After an outcry from faculty, students and alumni, the dean of the Yale School of Medicine announced Friday that he had removed a prestigious honor from a leading researcher who had sexually harassed a junior colleague years earlier.
Medical school dean Robert J. Alpern wrote in an e-mail that when the university this summer awarded an endowed chair to Michael Simons, a cardiologist and researcher, it was not intended to be a new honor, but a transfer after he lost a previous chair. That explanation rankled more than 1,000 faculty members, medical trainees, students and alumni, who signed a petition to Yale President Peter Salovey questioning the move and the overall culture at the medical school.
In an email to members of the Yale community on Friday, Alpern reversed that decision and said that effective immediately, he had removed Simons’s endowed chair.
“It has become clear that members of our community perceive the transfer of chairs as bestowing a new honor, and that this action is viewed as a statement about our values. I acknowledge the strength of the community’s perception, and I am extremely concerned about its impact on the community’s well-being,” Alpern wrote.
People who had been critical of how the Simons case was handled said it was the right outcome.
“There is a lot more work that needs to be done around sexual harassment and misconduct at Yale and elsewhere, but this experience shows us that our voices, our ‘collective’ voices, can and must be heard, and do bring about change,” Lynn Fiellin, an associate professor of medicine said in an e-mail. “It is a two-way dialogue. Everyone’s voice should be heard.”
The decision to remove Simons' chair, an endowed professorship that comes with an undisclosed amount of funding, follows a long-simmering controversy on campus that boiled over this summer. Five years ago, a Yale University committee concluded that Michael Simons, a cardiologist and leading researcher at its medical school, was guilty of sexually harassing a junior researcher. A petition signed by more than 1,000 faculty members, medical trainees, students and alumni landed in Yale President Peter Salovey’s mailbox last week, questioning why an endowed chair — a prestigious honor — was given to Simons this summer.
“We are submitting this letter to voice our disgust and disappointment with this decision,” the letter said. “Yale should be a leader in preventing harassment and addressing it appropriately when it happens, rather than cultivating an environment in which it flourishes.”
The years-long saga, triggered by Simons’s inappropriate advances toward a younger female researcher who eventually left Yale, has been a window into the aftermath of sexual harassment cases and how tensions can continue to simmer long after allegations have been vetted and sanctions have been meted out. In the #MeToo moment, the challenges of recognizing, confronting and investigating sexual misconduct have gotten most of the attention, but Simons’s case shows how misconduct can leave festering wounds — particularly at academic institutions where people in positions of power may have tenure, a lifetime job appointment that is difficult to revoke.
“On the one hand, we send a message that we are serious about sexual misconduct in the abstract, and yet we continue to reward individuals who have been found in violation of our misconduct policies. It sets the appearance of a double standard,” said Claire Bowern, a linguistics professor who chairs the Yale Women Faculty Forum. “It’s a problem when someone continues to accrue the rewards and status and offices of the profession, while at the same time having been disciplined.”
A recent report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine described the sweeping extent of harassment in academia. About 50 percent of female medical students reported being harassed by faculty or staff members.
Despite parity in the enrollment of men and women in medical schools, “things are not getting better,” said Esther K. Choo, a physician at Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Policy and Research in Emergency Medicine. “It's like this five-lane highway, with a ton of traffic all heading in one direction — in the direction of not uncovering and addressing sexual harassment within these institutions of academia and of medicine.”
Choo and her colleagues wrote in an editorial published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine that “what began as a smoldering fire is now scorching the curtains and the roof, threatening the integrity of the entire house of medicine.” A survey published in JAMA found that 30 percent of women who worked in academic medical facilities reported being harassed between 2014 and 2016.
A petition to the National Institutes of Health asks the country’s biggest funder of biomedical research to reconsider whether people who are found guilty of sexual misconduct are eligible for certain kinds of grants and honors. NIH Director Francis Collins announced new initiatives this week, including a new policy on harassment, processes that will make it easier to report harassment, and training and education campaigns. The National Academies also face demands to revoke membership when people commit misconduct.
