As Robert Alpern’s third term as the dean of Yale School of Medicine nears its end, University President Peter Salovey has asked School of Medicine faculty members for confidential feedback on Alpern’s performance over the last five years.
The review process will take place as controversy continues to swirl over Yale’s decision to grant a new endowed professorship to Michael Simons, whom the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct found guilty of sexual harassment in 2013.
In an email to medical school faculty members last month, Salovey asked for their “views concerning the state of the school under [Alpern’s] leadership,” noting that he has indicated a “willingness to continue in the role.” The request is standard practice for any dean nearing the end of their five-year term, said Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart.
But the timing of the review process could prove damaging to Alpern, whose administration has faced intense scrutiny from faculty members, alumni and students over the past few weeks over its handling of Simons’ professorship.
As news of Simons’ new honor spread following a report in the News three weeks ago, hundreds of School of Medicine alumni, student and faculty members signed a petition attacking the decision to grant Simons a new endowed title. The letter directly alludes to Alpern’s reappointment process, criticizing the school’s climate during his tenure as dean and calling for “new, innovative leadership.”
“Under his leadership, the Yale School of Medicine has become synonymous with harassment,” the letter states. “Dean Alpern is responsible for fostering the culture in which these cases arose, and for the culture that allows such men to remain in power. It is time for a change to return Yale to an institution of which we can be proud. We hope that with new, innovative leadership, Yale can lead the way in creating an academic institution that is safe and equitable for everyone.”
The letter alleged that Alpern’s decision to “support Dr. Simons as an endowed chair” demonstrated that he values prestige and funding above safety and a positive, thriving working environment not only for women, but for the faculty in general.
In an email to the News, Alpern defended his tenure, saying that he has helped the medical school make “substantial progress in advancing all of [its] core missions — education, clinical care, research and climate.” As examples of that progress, he cited the establishment of the School of Medicine Faculty Advisory Council in 2015, the hiring of the school’s inaugural deputy dean for diversity and inclusion a year later and the work of three committees devoted to leadership, clinician well-being and faculty engagement. He said those initiatives have helped improve the school’s institutional culture.
In addition, Alpern said he has successfully worked with the medical school faculty advisory council and Yale New Haven Hospital this past year to secure a fund guaranteeing parental leave for clinicians. Under his leadership, he said, the medical school administration has worked closely with Yale’s Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine and the Minority Organization for Retention and Expansion to sponsor and organize symposiums and lectures celebrating women in medicine.
Asked how the handling of Simons’s case would affect his reappointment, Alpern said, “This is a question for President Salovey.” If he’s re-appointed, he said, he will continue his “efforts to make Yale a more inclusive school, eliminating microaggressions and sexual harassment.” Peart did not directly respond to questions about the handling of sexual misconduct cases under Alpern’s deanship.
In a joint statement, Megan King and Chris Pittenger, who lead the School of Medicine’s Faculty Advisory Council, noted that the handling of Simons’ sexual harassment case in 2013 was not under the dean’s purview.
After he was found guilty of sexual harassment in 2013, a UWC panel recommended that Simons be removed from his position as the medical school’s chief of cardiology. But, Provost Ben Polak reduced the punishment to an 18-month suspension. Following New York Times inquiries about the case in 2014, the University announced that Simons would not return to his position as cardiology chief.
But the decision to award Simons a new endowed professorship appears to have started with Alpern, who in his role as dean recommends candidates for endowed professorships, according to Paula Kavathas, chair of the Women Faculty Forum. All candidates must be approved by Salovey and the Yale Corporation.
A statement, composed by the executive committee of the Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine, read that the group “strongly [objects] to faculty found guilty of sexual harassment holding named professorships. This disrespects those who have been subjected to sexual harassment and tarnishes the reputation of both our medical school and [University]. Furthermore, this sends a message to all women in the [University] that their safety and well-being is not a priority for Yale University. We have made our position known previously to Dean Alpern and President Salovey.”
Elizabeth Jonas, a professor of internal medicine and co-chair of SWIM, praised Alpern’s decision to hire a chief diversity officer, which she said contributed to “a sense of openness in the medical school” and his willingness to meet regularly with the committee.
Even so, Jonas predicted that medical school faculty members will mention the handling of Simons’ case under Alpern’s leadership in their feedback to Salovey. And she said she believes his handling of this case should play a part in Salovey’s decision whether to reappoint him.
“There are many tasks involved with being dean of the medical school, and we realize that [appropriately dealing with sexual harassment cases] is only one of them,” Jonas said. “But this is a very important one at the moment, and these are issues that need to be taken care of now.”
Internal medicine professor Lynn Fiellin said Alpern is responsible for the climate at the medical school because “he represents us and there has been ongoing outrage and frustration in the handling of the Simons case for several years now.”
However, she added, the problem goes beyond one person. There is a “bigger issue with overall leadership and a lack of a moral or ethical compass guiding these decisions,” she said.
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Editor’s note, Sept. 19: This version of the article has been updated to include a statement from SWIM.