In an open letter addressed to University President Peter Salovey, School of Medicine faculty members, students and alumni joined forces on Tuesday to condemn the University’s decision to award a new endowed professorship to cardiology professor Michael Simons, who was found guilty of sexual harassment in 2013.
As of 10 p.m. on Thursday, the letter had 611 signatures from YSM faculty members, alumni and students, according to one of three organizers of the petition, who asked to remain anonymous to better reflect the “voices of the collective community.” At least 185 members of the University’s medical faculty members — ranging from assistant to emeritus professors — have signed the letter so far, constituting the biggest group among the letter’s signatories. So far, 105 current YSM students and 80 alumni have also signed the letter, the letter’s organizers said.
“A professor who was found to have committed sexual harassment by an independent review and removed from his section chief position, Dr. Michael Simons, was not only allowed to continue in a prestigious academic role, but was also recently awarded an endowed chair,” the letter states. “We are submitting this letter to voice our disgust and disappointment with this decision. We hope this letter sends that message in support of those targeted by his harassment as well as to the past, present, and future victims of harassment at Yale and around the country who will see this action and be discouraged from speaking up.”
Alumni, faculty members and students have circulated the letter around social media and forwarded emails to colleagues and friends over the past three days. Elizabeth Woo MED ’25, president of the Yale School of Medicine Student Council, sent an email to the School of Medicine student body on Wednesday inviting them to sign the petition.
Simons and Medical School Dean Robert Alpern did not respond to requests for comment.
Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said in a statement to the News on Thursday that Simon’s previous endowed title, the Berliner professorship, was reassigned to the current chief of cardiology, Eric Velazquez. The University made the decision in light of concerns from Berliner family’s that Simons continued to hold professorship named in his honor, Peart said, and to honor Velazquez, who was hired as chief of cardiology in early June. Simons then accepted a transfer to the Waldemar von Zedtwitz professorship, Peart said.
“We agree that in cases where someone has been found, through a formal process, to have violated University standards of conduct, there should be a presumption against awarding new honorifics,” Peart said. “We realize that recent announcements about a specific circumstance may appear to be at odds with these statements and want to take this opportunity to provide clarification … In making this transfer, the University had no intention to confer a new honor on Dr. Simons.”
The University’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Simons has previously made national headlines.
In 2013, a University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct panel found Simons guilty of sexually harassing a postdoctoral researcher 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 in November 2014 that Simons had decided not to return to his position as cardiology chief. Simons was removed as director of the Cardiovascular Research Center that same month. In a letter to the New Haven Register in 2014, Simons said he took responsibility for what he did, which he defined as “briefly pursu[ing] a junior but not subordinate colleague.”
This spring, Nancy Berliner ’75 MED ’79 — the daughter of former Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Berliner and former School of Medicine professor — contacted representatives of the School of Medicine to say she was “quite upset and appalled” that Simons still held her father’s professorship, Berliner confirmed in an interview with the News. Months later, at the end of July, the University announced Simons’ new professorship in a press release. The release was removed from the school’s website a few days later after a number of faculty members voiced concerns to Alpern, the medical school dean.
Paula Kavathas, professor of immunology and member of SWIM, said she disagreed with Peart’s statement that the Von Zedtwitz Professorship was a mere “transfer.” Rather, she said, it represents “a new award to replace the loss of the Berliner chair.”
Kavathas said that members of SWIM had met with Alpern on several occasions to express that they were “disturbed” that Simons still held the Berliner chair. But instead, the School of Medicine did not take action until the Berliner family expressed its outrage.
“The award of the Berliner chair to the new chief of cardiology was an opportunity for the Dean to remove this great distinction from a faculty member found guilty of sexual harassment,” Kavathas said. “However, he chose instead to award him a new chair. I personally found this shocking and many of my colleagues have expressed similar reactions.”
In a statement to the News, Velazquez, who now holds Simons’ old title, said that he cannot “speak to [and does not] know details about the past,” but can “clearly address the future” of the School of Medicine’s cardiovascular medicine offerings.
“We are strengthened by the diversity that represents all of us, that allows us to support each other, and by our common mission to provide outstanding care to the community we serve locally and globally,” Velazquez said. “The Section of Cardiovascular Medicine will not condone harassment of any kind.”
Letter signatory Edward Miller, professor of Medicine and Radiology and Biomedical Imaging and director of the Yale Cardiovascular Medicine Fellowship program said that among the program’s current cardiology fellows, 44 percent of whom are women, the news of Simons’ endowed professorship “strikes a particularly divisive chord.”
“It’s my job and responsibility as program director to listen to those concerns, advocate for our trainees, and support them to ensure their career goals are fulfilled, free of harassment,” Miller said.
Miller said that he and other faculty members involved in the fellowship program will host an open forum this Monday with all the trainees to discuss Simons’ endowed professorship and the responses from the cardiology department and the broader Yale community. Miller, who has never worked with Simons personally since he was appointed to the School of Medicine faculty in 2015, asserted that Simons has had no role or responsibilities in the fellowship program since 2015.
Still, not everyone within the section of Cardiovascular Medicine supports the petition. Cardiology professor Alexandra Lansky said that she supported the Salovey’s decision “to recognize Professor Simons’ academic excellence and contributions to Yale University with this new endowed professorship.”
“I have known Professor Simons to be a person of integrity, with an academic track record that is nothing less than outstanding and undeniably merits recognition with this endowed professorship,” Lansky said.
A female fourth-year medical school student, who asked to remain anonymous because she is currently applying to residency programs at various universities and does not want to face retaliation in the application process for her comments, said that “what everyone knows, but isn’t being said is that [Simons] is being awarded and staying because he brings tons of research money to the school.”
The student said it has been encouraging for her and her classmates to see that the faculty members they look up to are just as upset about Simons’ endowed professorship as they are.
Still, she said that the School of Medicine community should not have to voice “overwhelming public support” in order to bring about change when there is already “overwhelming evidence” that Simons violated University policy.
“No one’s denying [Simons’ misconduct]. Not only is it getting tolerated, but it’s being weirdly appreciated,” the student said. “We’re able to see the perpetrators of sexual violence as whole humans, but we don’t do this for the victim.”
Simons left Dartmouth for Yale in 2008.
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