On Dec. 15, 2017, three days after Doug Jones defeated alleged sexual predator Roy Moore in a United States Senate special election, University President Peter Salovey asked the Yale community in an email to join him in speaking out against sexual misconduct. Detailing University resources and reporting mechanisms, Salovey situated Yale in the “midst of a serious reckoning”: he wrote that, “in this moment of focused public attention,” his message was meant to “reaffirm that sexual harassment and misconduct are antithetical to our purpose and have no place in the Yale community.”
Hours later, students answered Salovey’s call to action with one of their own. Rachel Calnek-Sugin ’19 and Robert Newhouse’s ’19 Facebook event invited students to send an email in response to Salovey, demanding that he explain why the University had not taken action in three “outstanding” complaints of sexual harassment involving tenured Yale faculty members: English professor Harold Bloom, philosophy professor Thomas Pogge and Spanish professor Roberto González Echevarría.
Once the emails were sent, the event asked participants to change their involvement from “interested” to “going.” Over the next few days, 200 “went,” and 93 claimed interest.
Although it may have been the first email campaign at Yale of its kind — the event location was “your very own computer” — it was certainly not the first time Yale students had banded together to demand that the University do more to improve the sexual climate and in turn, advance Yale’s academic mission of “lux et veritas,” or light and truth. In 2011, a group of 16 Yale undergraduates and alumni filed a Title IX complaint against the University outlining what they too felt were “outstanding” complaints of sex-based harassment and arguing that these incidents — and the University’s inadequate responses to them — had resulted in a hostile educational environment for women at Yale.
The complaints prompted a Department of Education investigation, which in turn, spurred Yale’s plans to establish its University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct — a disciplinary body comprising students, faculty members and administrators created both to answer informal inquiries and address formal complaints of sexual misconduct.
Despite the creation of a centralized body to better handle cases of sexual misconduct and penalize guilty parties, the three cases mentioned in the Facebook group are often cited as examples of the University’s failure to produce an adequate response.
Frustrated by what they saw as administrative silence, the women alleging misconduct by Bloom, Pogge and Echevarría became their own advocates for justice, sometimes enlisting the media in their causes. The question then, becomes, who is the light, and where is the truth?
On a dreary Tuesday morning last month, Naomi Wolf ’84 walked into the lobby of University Provost Ben Polak’s office, armed with a sleeping bag and suitcase. She was willing to spend the night in the lobby if she had to in order to finally file a formal complaint against her former professor, renowned Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom.
It had been almost 35 years since Bloom allegedly placed his hand in between Wolf’s upper thighs at a dinner the professor had requested to go over her academic work. Wolf said she first contacted Yale officials around 15 years ago to try to “start a conversation … to ensure that unwanted sexual advances of this story weren’t still occurring,” but Yale was unresponsive. Wolf took her story public in a 2004 New York magazine article titled “The Silent Treatment,” in which she called Bloom’s sexual misconduct against women an “open secret” and criticized Yale for being negligent toward her complaints in order to protect Bloom.
Shortly after the creation of the University-Wide Committee, Wolf deemed that Bloom’s denial of the allegations in a 2015 Time magazine interview damaged her reputation and interfered with finding a teaching position at Yale, thus constituting retaliation. In April 2016, Wolf filed a formal complaint with the University-Wide Committee via email at the suggestion of committee chair and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology David Post.
Post wrote in various emails and a letter to Wolf that the committee would accept Wolf’s complaint as long as she left out the 1983 assault and agreed to confidentiality. Wolf refused both conditions. When she met with University-Wide Committee Secretary Aley Menon to file her complaint in person a couple of weeks ago, she again refused to agree to the confidentiality conditions of filing a complaint. When Menon allegedly refused to accept Wolf’s complaint against Bloom as a result, Wolf said she felt transported back to 1983, again a powerless and unheard teenager.
