Zoe Berg, Senior Photographer

While working in Brian Scholl’s psychology lab, Sami Yousif GRD ’22 said that he felt belittled and disrespected. 

Scholl allegedly forced him to hold meetings in the early hours of the morning, and Yousif — a graduate student in the department of psychology — feared retaliation if he declined. Yousif also said that Scholl would make demeaning comments about other faculty and students.

After Yousif left the lab, the relationship between himself and Scholl soured, and the two consistently levied criticism against the other. Yousif lambasted the culture in Scholl’s lab while Scholl took issue with Yousif’s character and quality of work. 

Yousif claimed it took almost three years to get the University to conduct an official investigation into Scholl’s behavior — and he found the verdict and consequences inadequate. Scholl was found guilty of only two of eight allegations Yousif made about him by the panel, though they admitted Scholl’s behavior was “intentional,” “threatening and coercive” and “occasioned serious psychological harm.”

Yet Scholl received only two behavioral training “recommendations” from the panel, as well as the requirement that he write an apology letter.

 “When you run into a real serious conflict … like Sami did, then there has to be a mechanism in place to adjudicate that,” professor Richard Aslin, Yousif’s adviser in the case, said, “and the advocacy for the student is essentially completely absent.” 

As Yousif’s adviser, Scholl had been his primary academic and professional connection to the world of psychology. But what happens when advisory relationships go awry? What resources do parties have to ameliorate the situation, and whom does the University take care to protect?

Yousif and his advocates have been sure of one thing for half a decade: not the students.

The graduate adviser

After getting settled into their department, Yale’s graduate students connect with a faculty adviser. The adviser is usually a faculty member in the student’s department and often one who works in the student’s specific area of interest.

Per the GSAS Guide to Advising Processes for Faculty and Students, a graduate adviser’s job is to assist their students in producing a successful research project and train them to succeed in their desired career path.

Yousif noted that he had chosen to study at Yale in part because of Scholl’s field-leading research in visual perception and the work that went on in his lab.

“I have always emphasized Brian’s many strengths as a mentor. In his best moments, he is, truly, a great adviser,” Yousif wrote in a statement obtained by the News. “I do not wish for any of these criticisms to take away from that; I do not wish to demonize him.”

On the day that Yousif left, Scholl wrote in an email to Yousif that while his decision was “a 1 percent relief, it is mostly a 99 percent crushing disappointment.” 

“I am truly sorry that I have failed you so dismally,” Scholl added in the email, which has been obtained by the News. He asked Yousif to come up with precisely how he had felt frustrated in the lab, and to meet with him to discuss those issues later on.

Yousif moved into the lab of Frank Keil, the Charles C & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Psychology and Linguistics. 

Though Yousif and Scholl had initially parted on good terms, tensions escalated after Yousif claimed a remaining member of Scholl’s lab had framed an abstract similarly to a prior paper of his own.

Scholl eventually accused Yousif of creating a toxic and abusive environment for a number of female lab members. He requested that Yousif sever any lingering involvement with his lab — including ending his inclusion in both completed and upcoming projects.

Yousif, in turn, complained that Scholl attempted to exclude him from department-wide flights, dinners and meetings he deserved to attend as an involved member of the department. Scholl, in response, claimed that he was protecting other students who were uncomfortable with Yousif’s presence. 

The reporting process

Yousif said he felt obligated to ask Yale to investigate Scholl’s conduct. This began a process in which Yousif felt volleyed between numerous administrative avenues. Each administrator would at some point tell him that he was in the wrong place to get the help he was searching for, and bounce him along.

“I was told again and again that I should not ruin my ‘promising career’  by pursuing this further,” he told the News. 

Multiple members of Scholl’s lab, Yale’s Psychology department and Yousif’s past collaborators and mentors would also become enmeshed in the dispute as it wore on. 

The first party Yousif sought help with was then-Director of Graduate Studies Greg McCarthy. When Yousif expressed concerns regarding potential retaliation from Scholl, he says, he was told he was “probably overreacting.”

Deans Michelle Nearon, Tamar Gendler and Debra Fischer would eventually look into Yousif’s case. They chose to interview current members of Scholl’s lab rather than Yousif and other former lab affiliates labmates. 

Yousif found this investigation insufficient and felt as though his interactions with upper-level faculty were becoming adversarial.

The Faculty Standard Review Committee conducted the only formal, committee-wide investigation into Yousif’s case, which began in October 2021 and spanned 11 months. 

