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Frustrations aired at med school town hall

There was an elephant in Harkness Auditorium during Thursday’s School of Medicine town hall on diversity and gender equity.

President Peter Salovey ’86PhD and Provost Ben Polak were greeted with a slew of tough questions at the forum, which marked the first time they have publicly addressed the medical school community since a November New York Times article about sexual misconduct at the school sparked controversy. The article centered on the adjudication of a sexual harassment case that involved Michael Simons ’84MD, the former head of cardiology at the school, and a female researcher. After hearing the case, the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct (UWC) recommended that Simons be permanently removed from his leadership position, but provost Polak reduced the recommended punishment to an 18-month suspension, a move that drew criticism from med school faculty.

Salovey opened the packed town hall by apologizing for the “difficult time” the school is facing, and reaffirming the university’s commitment to diversity and the improvement of university culture. Salovey and Polak addressed efforts being made to improve the current climate—including the recommendations of a Gender Equity Committee and proposed new policies released by the school last month. Recommendations include appointing a full-time diversity officer for the School of Medicine and proactively recruiting more women and minorities.

Though Salovey and Polak obliquely referred to the “incident” earlier this academic year, neither specifically addressed the controversial case. This seemed to frustrate the audience, many of whom immediately raised more specific questions when Salovey opened the floor.

Phil Askenase, a professor of immunology who said he has been at the school for more than 50 years, tackled the issue head on. “I think there’s an elephant in the room here,” he began. “You’re talking generic, you’ve had a couple of very specific questions you’ve avoided. Everybody here wants to know about some cases that the administration doesn’t seem to have made very good decisions about.”

“This is difficult,” Salovey began to answer.

“Elephants often are,” Askenase interjected.

Salovey and Polak explained that the confidential nature of the process prevented them from discussing specific cases, even if they wanted to. University Title IX coordinator and deputy provost Stephanie Spangler said that it is frustrating to be “hamstrung” in cases that provoke significant public attention, since silence can create greater confusion about the nature of events.

Polak said that while he cannot comment on individual cases, he takes these issues very seriously and does not allow things such as personal relationships or financial considerations to influence his decision-making. (Critics had argued that Polak could have been swayed by the fact that Simons’s wife is a colleague of Polak’s in the economics department, or by Simons’s ability to bring in grant money.) “I don’t want to stand here and claim that we get every case right. That wouldn’t be an honest statement. What I can say is I personally try very hard to get these cases right,” he said.

Polak also pointed to the potential pitfalls of having a single decision-maker on cases of sexual misconduct. Currently, the University-Wide Committee sends its recommendations about cases involving faculty members to the provost, who ultimately determines the appropriate punishment. (The deans of Yale College and the university's other schools do the same for cases involving students.) “I think we should look at it very very carefully,” he said. “I think there are other alternatives, both about whether we have a single decision-maker and who that single decision-maker should be.”

But members of the audience continued to raise questions about the Simons incident and the challenge of convincing women to come forward to report sexual harassment in its wake.

“People who have worked with this individual, who know this story, would tell you that this is 101, this was sexual harassment to the finest degree,” said one female faculty member. “So what we’re struggling with is how would other people come forward when it’s not necessarily this in-your-face.”

A female fellow at the medical school told Salovey that the university will have trouble recruiting top female talent without a culture change starting from the top. “I have many friends who are very qualified who ask me if they should consider coming here because they’ve heard and read things in the media,” she said. “And I can’t tell them because I haven’t seen much from leadership that says there will be a change.”

Attendees interviewed after the forum said that the audience’s reactions indicated positive momentum for a change in climate surrounding diversity and gender issues, but many expressed frustration at the necessary limits of the discussion.

“There was a lot of anger in there,” said professor emeritus Bob Gifford, a professor emeritus at the Medical School. “It would have been nice if somebody had said, ‘maybe we made a mistake.’ I guess confidentiality prevents that. But that’s what was needed, and so the thing goes on.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under School of Medicine, sexual misconduct


  • Michael L. Lazare, '53
    Michael L. Lazare, '53, 4:22pm February 06 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    "After hearing the case, the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct (UWC) recommended that Simons be permanently removed from his leadership position, but provost Polak reduced the recommended punishment to an 18-month suspension, a move that drew criticism from med school faculty."

    I repeat the question I asked when this story first surfaced: Why wasn't the provost fired immediately?

  • JP
    JP, 6:02pm February 09 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I'd like to know more exactly what is meant by "the confidential nature of the process prevented them from discussing specific cases". The substance of the proceedings may benefit from confidentiality, but the process design and mechanics, I would think, would benefit from complete transparency and integrity that seems absent. Dancing around the real concerns doesn't alleviate the issue. The contents of an employment record or disciplinary detail may be confidential, but information that someone is employed or not employed at an institution, or whether he or she holds a particular appointment hardly invokes strict confidentiality and there are ways to navigate these communications challenges. It's worth noting that a professor's recent defamation case against Northwestern University related to harassment and discrimination matters recently failed because, among other reasons, the university administration's statements were substantially true. If there's a legal or process issue for Yale administration to reckon with here, it seems desperate for balancing against integrity issues -- which leads to the previous comment and question.

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