NEW HAVEN, CT — For a brief but important moment earlier this year, faculty who have long called for a reckoning about gender equality at the elite Yale School of Medicine savored victory. Dr. Michael Simons, the one-time cardiology department chair who had been found guilty by a university panel of sexually harassing a post-doctoral researcher, was stripped of the prestigious Robert Berliner endowed professorship named in honor of a former dean and graduate of the school.
Dr. Nancy Berliner, the honoree’s daughter and herself an esteemed hematologist at Yale, led the charge among faculty members and others to strip Simons of an accolade that is not only difficult to obtain and comes with a significant financial award, but in theory is reserved for the best of the best.
But then, in July, a top-down decision gave Simons another endowed chair — the Waldemar von Zedtwitz professor of cardiology. In other words, one former Yale med school faculty member told Patch, the school administration “stripped him of one honor and gave him another,” sending a message they don’t believe sexual misconduct worthy of censure.
The complaint before Yale’s “University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct,” first filed nearly a decade ago, accused Simons of making unwanted sexual advances toward a colleague 18 years his junior. His overtures included a handwritten love letter saying that he wanted to kiss “every part of [her] body in every continent and city of the world.”
When Simons was stripped of the Berliner professorship, “people felt proud for a moment in time,” the source told Patch, but the announcement in July that the disgraced professor had been given the Zedtwitz endowed chair “was like poking the bear.”
Now, the question at least 1,000 people are asking in an open letter to Yale President Peter Salovey to be delivered Thursday is, in essence, this:
Why is this level of sexual misconduct rewarded?
“As Yale alumni, students, and faculty, we were disheartened to hear that a professor who was found to have committed sexual harassment by an independent review and removed from his section chief position, Dr. Michael Simons, was not only allowed to continue in a prestigious academic role, but was also recently awarded an endowed chair,” the letter states.
” … We hope this letter sends that message in support of those targeted by his harassment as well as to the past, present, and future victims of harassment at Yale and around the country who will see this action and be discouraged from speaking up. Yale should be a leader in preventing harassment and addressing it appropriately when it happens, rather than cultivating an environment in which it flourishes.”
‘YOU DON’T WANT TO MAKE A FUSS’
Medicine in general is hierarchical field, and top-tier medical schools like Yale are especially so. A 2018 report found widespread sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering and medicine is compromising both the integrity of education and research.
The problem is especially acute in medicine, according to the report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. As many as 50 percent of all female medical students report sexual harassment — far more often than their peers in academic sciences and engineering, the report noted.
That’s partly due to the fact that they face harassment from an outside population — patients and their families — and boundaries can be blurred by the necessity of sleeping on the job during 24-hour shifts, the authors noted.
More glaring, women are vastly underrepresented in academic leadership positions — despite the fact that for the first time in history in 2017, women enrolling in U.S. medical schools outnumbered men. Association of American Medical Colleges show that women represent only 38 percent of medical school faculty members, 15 percent of department chairs and 16 percent of deans.
The disparity is even greater within specialities — in 2014, women chaired only 11 percent of neurology departments, 10 percent of emergency departments and less than 1 percent of surgery departments.
Moreover, the AAMC statistics show, women are paid less, are less likely to be promoted and receive less recognition from academic societies.
“Adding to the power differential is a culture that accepts some degree of suffering as a matter of course,” the authors of the National Academies report wrote. “Medical education and training is notoriously grueling and competitive, with long hours, extensive workloads, and unrelenting pressure to perform. Often, human lives are on the line. It’s hard to find the time to sleep or eat, let alone file a harassment complaint.”
The researchers said physicians offered reasons for their failure to report sexual harassment. “I had to keep going,” one said. “There was no choice.”
Another doctor quoted in the report said filing harassment charges is “kind of like getting therapy in the middle of a war zone. … I can’t be feeling these feelings right now.”
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Women also worry filing a complaint will become a personal and professional liability, or that they’ll be perceived as weak or vulnerable, or labeled as an “outsider” or “troublemaker.”
One physician was even told by her colleagues, “Can’t you just suck it up? This is not going to go well for you if you report. You don’t want to make a fuss.”
The report concluded:
“Protecting the health and wellbeing of female students, trainees, and faculty members — and ensuring fair and equitable outcomes in educational and professional development — is a priority by any measure. But there is also a broader argument to be made. Sexual harassment in academic medicine is a symptom of systematic failures that prevent the medical workforce from operating at its fullest potential. As leaders, we ignore this problem at our peril.”
IS TIME UP FOR MEDICAL SCHOOLS?
The mounting criticism against Simons intersects with the “#MeToo” and “Time’s Up” movements. Emboldened by celebrity accusers like Rose McGowan, who brought down movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, women across the country have broken their decades-long silence about workplace sexual harassment.
The university panel that investigates allegations of sexual misconduct found Simons guilty of harassing his junior colleague in 2013 and treating her husband, a Yale cardiologist, unfairly. The panel on two separate occasions recommended that Simons be permanently removed from his position as chair of the cardiology department and be kept from positions of power for five years.
Instead, with no mention at all of wrongdoing, Provost Benjamin Polak reduced the penalty to an 18-month suspension and allowed Simons to remain as head of the Cardiovascular Research Center, though he did eventually step down.
A “different signal was sent” when the Yale officials chose not to remove Simons from the cardiology section and allowed him quietly step down, the source who spoke with Patch said, calling the handling “a missed opportunity” to address the gender equality issue.
“Concerns raised about multiple faculty members across the institution have fallen on deaf ears for a very long time,” the source said, adding that women and subordinates “succeed by playing by their rules.”
Dr. Annarita Di Lorenzo and her husband, Dr. Frank Giordano, filed their complaint against Simons in 2010, but it was years before the sexual misconduct committee finally resolved it.
When Di Lorenzo rebuked Simon’s overtures, he responded that her fiance and now husband was the wrong man and that he was in a position to “open the world of science” to her. When Di Lorenzo rebuked Simons, he retaliated by publicly rebuking Giordano and freezing him out of important meetings and assignments, according to the complaint.
University spokeswoman Karen Peart said in a statement to the Yale Daily News that in transferring Simons to the Zedtwitz professorship, the university had no intent to “confer a new honor” on him.
“We agree that in cases where someone has been found, through a formal process, to have violated University standards of conduct, there should be a presumption against awarding new honorifics,” Peart said. “We realize that recent announcements about a specific circumstance may appear to be at odds with these statements and want to take this opportunity to provide clarification … In making this transfer, the University had no intention to confer a new honor on Dr. Simons.”
The letter to Yale’s president also raises questions about the reappointment of Dr. Robert Alpern as dean of the Yale School of Medicine, and said under his leadership it “has become synonymous with sexual harassment.”
With his decision to support Simons as an endowed chair, Alpern “showcased the value he places on prestige and funding above safety and a positive, thriving working environment not only for women, but for the faculty in general,” the letter states.
(Photo by Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images)