Michael Simons — a Yale School of Medicine professor found responsible for sexually harassing a junior colleague in 2013 —filed a lawsuit against Yale last month for stripping him of the endowed Waldemar von Zedtwitz chair this September.
School of Medicine faculty members, alumni and students went into an uproar this summer following the University’s decision to award Simons a new chair, which they perceived as bestowing an honor upon him.
The complaint Simons filed in the Connecticut State Superior Court on Sept. 21 argued that the University caved into the demands of activists who called for Simons’ removal from the von Zedtwitz chair, and by doing so, breached Simons’ contract.
“Whatever merit there may have been to the University’s decision to discipline Dr. Simons in 2013, the punishment was imposed, the penalty has been paid,” the complaint stated. “[T]he University’s unseemly pandering to the rage of activists is a disproportionate response to those whose sensibilities are perhaps too tender to appreciate Dr. Simons’s [sic] need not pay for a lifetime for an offence that has already been adjudicated and put to rest.”
Formerly, Simons held the chair named in honor of Robert Berliner ’36, a former dean of the medical school. But earlier this year, Nancy Berliner ’75 MED ’79 — the daughter of Robert Berliner — contacted representatives of the School of Medicine to say she was “quite upset and appalled” that Simons still held her father’s professorship despite being found responsible of sexual harassment.
Yale’s press release announcing Simons’ new professorship and lauding his accomplishments was removed from the school website. But the publication of a News investigation detailing the circumstances behind Simons’ new professorship sparked outrage among members of the School of Medicine community.
According to the court documents obtained by the News, School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern issued Simons “an ultimatum” on Sept. 20 in response to this backlash. By noon on Sept. 21, Simons had to “either resign from his prestigious endowed chair at the Yale School of Medicine, or the appointment would be taken from him,” as per the court documents. Simons did not resign.
The court documents also revealed that in his “ultimatum,” Alpern said that if Simons gave up the endowed chair on his own accord, “the university would pay an annual amount equivalent to the payout from the chair, approximately $140,000 per year, with adjustments each year to reflect the expected growth in the financial value of the chair.”
Simons argued in his complaint that this “breach of the contract by the university will irreparably harm [him] by diminishing his ability to attract grant funding, publish scientific papers, and will undermine the significant progress [he] has made, and is making, combating cardiovascular disease.” In addition, Simons called on the court to “[prohibit] the university from taking the [chair]” and requested that University President Peter Salovey “require the agents, servants and employees to cease and desist from attempting to pressure Dr. Simons to resign from the professorship.”
In his complaint, Simons discredited activists within the School of Medicine community who were “galvanized by an intolerance to perceived sexual misconduct, known colloquially by the symbol ‘#MeToo.’”
Simons, Alpern, Salovey and University spokesman Tom Conroy declined to comment for the story. Simons’ attorney Norman Pattis could not be reached for comment on Sunday evening.
The lawsuit comes after students, alumni and faculty members across the School of Medicine condemned the decision to award Simons a new honorary chair. An open letter to Salovey alleging that the decision constituted a prioritization of prestige and research funding over safety and a positive, inclusive working environment gained more than 1,000 signatures last month. After Alpern announced on Sept. 21 that Simons would be stripped of his chair, four faculty members interviewed by the News –– including members of the School of Medicine’s Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine and Women Faculty Forum Chair Claire Bowern –– said that the University had made the right decision.
According to a September press release, 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. And in a facultywide email announcing the removal of Simons’ chair, Alpern noted that “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.” But because “it has become clear that members of our community perceive the transfer of chairs as bestowing a new honor,” he decided to remove Simons from the chair, Alpern wrote.
But the legal documents obtained by the News included information at odds with University’s previous statements on Simons’ professorship.
Per the court documents, Salovey sent a letter to Simons in June 2018 — addressing him as “Mike” — congratulating him for his appointment to the von Zedtwitz chair.
“As you know from your previous appointment as the Robert W. Berliner Professor of Cardiology, endowed chairs are awarded to those whose scholarship has brought distinction to the university, and I am delighted to convey our pleasure in your accomplishments,” Salovey wrote in the letter. “YaleNews will soon publish a story announcing your appointment. Congratulations!”
Members of SWIM told the News that Salovey’s letter to Simons, as well as the University’s offer to continue paying him a financial bonus, demonstrate that the school has much more to do to properly address issues of sexual misconduct.
“Regardless of the outcome of one lawsuit, the energy surrounding this is going to inspire the university and the med school to look harder at these issues and make progress forward against sexual harassment in terms of enduring policy changes,” members of SWIM executive board said in a statement to the News. “It should also galvanize the administration to examine issues affecting gender and race inequality in general.”
In a 2017 report published last December, the Women’s Faculty Forum recommended that the University reconsider allowing faculty members found guilty of sexual misconduct to retain their endowed professorships.
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