After a packed town hall meeting in Harkness Auditorium, medical school faculty walked away with mixed views on University President Peter Salovey and Provost Benjamin Polak’s handling of diversity issues at the School of Medicine.
During the meeting, some faculty at the School of Medicine voiced reservations about Salovey and Polak’s willingness to improve the environment for minorities and women at the School of Medicine, while others commended the two administrators for their efforts.
The town hall marks the first time Salovey and Polak have spoken publicly before the medical school faculty about these issues. It provided faculty members with an opportunity to respond to the Gender Equity Committee’s recommendations, released in December, and the strategies from the Medical School Dean’s Office, announced in January, to improve the climate for women and minorities at the medical school, Salovey said. After a sexual misconduct case involving former Cardiology Chief Michael Simons MED ’84 surfaced in news reports, the dean’s office formulated a series of initiatives to tackle concerns that minorities and women were not being treated fairly at the school.
“Obviously there is residual frustration about the [Simons] case,” said Neuropathology Section Chief Laura Manuelidis MED ’67 after the meeting. “But in sum, it was terrific that the president came, and a cause for hope.”
Manuelidis said Salovey was receptive and committed at the town hall, and added that one of Polak’s comments about diversity — “an excellent faculty has to be a diverse faculty” — were particularly welcome.
In his opening speech to the faculty at the town hall, Polak said he had seen first hand the pressures put on women, sometimes deliberately, to discourage them from going into science. But he said having two daughters led him to realize the importance of having female role models in science.
Still, not all attendees were impressed with the University’s efforts. One female faculty member, who did not identify herself when she stood up to speak during the Town Hall, asked for an apology from the provost for his decisions in previous sexual misconduct cases. She said admitting the University “screwed up” in handling some cases would go a long way.
“I wasn’t sufficiently focused on how important these issues at the medical school are — I am now,” Polak said, in response to her request.
Another attendee, immunology professor Philip Askenase MED ’65, said Salovey and Polak had avoided answering questions about how the medical school can ensure accountability. While Askenase acknowledged that federal laws, state laws and University policy prevent administrators from disclosing certain details of disciplinary proceedings, he expressed concern that it will be difficult for faculty members to monitor if the administration stays true to its promises.
“There are elephants in this room,” Askenase said, addressing Salovey and Polak. “People have asked specific questions that you have avoided.”
The University is bound by federal and Connecticut state law to keep information such as the financial details of misconduct cases confidential, Polak and Salovey said. The University also prohibits the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, which adjudicates sexual misconduct cases within the University, from sharing the full details of claimant and respondent statements.
While Polak said the definition of a good faculty member must extend beyond being able to produce high quality research, Askenase noted to everyone at the town hall that there is talk within the medical school about certain faculty members who were hired despite leaving their previous institutions for reasons that may have been related to their professional conduct.
Deputy Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Richard Bribiescas oversees diversity issues at all of the University’s constituent schools. Bribiescas’s position was created this past December. Before that, diversity issues were handled by other administrators.
Members of the Status of Women in Medicine, a Yale committee that advocates for more female faculty in medicine, argue that the medical school should have its own diversity officer because it is so large, comprising 18 clinical departments and 10 basic science departments. That recommendation was included in a December message from the Gender Equity Task Force to the medical school community and was reiterated at Thursday’s town hall by radiology professor Joann Sweasy.
Sweasy also said SWIM is advocating for increasing the number of women on the search committees responsible for picking medical school leadership.
“If you look at the composition of search committees, you wouldn’t be surprised by the composition of leadership,” Sweasy said, adding that Alpern appears receptive to SWIM’s recommendations.
Alpern, who agreed that the town hall was particularly important because faculty had expressed interest in providing feedback directly to the president, said he thought the meeting had gone well and that the questions posed to Salovey and Polak were both well crafted and well answered.
Salovey and Polak also used the town hall to clarify what they said were misconceptions about how the University deals with sexual misconduct. Polak said that contrary to popular opinion, financial considerations do not play a part in UWC proceedings.
“I do not get any financial information about cases,” he said. “I am religiously strict about this.”
Polak also addressed concerns surrounding the compensation faculty members receive when they are suspended for misconduct. Some members of the community, he said, are convinced that suspended faculty are essentially on paid sabbatical — a notion that confidentiality clauses prevent him from discussing. While Polak did not comment on whether suspended faculty members get paid, he said during the town hall that he is “not interested in sending people on paid sabbaticals.”
Polak and Salovey also shed light on future discussions about misconduct that may take place. In Polak’s introduction to the town hall, he said there is concern surrounding whether or not there should be a single decision maker in sexual misconduct cases. Currently, only the provost has the ability to alter sanctions issued to faculty respondents that are decided upon by the UWC, but Polak acknowledged that this may not be the best structure.
“I’m not wedded to the idea of a single decision maker,” he said.
Polak acknowledged that the UWC has been “unearthing bad behavior that goes beyond sexual misconduct” that its current procedure is unable to tackle, referring to workplace bullying. The new Code of Faculty Conduct was designed to mitigate this issue and wider concerns about the school’s climate, he said.
But, he said, there is still some way to go.
“We try to be as transparent as we can, even though that might seem comical to some of you,” Salovey said.