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, who eventually left the university.

Simons stepped down as chief of cardiology when the misconduct was discovered. The committee initially recommended a five-year suspension from positions of leadership, but the penalty was softened to 18 months – leading many to question whether the sanctions were sufficient.

Sterling Library at Yale University. (Stan Godlewski for The Washington Post)
Sterling Library at Yale University. (Stan Godlewski for The Washington Post)

Now, controversy over his behavior and Yale’s response has erupted again. More than 1,000 faculty members, medical trainees, students and alumni signed a petition that landed in Yale President Peter Salovey’s mailbox last week, questioning why an endowed chair 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.”

Simons did not respond to interview requests, and a Yale spokeswoman said the university does not comment on such investigations.

“The fundamental culture of our organizations”

Simons’s case shows how misconduct can leave festering wounds – particularly at academic institutions where people in positions of power may have tenure.

“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 revealed that 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.”

In an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, Choo and her colleagues wrote 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. This week, NIH Director Francis Collins announced new initiatives 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.

On Saturday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science announced a new mechanism that will allow it to kick out fellows who breach professional ethics standards, including sexual harassment.

Painful division

Simons’s case illustrates how misconduct cases can cause painful division for years after they’ve ended, raising questions about whether penalties are harsh enough and whether powerful people are being unfairly protected.

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 their family name.

“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.

In August, Berliner’s chair was given to another cardiologist. But Yale issued a news release in late July announcing that Simons was being “newly named” to a different endowed chair. Simons tweeted a link to the release, calling it “A new Chair …” on Aug. 1.

The university took down the news release, and 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.”

Peart said 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.”

”They took the chair away from him and gave him another chair,” Berliner said. “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.

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 seems like a hollow excuse.

“What is the motivation to accommodate this man to such great lengths that it gets the entire Yale community in an uproar,” said Lynn Fiellin, an associate professor of medicine. “That’s an extreme honor, and he doesn’t deserve something honorable in this context.”

That led to a grass-roots uprising – the petition to Salovey calling 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.”

According to a NIH database, Simons is a leading researcher and is listed as a principal investigator on more than $3 million in grant funding in 2018.

“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 reflecting national conversations about how to proceed after a person has committed misconduct and the concern 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.”

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