Michael Simons — the Yale School of Medicine Professor whom the University found guilty of sexually harassing a junior faculty member in 2013 — was stripped of the Waldemar von Zedtwitz chair on Friday afternoon, less than two months after the University awarded it to him.
The reversal comes after weeks of advocacy by students, alumni and faculty members across the School of Medicine, including an open letter earlier this month from members of the medical school community to University President Salovey condemning the decision to award Simons the endowed professorship. With more than 1,000 signatories, the letter alleged that the University’s decision constituted a prioritization of prestige and research funding over safety and a positive, inclusive working environment.
In an email to Yale School of Medicine students and faculty members on Friday afternoon, Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Alpern announced that he had removed Simons from the Von Zedtwitz Chair for “the community’s well being.”
Until Friday, the University had stood by its decision to grant Simons the Von Zedtwitz chair. A press release last week said that the School of Medicine’s move to award Simons with the position was simply a transfer of honors, not the conferment of a new one — Simons previously held the Robert W. Berliner chair of cardiology.
“When Dr. Michael Simons was transferred from the Berliner Chair to the Von Zedtwitz Chair, it was not my or the university’s intention to confer a new honor on Dr. Simons,” Alpern said in an email to medical school students and faculty. “However, it has become clear that members of our community perceive the transfer of chairs as bestowing a new honor, and that this action is viewed as a statement about our values …. It is out of concern for the community’s well-being that I share with you that, effective today, I have removed Dr. Simons from the Von Zedtwitz Chair.”
Alpern could not be reached for comment. His revocation of Simons’ endowed professorship is the culmination of a five-year-long battle waged by the committee on the Status of Women in Medicine to persuade the University to rescind Simons’ initial Berliner chair.
“The voices of the community, both men and women, were heard,” said Immunology professor Paula Kavathas, a member of SWIM and a former chair of the Women Faculty Forum. “It’s a big day for our efforts to stop sexual misconduct and an emotional day for me having worked on this issue for years.”
Four University faculty members interviewed by the News also praised the decision to remove Simons from the Von Zedtwitz chair. And WFF chair Claire Bowern said removing Simons’ professorship was the right decision, adding that “the community opinion is clear in our rejection of sexual misconduct as rewardable behavior.”
In 2013, when a University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct recommended that the Medical School remove Simons from his position as the chief of the cardiology department, Provost Benjamin Polak reduced the penalty to an 18-month suspension.
Amid faculty backlash, and with a New York Times story about the case in the works, the University announced in November 2014 that Simons had decided to resign from his position as cardiology chief. That same month, Simons was removed from his position as director of the Cardiovascular Research Center, but he continued to hold a professorship named in honor of Robert Berliner ’36, a former dean of the medical school. In a letter to the New Haven Register in 2014, Simons said he took responsibility for his actions, which he described 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 a former School of Medicine professor — contacted medical school representatives to say she was “quite upset and appalled” that Simons still held her father’s professorship, she 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.
But in early September, more than a thousand school of medicine students, professors and alumni joined forces to publish an open letter condemning the decision to grant Simons a new honorary title.
“We are submitting this letter to voice our disgust and disappointment with this decision,” the authors wrote to Salovey. “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.”
For his part, Salovey affirmed in a statement to the News on Friday that sexual harassment and misconduct have no place at the University.
“Sexual misconduct, including harassment, deeply harms those who experience it and is at odds with the trust, respect, and collaboration that are critical to our mission of research, scholarship, education, preservation and practice,” he said. “We must continue to build on the University’s years of focused effort to prevent and address sexual misconduct on our campus. Together, we can continue to strengthen our community to ensure that Yale is a place where all can learn, work and thrive.”
One of the three authors of the letter to Salovey, who asked to remain anonymous to better reflect the “voices of the collective community,” said the removal of Simons’ honorary professorship “is an awesome first step.”
“We are very proud that a collective voice was heard by Dean Alpern, but it’s just a first step,” one of the authors told the News. “There’s a lot more cultural change that needs to happen at the medical school for it to be the environment we were hoping for in the letter.”
Alpern’s third term as the dean of the school of medicine comes to an end in 2019.
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