“We are tired,” echoed across Cross Campus last week as students and faculty members gathered at a rally in support of survivors of sexual assault at Yale.
The rally, “Solidarity with Survivors: Rally for a Better Yale,” was one of a number of recent protests and gatherings on Yale’s campus surrounding issues of sexual misconduct. Over the past several weeks, the University has found itself in the national spotlight due to allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 — including allegations which are said to have occurred during his time at Yale.
But while discussions of the allegations against Kavanaugh wracked Yale College and the law school, reverberations of another case of sexual misconduct echoed across campus at the Yale School of Medicine. Professor Michael Simons MED ’84 — who was found guilty of sexual harassment by the University in 2013 — was stripped of a prestigious cardiology professorship at the end of September after students and faculty at the medical school submitted an open letter to University President Peter Salovey expressing disapproval with the decision to award him the chair.
For female School of Medicine professors interviewed by the News, the success of the letter after years of inaction from the medical school’s administration regarding Simons’ endowed professorship is evidence that future efforts to reform the school’s climate for women may need to come from the bottom up.
Elizabeth Jonas ’82, a professor at the School of Medicine and a co-chair of the Status of Women in Medicine Committee — known as SWIM — said she was “understandably shocked” when she first heard of the decision to award Simons the professorship, the Waldemar von Zedtwitz chair.
Simons — who was found in 2013 to have sexually harassed a junior faculty member — had been awarded the von Zedtwitz professorship over the summer. Simons had held another prestigious cardiology professorship — the Robert W. Berliner chair — until this year. Last month, the News found that Nancy Berliner ’75 MED ’79, a member of the Berliner family and a professor of medicine herself, expressed concerns surrounding Simons’ continued position in the professorship. Over the summer, School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern removed Simons from the Berliner chair and awarded him the von Zedtwitz professorship.
Following the circulation of a News story about the new professorship, over 1,000 students, faculty members and alumni from the medical school signed an open letter in opposition to the decision. In the letter, signatories said that Yale “should be a leader in preventing harassment and addressing it appropriately when it happens, rather than cultivating an environment in which it flourishes.”
Lynn Fiellin MED ’96, a professor of medicine at the medical school, a member of the Women Faculty Forum and a previous member of SWIM, said that when it became public that the Berliner family had asked for the removal of Simons from their chair, “Instead of that being an opportunity for the University and the medical school to do the right thing, they sort of gave this switching of chairs, which I think everyone felt was just adding insult to injury.”
“That, I think is where the uproar came,” she said.
Yale spokesperson Karen Peart confirmed in a statement to the News following the ensuing uproar that Simons was reassigned the von Zedtwitz professorship in light of concerns from the Berliner family that Simons continued to hold a professorship named in Berliner’s honor.
“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.”
In the aftermath of the open letter, Alpern wrote an email to the School of Medicine community announcing his decision to revoke Simons’ professorship. In the email, Alpern echoed Peart’s comments to the News, explaining that his intention in awarding Simons the von Zedtwitz chair had not been to confer a new honor on Simons. Peart declined to comment further on this topic for this story.
Jonas acknowledged Alpern’s comments in the email, saying that he may have thought he was merely transferring a chair from the past and not awarding a new chair, which is why “he didn’t understand the reaction” that occurred following the announcement of Simons’ new professorship.
Over the past weeks, the public has watched elite institutions like the law school struggle with issues of prestige, tradition and sexual misconduct. Conversations at the School of Medicine have mirrored these national public discussions.
“These issues of power, bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault are not taken seriously nor are they discussed [openly] and honestly,” wrote Erica Spatz MED ’10, a professor of cardiology at the medical school, in an email to the News. “There needs to be more willingness on the part of the University leadership to discuss these issues — and recognition that anything less will create a divisive culture.” Spatz, who has researched at Yale since 2013, said that in cases where sexual misconduct is ignored, offenses will continue to happen — especially when those in power create an environment that allows these acts to occur.
According to Fiellin, many constituents of the medical school felt that they had been waiting for a case such as Simons’ to be handled in the right way. When the Berliner family rescinded the family chair, Fiellin said, some thought the action represented a step in the correct direction. That sentiment vanished as Simons was awarded a different honorary chair, Fiellin added.
A 2016 study published by the American Medical Association found that 30 percent of female clinical researchers reported having experienced sexual harassment.
Some faculty members said that Yale sometimes falls short in its handling of cases of sexual misconduct.
“Yale is not where they should be in terms of forward thinking on these issues. I think that they could do better to be more au courant and to be a leader and not a follower,” Spatz said.
Faculty members sense that policies and attitudes may be slow to change without galvanization from widespread publicity or protest. Fiellin said that change likely must come from the bottom up, as history demonstrates that “the top-down approach is not doing what’s best for [the Yale School of Medicine’s] constituents” in the context of sexual misconduct.
Fiellin said that “having watched how this played out with Dr. Simons and other faculty members at other medical schools who subsequently were also expelled or dismissed” in the 27 years that she has studied, researched and taught at the School of Medicine, “It feels like it has taken the press — it’s taken The New York Times, it’s taken The Washington Post — as a vehicle to get the administration to do the right thing.”
According to Fiellin, the decision to award Simons the von Zedtwitz chair was not a sudden one; faculty members knew of the deliberations on the Berliner chair and potential transfer of chairs before the final affirmation and had expressed their disapproval, both vocally and on social media, she said. However, Fiellin added, only through the open letter post-decision and after national media outlets covered the story did the University decide to revoke the decision.
Jonas echoed Fiellin’s indictment of a top-down approach.
“The school’s whole system of government needs to be changed,” Jonas said. “There should no longer be a sense of autocracy that there’s one person at the top, whether that person is a president or a dean — making decisions unilaterally without getting input from other governing bodies in the school that may include faculty, students and others.”
“That would bring the University much more into the 21st century of meeting these challenges head on,” she said.
Paula Kavathas, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine and a former chair of the Women Faculty Forum, emphasized further steps she said Yale could take to better handle cases of sexual misconduct.
“We could do more. We could put in the faculty handbook that maintaining the endowed chair is dependent on meeting faculty standards of conduct,” Kavathas said. “And putting it in letters that go to endowed chairs that people are aware that we have high expectations of people who have endowed chairs.”
In recent years, the University, and subsequently the medical school, have established programs and institutions such as the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct and the Title IX office, according to Claire Bowern, a linguistics professor and the current chair of the Women Faculty Forum. In an email to the News, Bowern wrote that though she thought Yale had made “good progress” on the creation of institutions to handle cases of sexual misconduct, the University has been “less good at working on culture and climate.”
“Whatever else is going on, we can set the tone for our local culture,” she wrote.
Fiellin emphasized that academic institutions are not safe havens from sexual assault. She tied together recent actions by members of the Yale community — law students who protested Kavanaugh’s nomination along with the medical school’s own open letter — as “grassroots efforts” representative of the greater national outcry against sexual misconduct.
“All of this represents the national outrage we’re seeing in terms of recognizing this issue of sexual harassment and assault and dealing with it in a way that is appropriate, timely and systematic,” she said.
“There’s no reason it’s not the same in other medical schools,” Fiellin added. There are now esteemed law professors who are now under harsh investigation over sexual misconduct. This is happening everywhere.”
Allison Chen | firstname.lastname@example.org .