“It is clear we must do more to change the fundamental culture of our organizations,” Collins said in a statement.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science announced a new mechanism Saturday that will allow it to kick out fellows who breach professional ethics standards, including sexual harassment.
The National Science Foundation on Wednesday announced it would require institutions that receive grant funding to notify the agency if a scientist who receives funding is found to have committed harassment.
Simons’s case illustrates how misconduct cases can cause painful division for years after they’ve ended, raising pointed questions about whether penalties are harsh enough and whether powerful people are being unfairly protected. After a universitywide committee found in 2013 that Simons had sexually harassed a junior colleague, Simons stepped down as chief of cardiology. Although the committee initially recommended a five-year suspension from positions of leadership, the penalty was softened to 18 months — leading many to question whether the sanctions were sufficient. Simons did not respond to interview requests, and a Yale spokeswoman said the university does not comment on such investigations.
That could have been the end of the story. But this year, family members of Robert Berliner, a former dean of the medical school, made it clear to the university that they no longer thought it was appropriate for Simons, who had been awarded the Berliner professorship 10 years ago, to continue in the endowed chair position that carried the family name, which was first reported by the Yale Daily News.
“I was totally appalled and told them I wanted them to do something about it, and so did my mother,” said Nancy Berliner, chief of hematology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Robert Berliner’s daughter.
Berliner’s chair was given to another cardiologist in August. But Yale issued a news release in late July announcing that Simons was being “newly named” to a different endowed chair. On his Twitter account, Simons tweeted a link to the release, calling it “A new Chair …” on Aug. 1.
The university took down the news release. The tweet was deleted last week. Spokeswoman Karen Peart said that the university agrees with many of the arguments being made by concerned members of the community, including that when someone has violated standards of conduct, “there should be a presumption against awarding new honorifics.”
She said that the university supports the ability of disciplinary committees to recommend sanctions, such as removing such honors. But, she added, “In making this transfer, the University had no intention to confer a new honor on Dr. Simons."
Said Berliner: “They took the chair away from him and gave him another chair. They can split hairs however they like. It was not my intention to be a difficult family. I thought there was a principle involved.” She added that she was shocked when Yale gave Simons a new endowed chair.
Peart would not disclose how much funding is attached to the new chair, also called an endowed professorship, but she said it is the same amount as the Berliner chair. Paula Kavathas, a member of the executive board of the Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine, said endowed chairs typically come with about $130,000 in funding, which is typically used for salary or research.
A Yale website describes endowed chairs as “widely recognized as the most prestigious honor a university can bestow on an accomplished faculty member.”
To critics, the idea that this is a transfer and not a new chair seemed like a hollow excuse.
That led to a grass-roots uprising — the petition to Salovey calls for “new, innovative leadership” and the transformation of a culture in the medical school that values “prestige and funding above safety and a positive, thriving working environment not only for women, but for the faculty in general.”
Simons is a leading researcher and is listed as a principal investigator on more than $3 million in grant funding in 2018, according to an NIH database.
“People like Michael Simons are bringing in millions and millions of dollars. And that is the reputation of the school. Its ranking,” said Choo, a Yale alumna.
The case has sparked discussions on campus that reflect the national conversations about how to proceed after a person has committed misconduct and the worry that institutions may not hold their stars accountable. Last Tuesday, more than two dozen cardiology trainees met to discuss concerns about how the case had been handled and on Thursday, the petition with 1,044 signatures was delivered to the president’s office.
“When I was a trainee, more than 40 years ago, there were no mechanisms that we were aware of, where we could formalize a complaint — and what people did was just talk among each other about who the harassers were, it was just informal and people tried to stay away from them,” Kavathas said. “I think that the fact the community is discussing this is very positive. I think it will put people on notice, that the community cares about this.”