On Feb. 15, 2022, in the middle of the committee’s investigation, Emory Professor Stella Lourenco, Yousif’s undergraduate thesis adviser, received an email from an account with the name deb.fischer.yale@gmail.com. The account, which used Debra Fischer’s email signature, asked Laurenco if she had any “grievances” she would share with Fischer for a “review” Yale was conducting on Yousif.

This address was not actually Debra Fischer’s, and when Laurenco notified Yousif of the email he asked Yale about it, former FSRC chair James Baron told him that Fischer had not had any connection with the email and, to Yousif’s knowledge, did not further investigate.

Yousif stated that he was upset at what he viewed to be a lack of action on the committee’s part to find the perpetrator of the false email, who he suspected was attempting to interfere in the investigation, and said that he was “terrified” at the prospect of a force working to endanger his career prospects. However, he hoped the committee would resolve the situation.

The committee completed its review in September of 2022, three years after Yousif first began petitioning the University to look into Scholl’s behavior and the complaints of abuse that Scholl claimed various women had made against him.

The panel decided that Scholl “had behaved in a manner that was substantially inconsistent with faculty standards, that was reckless or intentional, and that had done serious harm to Mr. Yousif.”

However, no required action was taken to rectify the situation on a personal or administrative level: the panel merely recommended that Professor Scholl receive training and coaching on communication and mentorship and that he write an apology letter to Yousif.

Scholl would not send the apology letter — a paragraph in length — to Yousif until December.

“Although we haven’t had any direct contact with each other of any sort for almost three years, I wanted to write to you directly now to apologize for the language in several of my emails to you from those many years ago that the investigatory panel found to have had ‘threatening, intimidating and unduly harsh language,’ and to have been conveyed ‘in a manner that we find at times to be troubling,’” Scholl’s letter reads.

The report itself said that a primary reason for the dispute was “that there were no clear policies or procedures for Professor Scholl to rely on in seeking to rectify the situation.”

There is no formal training for faculty or administration for mediating non-Title IX conflicts, so both Scholl and Yousif had to go about their mediation efforts without help.

The panel decided, however, that this lack of resources meant they could not force Scholl to face severe consequences because there were no available avenues for him to solve the dispute. They did not mention the potential effect this hole in their disciplinary policy had on Yousif, the complainant.

The panel quoted Keil’s assessment that “Sami was being forcibly excluded in a very painful way,” and that he “would have dropped out of graduate school if that happened to [him.]”

Scholl, for his part, told the News that his conduct toward Yousif was informed by the fact that Yousif had been a “source of considerable trauma” within the lab. He added that the panel had found a rightful issue with the tone, but not the content, of his communication with Yousif in 2019.

“I think the panel’s ultimate decision was eminently fair, and I do regret the strong tone I used in several cases,” Scholl told the News. “At the same time, I continue to believe these women, and my support for them is unwavering.”

Professional consequences

Yousif feared he would face professional consequences because of his tense relationship with Scholl and because of his exclusion from Scholl’s lab — something that attracted him to Yale’s graduate school in the first place.

Keil studies higher level cognition and child development, so his work did not directly align with Yousif’s interests. This deviation in study left Yousif discouraged. He said he was worried that he would have to work much harder to achieve the same career milestones he might have reached had Scholl’s lab been a tenable work space for him.

In a conversation with the News, he admitted that those fears had come to fruition.

“I’ve been ostracized,” Yousif said. “If you want a job at a decent place where you’re going to actually have the resources to support students and do the work that you want to do [after graduate school], you know, that [likelihood] is maybe one in 20 … So when someone is … pulling levers in the background and affecting those odds, the worst case scenario is that they have in a very significant way altered the course of your career and your life.”

Yousif, Aslin and Keil all noted that as a graduate student, one’s early career depends almost entirely on connections made with current professors and researchers in one’s field of interest. 

The pressure to “do right” is enormous, as are the consequences of a relationship gone sour.

“That’s where conflicts between students and faculty need extra attention because of the critical nature of conflict at that level,” Aslin explained.

A lack of further options

When Provost Strobel told Yousif of the committee’s decision, he was dismayed and concerns about professional retaliation remained. He sent Strobel a series of questions about the case, but they went unanswered.

Further discouraged, Yousif went next to President Salovey himself to request an appeal on the committee’s ruling. Salovey refused to consider the appeal, stating to Yousif that it had been submitted too late — the deadline for submitting an appeal was seven days, and Yousif took 23.

