In 2008, Yale hired renowned philosophy professor Thomas Pogge — who has recently been accused of sexual misconduct by a former Yale student — even though some at the University were already aware of a prior sexual misconduct allegation made against him during his time at Columbia University.
When Fernanda Lopez Aguilar ’10 filed a complaint against Yale with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2015, she raised concerns about how the University handled her allegation of sexual misconduct against Pogge, who has been accused by a host of other women of using his fame and position to make unwelcome sexual advances.
But questions about Yale’s handling of these accusations stem back decades before Lopez Aguilar. An allegation of sexual harassment was brought against Pogge by a philosophy graduate student in 1995, during Pogge’s time at Columbia, raising questions about whether Yale was aware of the allegation when Pogge was hired and what processes were in place to investigate it. Recent interviews with administrators and faculty members suggest that Yale has few formal procedures for investigating allegations of misconduct made against potential faculty hires.
Pogge said Yale was aware of the single allegation at Columbia.
“Yale knew about it and questioned me about it before hiring me,” said Pogge, who was hired directly from Columbia. “They also checked with others at Columbia.” He would not provide further details or the names of the specific administrators who approached him about the matter.
But political science and philosophy professor Seyla Benhabib, one of three members on Pogge’s hiring committee, said the allegation was not raised during the committee’s work. University President Peter Salovey, who served as Yale College Dean during Pogge’s recruiting and hiring process, would not comment on any specific cases.
Benhabib said she had heard informally through a friend about a possible sexual harassment incident at Columbia involving Pogge. She said she does not know if the other two committee members were formally or informally aware.
“Since Pogge himself continued to be a faculty member in good standing at Columbia University, the matter did not seem to be worth pursuing further,” she said. “To the best of my knowledge, there were no official communications between any colleagues and officials at Columbia and our committee or the Yale administration.”
But philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who was chair of the interdisciplinary search committee that recommended hiring Pogge, said if he had been made aware of any allegations, he would have informed the administration.
“Had anything been brought to our attention, I want to assure you that they would have been pursued,” Kagan said. “It is very important to us that we have a respectful atmosphere. No rumors would have been dismissed on the ground that they were only rumors.”
He declined to comment on whether he knew about the specific allegations made against Pogge.
Usually, the hiring of a tenure-rank professor requires the approval of the relevant divisional committee and department chair. The Yale College dean, as well as a few other deans involved in FAS hiring at the time, would have been informed of Pogge’s hire.
Still, within the hiring process, Yale does not have a clear procedure for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct made against faculty search candidates. There is no University policy or American law that requires Yale to conduct preemptive screenings or investigate potential misconduct that occurred at candidates’ previous institutions. Yale does not actively seek such information.
Yale spokesman Thomas Conroy said Yale may contact previous employers if the University learns about the behavior of a potential candidate that would make the person “unsuitable for employment at Yale.”
“When the University receives credible information indicating that a person has behaved in a way that would make that person an unsuitable candidate for employment, it investigates the allegation to the extent possible,” Conroy said. “This can be difficult because employers are often prevented by law or concern about liability from discussing personnel matters with other institutions.”
Asked about specific procedures regarding such investigations, Conroy emphasized that previous employers often do not provide certain information due to state privacy laws or potential liability. He did not offer other details.
New Haven employment lawyer Joe Garrison acknowledged that universities’ requirements are complicated in situations involving allegations against potential employees.
“A complaint does not equal a conviction,” Garrison said. “Employers in general want to find out if potential employees have a history of misconduct. The overall question is whether people have to disclose all their information.”
Benhabib would not say whether she considered broaching Pogge’s case at Columbia to the administration and the rest of the hiring committee.
“No one in 2007 could have predicted that Professor Pogge’s faulty behavior toward female colleagues and students would continue into 2016,” she said. “This is only 20-20 hindsight and not quite fair to those of us who recruited a world-class scholar in good faith.”
