The #MeToo movement has generated so many gripping stories over the past two years that even brutal new examples of sexual assault and harassment by powerful bosses now have trouble making the front pages. But the flip side of that coin is that more people now understand that those individual examples reflect a deeply embedded set of cultural norms that extend just about everywhere – even to Yale.
This past summer, we learned that retired Yale professor of medicine and Morse College advisor, Eugene Redmond, sexually assaulted several students not once, not twice, but over decades. Yale knew about his molestation 25 years ago but did nothing.
That (unfortunately) did not surprise me, because in the 1970s I was one of the undergraduate plaintiffs in the now-famous Alexander v. Yale lawsuit that first established the legal responsibility of universities to curtail sexual predators, over Yale’s dogged opposition. Everyone agrees that sexual assault and harassment are wrong in general, but when they show up in your own university or firm, the desire to avoid scandal or protect a distinguished senior figure who seems nice enough at dinner parties often wins out.
In my legal career, I have brought suit against many universities and companies in high-profile cases on behalf of women who suffered sexual harassment and assault on both sides of the Atlantic, including UCLA, Oxford, Yale and Cambridge. My firm has cases pending right now against the University of Rochester, the University of Illinois and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City. It’s settled law that any college or university funded by the federal government must have a reasonable system for protecting female students against predatory professors. But how do we make that system more effective in reality?
About the time of Alexander v. Yale, I coined the phrase “date rape,” later given wide circulation by Susan Brownmiller’s book “Against Our Will,” which helped crystallize people’s understanding of this very common form of sexual assault that was nevertheless commonly written off. I think it’s time to be equally clear and concrete about how higher education can curb the epidemic of sexual harassment of students by faculty.
Yale’s mission, as proclaimed on its website, begins with “committed to improving the world today and for future generations.” Here are three ways Yale can do so.
First, Yale can help devise and implement a uniform code of conduct across all of higher education. There are more than 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the country; almost 20 million students enrolled this past fall. Each institution sets its own policies and procedures for defining and punishing sexual misconduct, yet all the women I’ve represented, regardless of where they studied, knew absolutely that their harasser was trespassing clear boundaries, even if they felt too stunned or powerless at the time to insist.
A standard, clear code of conduct would help drive higher standards of behavior and more consistent enforcement. Why don’t the great minds at Yale Law School draft such a code, and then President Salovey convene a symposium of college and university presidents to amend and adopt it?
Second, each academic field should compile lists of sexual harassers to make it harder for universities to “pass the trash,” that is, let harassers resign quietly and move on to the next place to prey on a new crop of students. We are already seeing some movement in this area in the efforts of the National Academy of Sciences to collect information about the disciplinary records of its members, who can now be expelled for sexual misconduct.
Universities should be required to report harassers, if not to a government body, at least to a central clearinghouse covering each academic specialty, and every time faculty are hired, they should have to declare in writing whether they have been investigated or disciplined. It’s time for academic fields — which all have national and international scholarly organizations — to hold harassers to account. Tenured Yale faculty, who enjoy greater job security than most in the world, could take the lead here in their own specialties. This is not about curtailing intellectual freedom or thwarting the right of the accused to defend themselves against accusations. It is about “improving the world today and for future generations.”
Third, let’s require mandatory annual audits and reports from each university about the steps it is taking to promote a campus free of sexual misconduct, including statistics about numbers of cases and kinds of sanctions applied. Rather than put the onus on victims to report individual wrongdoing, the responsibility should shift to institutions to demonstrate how they are striving to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the first place. This would require schools to go beyond the minimum requirements of the Clery Act, Title IX and other laws, and commit to continuous self-improvement.
Here, again, Yale can take the lead by voluntarily compiling its own progress reports, overseen by a board of both insiders and distinguished outsiders, recognizing that the most enduring change will come from shifting institutional culture.
As a Yale undergraduate, I reported the strangulation and date rape of a female to the proper campus authorities. “You must be joking,” was the reply. Today, colleges and universities take such matters more seriously, but there are still plenty of flaws, which means plenty of unnecessary trauma and suffering continues. Lux et veritas — Yale can help itself, and the rest of academia, do better.
Ann Olivarius ’77, LAW ’86 SOM ’86, is a senior partner at McAllister Olivarius, an international litigation firm specializing in discrimination in employment and at universities. Contact her at email@example.com .