural Title IX coordinator. The University also released its first Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct in January 2012.
According to Donna Haghighat, co-president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Association of University Women, while Yale has made important strides in improving campus culture since 2011, it still must work harder to improve transparency and trust among its community.
“The college has to be very careful to communicate as well as it can to all the stakeholders in that campus community,” Haghighat said. “You have to be up front about what’s happening on your campus to the extent that you can so you’re not creating an environment where people feel like they can’t come forward.”
Still, in his email, Salovey emphasized the importance of confidentiality while acknowledging that the transparency of the process may suffer as a result.
“Although it is sometimes a source of frustration to those who value transparency, including myself, this work is carried out — of necessity — with careful attention to confidentiality in order to ensure a fair outcome and protect the parties involved,” he wrote.
Alexandra Brodsky ’12 LAW ’16, one of the 16 students and alumni who filed the 2011 Title IX complaint, said that poor decision-making can occur in spite of the UWC’s creation.
The most recent Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct, published in August, listed 64 complaints brought to the University’s attention.
“We can set [policies] up so that things look good on paper, but [they] are not in fact [good] if the right people aren’t in decision-making positions,” Brodsky said.