Besides Benhabib, it is unclear how many individuals at Yale were aware of the allegation that had been made against Pogge at Columbia.
Former Columbia philosophy professor Charles Larmore, who was aware of the allegations against Pogge because he was chair of the department at the time, had informed University of Chicago philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum about the incident around 2000. When Nussbaum was being recruited by Yale’s philosophy department and the Yale Law School in 2007 — around the same time as Pogge — she mentioned the allegation to a Yale faculty member, she said. But Nussbaum said she cannot remember whether that individual was in the philosophy department or the law school, and she is also not sure if the person had any say in Pogge’s hiring process.
Regardless, rumors of the allegations were spreading. Larmore told the News that by the time Yale hired Pogge, more people knew about the incident than just Nussbaum and a few of Larmore’s old colleagues at Columbia. He said academics in both the U.S. and Germany told him they had heard rumors about Pogge’s behavior at Columbia and elsewhere.
Professors outside of the philosophy department said they are concerned that Yale made the decision to hire Pogge despite the allegations against him, and also that there is no University or legal requirement to conduct background checks during faculty searches.
Political science professor Steven Smith said that in his experience, there is “virtually no investigation” into the background or behavior of candidates for academic positions.
Smith said Pogge’s case seemed to have been a “piece of flagrant oversight” by the hiring committee. Allegations were already surfacing at the time, Smith said, according to his knowledge of the situation.
“I can’t help wondering if the decision not to investigate more vigorously the candidate’s background was in some respect connected to his well-known political views,” Smith said, referring to Pogge’s famous “ultra-liberal” beliefs and stance on global justice.
Classics professor Emily Greenwood, currently the chair of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate, said a formal procedure requiring a hiring department to vouch for a candidate’s professional ethics might improve future scenarios.
“I am not in a position to comment on the details of this case because I am not party to them, but to my mind a hypothetical scenario in which a university is aware of allegations of sexual harassment and subsequent disciplinary measures against an academic who is being considered for employment, but hires them anyway, is profoundly disturbing,” Greenwood said.
The current absence of a formal structure does not mean nothing can be done, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry professor Andrew Miranker said. For example, faculty members often use letters of recommendation to judge both scholarship as well as behavior to a certain extent.
Benhabib said handling rumors or even charges of sexual harassment during the search process without violating the privacy of the individuals involved can be a “delicate matter.” Until recently, she has never heard of records of sexual harassment going public, but she acknowledged that they are becoming increasingly so.
“We need rules about this,” Benhabib said. “I would welcome our Faculty Senate to discuss these matters and to draw up some guidelines for search committees.”
Meanwhile, at other universities, information about Pogge’s history may have played a role in preventing his hire.
According to an affidavit written by Nussbaum to support Lopez Aguilar’s 2014 pre-action filing against Yale, which was obtained by the News, Pogge was a candidate at the University of Chicago about a decade before he was hired at Yale. When there was a vacancy in the political science department around 2000, Iris Young — a senior professor in the department — thought Pogge would be a good appointment for the position.
But Larmore, who also taught at the University of Chicago at the time, told Nussbaum and Young about the Columbia incident involving Pogge, and Young dropped the idea of recruiting Pogge. In her affidavit, Nussbaum recalled that Larmore believed the matter was “quite serious” and likely part of “an ongoing pattern.”
Larmore said he remembers telling Nussbaum about the incident and opposing the idea of bringing Pogge to the University of Chicago, but he said he does not remember if the allegation was ever brought up before the political science department.
The Yale Philosophy department homepage displays links to University resources regarding sexual misconduct as well as a department statement about creating a safe environment for all students.
Correction, Aug. 2: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Shelly Kagan was chair of the Philosophy Department when Pogge was hired; in fact, Kagan chaired the interdisciplinary committee that recommended hiring Pogge. The article has also been updated to clarify the administrators who would have been informed about his hire.