It’s a tale as old as time, a powerful man undone by his own hubris. Still, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s swift collapse under the weight of sexual assault allegations against him is a story worth exploring, both because of how it happened and because of what it says about our society. Cuomo’s forced resignation reveals a gradual change in social attitudes regarding sexual assault, yet at the same time it demands that we look at the role ourselves and our university have played in allowing a culture of sexual abuse to persist.
Just a few months ago, Cuomo, three-term governor and the latest iteration of a New York political dynasty, was viewed as a potential presidential candidate. Early on in the pandemic, his detailed public health press briefings juxtaposed with Donald Trump’s bumbling mismanagement of the pandemic made him a foil for the former president. But Cuomo’s luster soon began to wear off as news broke that his policy requiring that hospitals release COVID-19 patients back into nursing homes caused avoidable deaths, and that his office allegedly covered up their policy failure by underreporting nursing home deaths. That scandal, however, did not do much to shake public confidence in the former governor –– already known for his abrasive style of politics and under-the-table deal-making. Cuomo seemed invincible, a man bred for political office and poised to take the throne of the Democratic party from Joe Biden given Kamala Harris’ unfavorable approval rating.
Perhaps that facade of invincibility went to the former governor’s head, because when allegations of sexual assault surfaced, he dug his heels in, denying, deflecting, buying time, gaslighting, victim-blaming and trying to normalize his actions altogether. Like the many slimy men before him, Cuomo must have believed he would rise above accusations of abuse and retain power as one of our country’s top leaders. But as support for the former governor waned and he found himself staring down the barrel of impeachment –– an irreversible stain on his record –– he decided to quit before he could be fired, blaming everyone but himself for his own precipitous fall from grace as he scrambled out of the governor’s mansion.
Cuomo’s scandal and the ensuing consequences show us that times are changing, albeit slowly. That Andrew Cuomo was ultimately ousted because of sexual assault allegations indicates a turning of the tide in society. It represents an extension of the #Metoo movement into politics and government, where droves of men accused of assault and abuse have remained unscathed. Men using their power to sexually torment women is no longer tolerated –– a change in the status quo that was a long time coming. And yet, there are still hundreds of powerful men that have yet to be held accountable for their despicable actions and continue to hold influence over our society’s most important institutions.
Yale is not innocent in this societal reckoning over power and sexual abuse. Many of the powerful men who have dodged the consequences of assault allegations –– like Kavanaugh, Thomas, Clinton and Bush –– are Yale alum; many people who continue to hold positions of power at our University have themselves been accused of assault; and sexual assault among the student body is still endemic. But it is quite curious –– where is Yale’s condemnation of abusive alumni? Where is our ousting of abusive students, faculty and administrators? Why isn’t their accountability at Yale? The status quo at our university is troubling, especially as it continues to churn out students that reach the upper echelons of power across the globe. What is this lack of accountability teaching the Yale students that will go on to lead our world?
On a personal level, we can all learn something from Cuomo’s fall. Particularly concerning about the former governor’s fiasco was his utter refusal to admit wrongdoing and his overconfidence in his ability to bully and sleaze his way out of taking responsibility for his actions. Cuomo’s arrogance and air of untouchability are not unfamiliar to our student body –– most of which have been told that they are the most intelligent and most talented their entire lives. What Cuomo teaches us, however, is that there is virtue in humility, in acknowledging the harm we cause, holding ourselves accountable and working to make amends. His failure to do so shows us that it is quite simply the right thing to do to own up to our mistakes and learn from them so that we can become better people. He demonstrates how ignoring those mistakes and placing ourselves on a pedestal does a disservice to ourselves and others.
Let’s not simply dismiss Cuomo’s resignation as a political scandal far removed from our lives. Instead, let’s take lessons from his fall and work to make ourselves, our school and our society better.