Rebecca Finley

The Women Faculty Forum recommended in a report released on Thursday that the University provide greater support to graduate and professional students, who the report describes as the Yale community members most vulnerable to sexual misconduct by faculty.

The report, which examines Title IX cases brought against Yale faculty members since 2011, came just days after members of the Yale School of Medicine faculty began circulating an open letter to University President Peter Salovey condemning Yale’s decision to award an endowed professorship to cardiology to professor Michael Simons, who was found guilty of sexual harassing a junior faculty member by the University Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct in 2013.

Out of 138 Title IX cases brought against Yale faculty members since 2011, the WFF report examined 128 cases, summaries of which were included in the Title IX office’s semiannual reports. Graduate and professional students were complainants in nearly half the 128 cases. In 48 of the cases, Yale affiliates, faculty members and staff were respondents. Noting that “hierarchical rigidity, secrecy, and intense competition for resources create ideal conditions for harassment, bullying, discrimination to occur,” the report identifies graduate and professional students as members of an “at-risk population” who often become victims of power asymmetries in academia.

“Nearly two-thirds of faculty sexual misconduct cases are directed against people faculty members have power over,” the Forum’s Chair Claire Bowern said. “Particularly for graduate and post-doctorate students, there is a power hierarchy where faculty have a lot of control over their future careers. This breeds an unhealthy environment where students frequently become victims of sexual harassment or assault and still have a hard time coming forward.”

Of the 128 complaints discussed in the Forum’s report, 103 fell under the category of sexual harassment and two under that of sexual assault. The remaining 23 involved intimate partner violence, stalking or “other” activities. Forty percent of the sexual harassment cases were classified as “inappropriate comments” to students, while 12 percent were classified as “violations of the consensual relations” policy and another 12 percent as “unwanted advances.” The remaining 36 percent included inappropriate touching, creating a hostile environment, unwanted physical contact and retaliation, among others.

While undergraduates typically interact with faculty members in group settings, Bowern said graduate and professional students often work on a one-to-one basis with an advisor or lab supervisor who is “heavily involved in determining the course of their future.” A graduate or professional student’s advisor supervises their dissertation writing, writes recommendations and helps them find jobs and career advancement opportunities through their academic network, Bowern explained. Because the future careers of graduate and professional students are dependent on their advisor, Bowern said, that power imbalance leaves graduate and professional students vulnerable.

Stephen Albright GRD ’19, who in the past has served on the Graduate Students Assembly, said that the imbalance also prevents students from reporting incidents of sexual misconduct and filing a formal complaint to the University-Wide Committee. None of the eight complaints involving graduate students and faculty members mentioned in the most recent semiannual Title IX report involved formal Committee proceedings.

Bowern added that the possibility of retaliation also serves as a barrier that prevents graduate and professional students from coming forward. Because “of the inherent secrecy in the academia,” it is impossible for the University to prevent all forms of retaliation, Bowern said.

“Because so many decisions are made behind closed doors, there is nothing the University can do to make sure retaliation doesn’t happen,” Bowern explained. “The only way we can solve this problem is to improve the climate around sexual climate and make sure that sexual harassment and assault doesn’t happen in the first place.”

In 2015, the Association of American Universities Sexual Climate survey traced harassment, assault and stalking rates across 27 higher education institutions, including Yale. While the study surveyed all members of the University, Bowern said the discussion of the survey results placed a “particular emphasis on the undergraduates.”

Celene Reynolds GRD ’19, whose dissertation examines the changing use of Title IX in universities, said she agreed that the contemporary discussion of Title IX cases focuses on undergraduates.

“Sexual misconduct in faculty and student relations hasn’t been central to the discussion around Title IX, but it’s important to understand the scope of the problem,” Reynolds said.

Laboratory medicine and immunology professor Paula Kavathas, who used to chair the Forum, commended the report’s authors for “aggregating data and providing a powerful way to see where the problem is.” Kavathas added that she hopes the Forum report will spark conversations about the ways in which departments can improve the sexual climate for graduate and professional students.

University Title IX coordinator Stephanie Spangler said Yale’s Title IX officials have been working with the Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate to raise awareness about sexual misconduct policies and the resources available to victims.

This past year, for instance, the Assembly’s Academic and Professional Development Committee introduced bystander intervention workshops in various graduate school departments. Still, Albright said, while the University has been empowering students by educating them about the reporting processes, there is more work to be done.

Justin White, the president of the student senate, said the University should continue to centralize resources for victims of sexual misconduct and find ways to ensure that incidents can be easily reported.

The University should continue to “promote the accessibility of the Title IX office and the SHARE center so that students who have experienced sexual misconduct have a safe and secure mechanism for reporting and counseling through their options,” White said. “It is also necessary for the Title IX Steering Committee to continue to evaluate the effectiveness of their responses to complaints of sexual misconduct in order to ensure that they are improving the campus climate around sexual misconduct and not merely abiding a system that collects complaints and reports them semiannually.”

Spangler said that Title IX officials have also been working to “increase the awareness and engagement of the the postdoctoral community by working closely with the Office for Postdoctoral Affairs and the Yale Postdoctoral Association on educational activities, workshops and listening sessions.”

Serena Cho | serena.cho@yale.edu