In 2013, the University Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct found that Robert W. Berliner professor of medicine Michael Simons had violated Yale’s sexual misconduct policies. But despite being suspended from all administrative leadership positions, Simons, who was chief of cardiology at the School of Medicine at the time, retained his endowed professorship, an honor bestowed on senior faculty members and often accompanied by supplementary funding.
In a 2017 report published last December, the Women’s Faculty Forum recommended that the University reconsider allowing faculty members found guilty of sexual misconduct to retain their endowed professorships. These professorships, a major academic honor, “exist in perpetuity and provide lasting recognition of whomever the donor chooses to honor,” according to a University website.
“I think that it’s wrong for a faculty member who is guilty of serious misconduct or of sexual misconduct to retain this type of honor,” said professor of laboratory medicine and immunology Paula Kavathas, who previously served as chair of the WFF and was an author of the December report. “I don’t think it’s right.”
Asked whether the UWC considers revoking the endowed professorships of faculty members found guilty of violating sexual misconduct policies, neither Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler nor UWC chair David Post responded directly to the question.
“UWC hearing panels make recommendations on penalties based on the specifics of each case, precedent set by previous similar cases and the respondent’s prior disciplinary history if any,” Post said. “UWC hearing panels and decision-makers consider a wide range of penalties when a faculty member violates University policy.”
Simons resigned from his position as chief of cardiology in 2014 — a year after the UWC found that he had sexually harassed a postdoctoral researcher.
His resignation followed months of controversy. The UWC had recommended that Simons be permanently removed from the position of chief of cardiology and suspended from leadership positions for five years. But in his role as final decision-maker on UWC cases against faculty members, University Provost Ben Polak lessened the punishment to an 18-month suspension. After The New York Times contacted Yale about the case, the University reported that Simons decided not to return to Yale as chief of cardiology when his suspension expired.
Still, he continues to hold an endowed professorship at Yale.
“[Simons] is still in a much loftier position than the vast majority of the medical school faculty, so why should this be?” said professor of molecular biophysics and chemistry Joan Steitz.
Kavathas said the UWC should be aware of whether a professor has an endowed chair or professorship so that the panel can potentially make a recommendation to revoke the title.
But faculty members found guilty of having committed sexual misconduct are rarely given a punishment beyond a brief suspension, a no-contact order with the complainant or sexual harassment and workplace conduct training.
In one case documented in the biannual Title IX report released in February 2017 by the provost’s office, a Title IX coordinator brought a formal complaint alleging that a faculty member engaged in sexual harassment that created a hostile environment. After the UWC found that the faculty member had indeed engaged in harassing behavior, the respondent was given a one-term suspension, suspended from his leadership position for five years and required to complete training on sexual harassment and appropriate workplace conduct. In five years, the faculty member could resume advising students.
Katherine Baker, a legal expert in sexual misconduct on college campuses, said that tenure is often a complicating factor in cases of sexual misconduct and can interfere with a school’s ability to terminate a faculty member’s position. Schools can sanction the respondent, and if the behavior does not change, they can revoke tenure, Baker said. But incidents of groping typically lead to reprimands, different class assignments, warnings or pay deductions, as opposed to strong disciplinary proceedings.
There is only one case listed in the UWC reports in which a faculty member, who had already resigned from his position, was considered definitively ineligible for employment by the University after the Title IX coordinator found sufficient evidence to support allegations of sexual harassment. In another case, a faculty member’s rehire was said to be contingent on the outcome of outstanding complaints against him.
Women Faculty Forum chair and linguistics professor Claire Bowern argued that while some punishments, such as revoking an endowed fellowship, predominantly affect the guilty party, the sanctions currently favored relieve the respondent of certain responsibilities and disproportionately harm fellow faculty members and students. For example, she said, if a faculty member is barred from close contact with students, their colleagues are often required to take on a greater advising burden. And if the faculty member is barred from sitting on committees, other faculty members must pick up the slack. Bowern added that the WFF finds it problematic that the sanctions imposed under the current system can make it easier for a faculty member found guilty of sexual misconduct to continue his or her own research program at the expense of colleagues’ time.
While Bowern recognized the importance of confidentiality in Yale’s sexual misconduct procedures, she commented that secrecy can also backfire. Greater transparency surrounding the types of sanctions imposed would help prove that Yale is taking meaningful action, she added.
Fourteen percent of Sterling professors, Yale’s highest honor for tenured faculty, are women.
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