Alex Taranto

Yale has been an organizing principle of my life for 46 of my 64 years. I graduated from Yale College, the School of Management and the Law School. I met my husband at Yale, our three children are Yalies and at last count, my law firm has employed 63 Yalies. I have sued Yale too, several times: first as an undergraduate plaintiff in Alexander v. Yale, the 1977 case that first established that it was against the law for a publicly funded university not to have a system to address sexual harassment, and more recently as a lawyer representing sexual harassment victims. I was a poor kid from New Jersey for whom Yale opened the doors to a life I have felt lucky to lead. I am immensely grateful to it for all that it taught me — including that self-criticism is a foundation for self-improvement.

In 1976, the Yale Corporation asked me to put together a Report on the Status of Women at Yale, eight years after coeducation. What did we find? Contributions from lots of women (funny, sad, scholarly, provocative) showed that, for women as for men, there is no one “Yale experience.” But a survey we conducted to collect data for the report uncovered that a disturbing number of professors, some very distinguished, were pressuring women who wanted access to upper-level classes or music instruction for sex, leaving trauma in their wake — women driven to deep depression, abandoning their majors to avoid abusers, dropping out altogether. In those days, this was one of those things that women just suffered and did not have language to talk about; the term “sexual harassment” was just being invented. After the report was published, we went to University administrators seeking a central place to collect complaints about professors so that they wouldn’t be lost in individual dean’s or master’s offices. They started out sounding sympathetic but ultimately ran out the clock until we graduated (when my parents were about to show up for graduation, the University Secretary, Sam Chauncey, called to tell me I was about to be arrested for defamation, a legal impossibility).

Yale’s intransigence led five of us to sue. The University fought hard, denounced me to reporters as flunking out (I graduated summa) and a lesbian (to them, an insult!), and spent more than $1 million on legal fees to defeat us, when the only thing we sought was a centralized grievance procedure. Yale won a lot of the battle — most of us plaintiffs were dismissed after we graduated because we were judged no longer to have a live issue with the University — but lost the war.  The idea that universities must take steps to combat sexual harassment is now a core of Title IX and universally accepted, at Yale, too.

What would a report on the status of women say today? It would note some progress of course, but not enough to be proud of. My view is that Yale should lead, not sit in the middle of the pack. In 2016–17, only 27 percent of Yale’s tenured faculty members and 24 percent of department chairs were women. In the first six months of 2018 at Yale, there were 65 formal complaints of sexual assault, 64 of sexual harassment and 26 of other types of sexual misconduct. Since the Department of Justice calculates that fewer than 10 percent of rape survivors report, it is certain that many more women have been assaulted at Yale than these numbers suggest. Good that there is a system to report abuse, but what is Yale doing about the causes?

Sexual predators still thrive on campus. Since 2005, my firm has advised on more than a dozen cases where Yale faculty members have been accused of sexual misconduct. Many of them still teach and supervise students. When Fernanda Lopez ’10 finally found her courage to go against the world-famous Thomas Pogge, she was out of time to bring a case. Yale cared more about technicalities than her traumatic experience with Pogge or protecting its current students. Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun decided not to punish the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity even though it perpetuates a “sexually hostile climate,” a phrase used in Yale’s own report. Ten women came forward with accusations of sexual misconduct against DKE in 2018, and the administration has done nothing since. This type of inaction teaches men like Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90, a former DKE brother, that mistreating women carries no consequence.

Why do we let other universities set a higher standard? Princeton does not recognize fraternities and forbids first years from participating in them, arguing that they “can contribute to a sense of social exclusiveness and often place an excessive emphasis on alcohol.” Harvard bars members of single-sex organizations from leading campus groups or sports teams.

Why can’t Yale do that too, and more? I have always believed that with all its brilliant minds, Yale could be revolutionary, setting standards for the rest of the country rather than reacting defensively to lawsuits and pressure.

Yale, we can do better. Let’s get rid of the frats — they are discriminatory, and they consistently do wrong.  Make it easier to strip proven abusers of tenure — we’re being negligent and careless otherwise. And finally, put the bright minds at Yale Law School to work on drafting fairer and trauma-informed procedures for the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, which could set a model for Title IX around the country.  Take action now so that, in another 50 years, we look back with wonder at how far Yale has come, rather than wonder why we didn’t do more.

Dr. Ann Olivarius, ’77 LAW ’86 SOM ’86, is senior partner at McAllister Olivarius, an international litigation firm specializing in discrimination in employment and at universities. Contact her at aolivarius@mcolaw.com