Yale medical faculty went into uproar this summer after Michael Simons — a Yale School of Medicine professor who left his position as cardiology chief after the University found him guilty of sexually harassing a junior colleague in 2013 — was named the Waldemar von Zedtwitz professor of cardiology at the end of July.
A School of Medicine press release emphasized that Simons “led the first trials of therapeutic angiogenesis in the United States” and outlined his accomplishments as a principal investigator of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Specialized Centers of Research program.
But just days later, the release was removed from the school’s website, after a number of faculty members voiced concerns to Medical School Dean Robert Alpern.
“The awarding of a new endowed chair to Dr. Simons communicates a message of tolerance: Faculty who were found guilty of sexual misconduct are still worthy of receiving this prestigious honor,” said Paula Kavathas, a School of Medicine professor and former chair of the Women’s Faculty Forum.
Before he received the Zedtwitz professorship, Simons held a professorship named in honor of Robert Berliner ’36, a former dean of the medical school. Simons received the Zedtwitz professorship just months after Nancy Berliner ’75 MED ’79 — the daughter of Robert Berliner — contacted representatives of the School of Medicine to say she was “quite upset and appalled” that Simons still held her father’s professorship.
Alpern declined to comment for the story, directing inquiries to Yale spokesman Karen Peart.
In a statement to the News, Peart said Yale transferred the Berliner professorship to the School of Medicine’s new chief of cardiology, Eric Velazquez. “Dr. Simons’ chair was switched,” she said. Peart did not respond to a question about how the University evaluates candidates for professorships. Simons did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the News.
In 2014, long before sexual misconduct allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked a movement to end workplace sexual misconduct, the University’s mishandling of sexual harassment allegations against Simons made national headlines.
A University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct panel found Simons guilty of sexual harassment and recommended that he be removed from his position at the helm of the cardiology department. But Provost Benjamin Polak rejected that recommendation and reduced the penalty to an 18-month suspension.
Amid faculty backlash, and with a New York Times article about the case in the works, Yale announced that Simons had decided not to return to his position as cardiology chief — an apparent attempt by the University to appease angry faculty members and improve its public image.
But following Yale’s decision last month to award Simons another endowed professorship, medical school faculty members are now wondering whether the school has made any progress in preventing sexual misconduct.
Kavathas noted that 24 of the school’s 28 department chairs are men. She added that, while she feels that the structure of the school’s leadership will change over time, “There is no reason to continue to signal tolerance of sexual harassment of women at the Yale Medical School.”
The two major characteristics of work environments with high rates of sexual harassment are male-dominated gender ratios and leadership and an organizational climate that conveys tolerance of sexual harassment, according to a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Women Faculty Forum chair and linguistics professor Claire Bowern expressed disappointment at Simons’ new appointment.
“We don’t see why universities should state their opposition to harassment in principle, yet continue to give rewards and status to those who harass their students and colleagues,” Bowern said. “While we do not support automatic penalties or mandatory sentencing, we do find this ‘academic rock star’ approach problematic. Too often, people who have harassed others are allowed to continue their work, publish and accrue academic honors while the people they harass have to move elsewhere or have their work suffer.”
An executive board member of the Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine, a Yale committee that works to promote gender diversity in the medical field, said that medical school faculty members are “pretty outraged” about Simons’ new professorship. The board member asked to remain anonymous to avoid upsetting Alpern.
“SWIM would like to see this new chair taken away,” the board member said.
Still, some professors at the medical school have risen to Simons’ defense. Cardiology professor Martin Schwartz, who works at the Yale Cardiovascular Center with Simons, said his research has been “extraordinarily productive since he was fired from his administrative positions.”
Schwartz added that he is “not aware of any women in cardiology who are equally deserving” of Simons’ position.
Others in Simons’ department, including cardiology professors Harlan Krumholz, Henry Cabin and Kathleen Martin, declined to comment for the story. University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler and University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct chair Mark Solomon also declined to comment.
Kavathas said that Alpern recommends candidates for honorary professorships, which have to be approved by University President Peter Salovey and the Yale Corporation. Because honorary professorships often include financial bonuses of around $140,000 per year, the positions are highly coveted. Salovey’s chief of staff, Joy McGrath, referred questions to Yale spokesman Tom Conroy, who declined to elaborate on Peart’s statement.
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.
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