Light & Verity

Med school under fire over gender issues

A sexual harassment case opens a larger debate.

A sexual harassment case involving a professor at the School of Medicine has snowballed into a larger controversy at the school over the treatment of women, workplace behavior, and how decisions are made and communicated.

The controversy, which burst into view on the front page of the New York Times on November 2, has resulted in the removal of a senior professor from two leadership positions, the appointment of a medical school gender equity task force, and the dean’s acknowledgement that “we must be more transparent.” At the same time, Yale released the long-delayed report of last February’s university-wide “Diversity Summit” and announced the creation of a new position, deputy provost for faculty development and diversity.

The harassment case involved Michael Simons ’84MD, former chief of cardiology. The University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, finding that Simons’s unwelcome romantic pursuit of a junior colleague constituted sexual harassment, recommended removing him as cardiology chief and barring him from other leadership positions for five years, the Times reported, based on leaked documents. Provost Ben Polak, the final decision maker on UWC recommendations involving faculty, reportedly reduced the penalties to an 18-month suspension from the chief cardiology post.

The university’s handling of the case prompted outrage among some medical school faculty, leading to several meetings with Dean Robert Alpern and, eventually, to the Times article. Shortly before the article was published, the university announced that Simons had decided not to return as cardiology chief. Weeks later, the medical school also removed him as head of the Cardiovascular Research Center.

Simons and Yale officials decline to comment on the specifics, citing the UWC’s confidentiality rules. In a message to the Yale community, President Peter Salovey ’86PhD defended the UWC’s “thorough, fair, and unbiased” work. Polak says he provides “a careful and unbiased review of all cases that come before me, and I am confident in the integrity of our policies and procedures.” Stephanie Spangler, a deputy provost who leads the university’s response to sexual misconduct complaints, explains by e-mail that the UWC’s recommendation is not the last word because the relevant senior administrator in each school (the provost in the case of the faculty) is “the individual who typically has the authority to impose discipline.”

Simons, reached by e-mail, acknowledges an “error in judgment” but calls the Times report “not factual.” (He said he could not comment further because the information is confidential.) His record of hiring women is second to none, Simons adds, concluding: “I regard the treatment of me during this whole episode as profoundly unfair and as an example of lynch mob mentality.”

The case has galvanized a group of medical school professors who say it reflects an environment in which favoritism and intimidation are tolerated. “Gender is the deeper issue,” neuropathology chief Laura Manuelidis ’67MD wrote in a letter to the Times, citing “the continuing debasement of women through bullying, innuendo, ostracism, and ‘individual-based’ decisions for salary, space, promotions, and tenure.”

Manuelidis’s charges echo those of Joan Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. The Simons case is “horrifying and frustrating” because it reveals a secretive and hierarchical structure in which harassment and intimidation are “amazingly pervasive,” she says in an interview.

Steitz says the medical school made strides toward openness and gender equity under Alpern’s predecessor, but has since gone backward.  The Diversity Summit report, released in November, notes that in the fall of 2013, the medical school faculty was 63.5 percent male. Of 39 department chairs and associate deans, 31 were men.

“I agree that transparency in decision making is a problem that I must address,” Alpern says by e-mail. “Approaches are under discussion.” The gender equity task force will advise him on “gender diversity, equity, and climate,” the dean writes, adding: “It will be my responsibility to address these issues.”

The comment period has expired.