NEW HAVEN, CT — A Yale medical professor who was found guilty of sexually harassing a junior colleague in 2013 has been stripped of an endowed professorship less than two months after it was awarded. Bowing to pressure from faculty, students and alumni, Yale School of Medicine officials said Friday they had decided to remove Dr. Michael Simons as the Waldemar von Zedtwitz chair “for the community’s well-being.”
The professorship was a consolation prize of sorts after Simons was removed earlier this year as the Robert W. Berliner endowed chair, a position he had held since 2008 and after a 2013 harassment finding by an internal committee that he had harassed a junior colleague and her husband.
Members of the Berliner family led a charge among faculty members and others to strip Simons of the accolade that is not only difficult to obtain and comes with a significant financial award, but in theory reserved for the best of the best.
Within months, Simons had been named the Waldemar von Zedtwitz chair, setting off a new furor. The School of Medicine tried to package the decision as a simple transfer of honors and not the conferment of a new one, but a person close to the situation told Patch it sent a message the medical school leaders don’t believe sexual misconduct is worthy of censure.
The school had stood firmly behind Simons until Friday, when Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern sent a surprise email saying he had been stripped of the professorship, the Yale Daily News reported.
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“When Dr. Michael Simons was transferred from the Berliner Chair to the Von Zedtwitz Chair, it was not my or the university’s intention to confer a new honor on Dr. Simons,” Alpern said in the email. “However, 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. … It is out of concern for the community’s well-being that I share with you that, effective today, I have removed Dr. Simons from the Von Zedtwitz Chair.”
The controversy surrounding Simons spiraled into a “me too” and “time’s up” moment for Yale. Medicine in general is hierarchical field, and top-tier medical schools like Yale are especially so. A report earlier this year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that as many as 50 percent of all female medical students report sexual harassment — far more often than their peers in academic sciences and engineering.
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. The studies also show women are paid less, are less likely to be promoted and receive less recognition from academic societies.
FACULTY MEMBERS ECSTATIC
The sexual misconduct 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. Among the evidence in the complaint was a a handwritten love letter from Simons saying he wanted to kiss “every part of your body in every continent and city of the world.”
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.
Faculty members were ecstatic about Alpern’s decision.
“The voices of the community, both men and women, we heard,” Paula Kavathas, an immunology professor, member of Status of Women and a former chair of the Women Faculty Forum, told the Yale Daily News. “It’s a big day for our efforts to stop sexual misconduct and an emotional day for me having worked on this issue for years.”
Claire Bowern, the chair of the Women Faculty Forum told the newspaper stripping Simons of the Von Zedtwitz professorship was the right decision and that “the community opinion is clear in our rejection of sexual misconduct as rewardable behavior.”
More than 1,000 signed an open letter to Yale President Peter Salovey protesting the transfer of professorships, leading to Alpern’s decision.
(Photo by Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images)