Walking through the gates of Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies marks a milestone in many graduate students’ careers in academia. The six or more years they spend there are their first step toward a Ph.D., professorship and ultimately tenure at an academic institution.
Over half of Yale’s female graduate and professional students will experience some form of sexual harassment during these years. Many will not report it for fear of jeopardizing their futures.
Because of these fears, the efficacy of bringing a complaint against a faculty member to the University — and the consequences of doing so — has long remained unclear. But recent events within the Spanish and Portuguese Department and interviews with graduate students and administrators have shed new light on the complicated dynamics of reporting sexual misconduct against faculty members who work closely with graduate students or hold powerful administrative positions.
According to survey results released by the Association of American Universities in September, a staggering 53.9 percent of female graduate or professional students at Yale who responded to the questionnaire reported experiencing sexual harassment — and of those who had experienced it, 29.5 percent identified a faculty member as the perpetrator. In addition, more than 70 percent of those respondents said they at least “somewhat” believed that alleged offenders or their associates would retaliate against a person making a report of misconduct.
Last March, an anonymous group of graduate students within the department circulated a letter accusing Spanish professor Roberto González Echevarría GRD ’70 of sexual harassment, among other issues. The letter prompted an administration-sanctioned review of the department’s climate. An anonymous graduate student who helped write the letter said the students chose to write the anonymous letter because they did not want to identify themselves by making official reports of misconduct. As a result of the review, administrators instituted a mandatory, one-time sexual harassment training session for the department’s faculty members, but they did not take disciplinary action against Echevarría. Students interviewed said they were shocked by the lack of substantive change, and they cited the outcome as confirmation of widespread fears that students’ complaints do not materialize into real consequences for faculty members.
Graduate students in general often have highly personal but subordinate relationships with their faculty mentors. Many hesitate to report cases of sexual misconduct because they fear retaliation that may damage their careers, students interviewed said. In particular, students fear that faculty members will hurt their reputations within the field, either by withholding letters of recommendation or issuing bad grades. Sexual harassment and the subsequent consequences of reporting or not can also negatively affect students’ productivity, Women’s Faculty Forum Chair and School of Medicine professor Paula Kavathas said.
“Faculty members, especially your advisor, are your lifeline to a career in academia. A student spends anywhere from six to 10-plus years working with faculty, pursuing a Ph.D. and cultivating a reputation in a given field of study,” Graduate and Professional Student Senate President Elizabeth Mo GRD ’18 said. “Your advisor has the power to shatter all of that.”
She added that the power dynamic between graduate students and faculty is one factor that distinguishes the graduate and professional student experience from the undergraduate one.
Graduate students have the same resources as undergraduates for addressing sexual misconduct, such as the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, Title IX Coordinators and the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center. Still, graduate students may be more reluctant to report sexual misconduct by faculty members, Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley said.
“I do recognize that faculty members have a close advisory relationship with graduate students and play a significant role in the students’ academic and professional success,” she said in an email to the News.
Kavathas said there has been discussion about whether faculty members in leadership positions found guilty of sexual harassment should be prohibited from assuming these roles in the future, rather than simply being suspended for a certain time period.
While acknowledging students’ fears of retribution, both Cooley and University Title IX Coordinator and Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler stressed that retaliation against any individual who files a complaint of sexual misconduct is a violation of University policy that would be addressed through the appropriate disciplinary procedures.
“I understand from anecdotal conversations and from data in the AAU survey that some students do not report incidents of sexual misconduct because they are concerned about potential negative social and academic impacts,” Spangler said. “When individuals do come forward with complaints, we work closely with them to develop plans to address not only their core complaints of sexual misconduct but also any concerns about retaliation.”
In addition to the anonymous letter in the Spanish and Portuguese Department, one student author also pursued a University resolution by reporting an instance of sexual harassment to a Title IX coordinator. The student said the Title IX office took the complaint very seriously, but was not sure how the investigation is progressing. This graduate student, who requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject, added that filing a complaint can turn into an “open war” with the faculty member in question, as well as with other faculty in the department.
“When you are in the position of the student, you always have things to lose. You are lower on the hierarchy, and even though the people at the top are abusing their power, you probably won’t gain much from complaining,” the student said.
According to several Spanish Department graduate students interviewed, the minimal changes that followed the departmental review merely confirmed the fear that official complaints are unproductive.
One graduate student interviewed called the response — the mandatory sexual harassment training session — “shocking” in its lack of substantive change or consequence.
“Apparently, the penalties that you can get for being a harasser are barely penalties at all. What is happening in the Spanish Department is proof of this,” the student said. “People complain, the professor gets a two-hour training, and then you have to take classes with him the next semester. Apparently universities are the best place for sexual misconduct.”
Another student called the idea that a one-time training would change the attitude and behavior patterns associated with sexual harassment “absurd and puerile.”
Another highly public case of harassment by a faculty member, which alerted the Yale community to the dangers of faculty retaliation, surfaced in November 2014 when The New York Times revealed that School of Medicine professor and former cardiology chief Michael Simons MED ’84 had sexually harassed a researcher in his lab. The researcher, Annarita di Lorenzo, alleged in her formal complaint to the UWC that Simons had told her he could “open the world of science” to her, and that when she did not return his advances, Simons removed her then-boyfriend and fellow cardiologist from a grant.
Despite increased publicity on the issue, students interviewed said it remains a significant hurdle to those looking to pursue a successful career in academia.
“Advancement in academia is very often dependent on interpersonal relationships, and most people are hesitant to jeopardize those relationships, understandably so,” Graduate Student Assembly representative Rachel Love GRD ’19 said. “ Often [graduate and professional] students are in the same building every day, seeing the same people every day for six to seven years, and any shake up or conflict in a small community can often have disastrous ramifications. Whether or not it is justified, there are very real consequences to any lapse in confidentiality that some students simply do not want to risk.”