But Yousif claimed the appeal process, buried deep in the faculty handbook, was hidden from where he might reasonably find it.

Moreover, Yousif noted, “they don’t follow the rules in the faculty handbook.” Indeed, the handbook itself states that investigations are meant to be completed and reported ”within a reasonable period of time, normally within 90 days of its receipt of a complaint.” Yousif’s took 11 months from the time of its formation, and 13 from his complaint email to Strobel.

It seemed like various parties at different levels wanted to follow policy, but also wanted to devote more energy to other issues and just assumed that Yousif’s case would go away with time, or when he left Yale,” Keil told the News. “I would have hoped that the university would have seen this entire event as an opportunity to directly address a problem that goes far beyond this one incident.”

Keil noted that he remains “deeply worried about other graduate students at Yale who might feel trapped in similar situations.”

In the end, the University made no official changes to policy in student-faculty conflict mediation, and Yousif claimed that no one ever told him whether or not Scholl completed the training he was recommended.

Scholl, for his part, stated to the News that he had completed the training, and that it was “extensive, fascinating and tremendously valuable.”

Yale University spokesperson Karen Peart wrote in a statement to the News that the University “has developed a shared set of principles regarding the responsibilities of faculty as educators, scholars, and members of the Yale community. The University provides extensive resources to address any concerns that these faculty standards of conduct have not been met, and welcomes input and comment about these complaint processes.”

Peart responded for Salovey, Fischer, Gendler and Nearon.

Aslin views these issues as a small part of an endemic issue in graduate study.

“The fact that this did not go to a committee formed out of the Provost’s office until almost four years after the initial incident is just mind boggling to me,” Aslin noted. “[Students don’t] know where to go … and there’s no advocate for the student.”

Aslin also noted the “run-around” Yousif and other students had to struggle through to find the appropriate channels to lodge and follow through with their complaints. Faculty turnover in Deans’ offices frequently, and lines of communication — especially those pertaining to student complaints — get dropped.

Before arriving at Yale, Aslin served as the vice provost, dean of the college of arts and sciences and chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Rochester. He resigned in 2016 after filing a joint lawsuit against the university for its mishandling of a sexual harassment complaint in his department.

He was drawn to Yousif’s case because he had seen first-hand the trauma inflicted upon graduate students when relationships with their mentors went awry — and the purposeful hurdles universities seemed to put in place to prevent equitable rectification of the situation, he said.

“Almost all institutions try and make uncomfortable things go away. And one way to do that is to set up a system that provides as little information as possible to students, or hides where a student could make a complaint,” Aslin told the News. 

He explained further that the transience of students, compared to the relative permanence of tenured faculty, adds to a “heavy thumb on the scale of protecting faculty” at the administrative level.

 He described this dynamic as “endemic.”

Rethinking graduate student advocacy

Aslin explained that across the field, every faculty member he has spoken to about intra-university issues has tales of their institution’s dropping of the ball.

“It goes back to this issue: the students don’t have the information they need and they don’t have the advocacy,” he said.

Aslin noted, however, that some institutions of higher education have set standards of transparency and justice in dealings with student-faculty conflicts which Yale might look to.

Looking forward, Aslin pointed to the complainant system at Cornell, where the Office of the Complainants’ Codes Counselor provides confidential assistance to students considering filing a complaint.

CCC’s, Aslin noted, are a prime example of the kind of neutral third party Yale lacks in these matters.

Keil, however, believes the best course of action is training faculty in case studies and “vigorous independent reporting” of institutional trends.

“Cases of misbehavior are not subtle and are often obvious in terms of basic principles of conduct between individuals in situations of power asymmetries,” Keil wrote. “All too often, setting up more committees and procedures simply serves as a way of claiming concern about the problem without really addressing it.”

Yousif completed his undergraduate study at Emory University in 2016.

Correction, April 28: This article has been updated with the correct title for University spokesperson Karen Peart. 

Correction, May 14: A previous version of this article stated that Scholl took public issue with Yousif’s character and caliber. Scholl maintains that he expressed his issues with Dr. Yousif privately; the article has been updated to reflect that.

Miranda Wollen is the University Editor for the News; she also writes very silly pieces for the WKND section. She previous covered Faculty and Academics, and she is a junior in Silliman College double-majoring in English and Classics.