Like Wolf, Fernanda Lopez Aguilar ’10 felt silenced when she came forward with a complaint against leading German ethicist Thomas Pogge. Lopez Aguilar had just graduated from Yale when Pogge allegedly insisted that they share a hotel room, made a series of inappropriate remarks and groped her during her time as his translator and research assistant in Chile. According to Lopez Aguilar, once she spurned his advances, Pogge retaliated by allegedly refusing to pay her for her research assistant work and rescinding his signed agreement to offer her a paid postgraduate fellowship at the Global Justice Program at Yale
When Lopez Aguilar initially notified Valarie Stanley, director of the Office for Equal Opportunity Programs, about the assault and harassment, the University-Wide Committee did not yet exist. According to Lopez Aguilar, Stanley told her that she would be compensated $2,000 for her work over the summer if she signed an agreement to not share any information about the alleged misconduct. Convinced by Yale officials that she had no legitimate case against Pogge, Lopez Aguilar signed.
In May 2011, motivated by the Title IX case against Yale that contributed to the creation of the University-Wide Committee, Lopez Aguilar filed an official complaint. The committee chose Beverly Hodgson, a New Haven–based lawyer, as official fact finder for the case, a role that includes preparing a written report describing relevant facts and circumstances in the case. All parties involved, as well as the five-person hearing panel, have access to the written report.
Lopez Aguilar said the University repeatedly asserted that Hodgson had no affiliation with the University, despite the fact that she has been a member of the Yale faculty since 1992. She claims that Hodgson’s bias was incorporated into the written report and ultimately caused the panel to conclude that there was insufficient evidence that Pogge’s actions constituted a breach in University policy, recommending only that a letter be put in his file for misuse of University stationary to grant Lopez Aguilar a job. Salovey, then-provost and thus the final decision maker in cases against faculty members, approved all the recommendations and conclusions.
The provost’s role as final decision-maker in cases of sexual misconduct has generated controversy. Following allegations that the medical school’s then–cardiology chief, Michael Simons, sexually harassed a junior faculty member, a University-Wide Committee panel recommended that Simons be removed from his position as chief and be ineligible for high administrative roles for five years. But Polak, in his capacity as decision-maker, reduced the penalty to an 18-month suspension.
While the panel makes conclusions and recommends disciplinary actions, the final determination on whether to impose penalties — and which penalties to impose — lies with the decision-maker alone. Though this power belongs to the provost in cases where the respondent is a member of the faculty, it shifts to the dean of Yale College in cases leveled against undergraduates.
A week after The New York Times contacted Yale about the case, the University announced that Simons had decided not to return to his position as cardiology chief. Still, the national attention left many members of the Yale community questioning the efficacy of the University-wide Committee as an institution and, more broadly, the administration’s handling of sexual misconduct.
Few cases, however, are publicized on the same national level. Other than the News’ coverage, Susan Byrne’s case against Spanish professor Roberto González Echevarría received little media attention.
Byrne was a junior faculty member in the Spanish and Portuguese Department at the time of the alleged harassment against her, her colleagues, graduate students and undergraduates. Echevarría repeatedly made crude comments to and about female professors in the department, played with the hair of his students and kissed Byrne on the mouth at a 2014 party in front of hundreds of colleagues. Byrne alleges that leadership within the department, especially professors Rolena Adorno and Noël Valis, bullied her for reporting the harassment, and in early 2016, she was denied tenure — a decision she twice appealed to the Provost’s Office.
A 2015 administrative review found that the Spanish and Portuguese Department fostered a climate of “fear and intimidation.” Still, Echevarría, Adorno and Valis were allowed to participate in the tenure vote despite Byrne’s request that the administration recuse them.
In July 2017, Byrne filed a lawsuit against Yale alleging that she faced sexual harassment and bullying from professors in the department and was denied tenure — a decision that came to a 3–2 vote — for speaking out against it.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” —Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972.
The #MeToo movement has sparked important conversations about the endemic nature of sexual misconduct in our society. But the words of Title IX — quoted above in its entirety — address an essential point that these conversations often neglect: Sexual harassment and misconduct are, under the law, considered gender discrimination.
Though people of all genders can and do experience sexual harassment, the disproportionate recipients of this discrimination are women. Sexual harassment in academia puts women at a disadvantage, making it harder for female students and junior faculty members to get an education and advance in their careers. The hierarchical power structure of the academy often corners victims of sexual harassment, forcing them to choose between staying silent and risking continued harassment, or speaking out and risking professional, unforeseen and unpredictable retaliation.
The Cost of Confidentiality
As an unwritten rule, women in Byrne’s position are encouraged to stay silent if they don’t want speaking out to interfere with their possibilities for promotion. But the administration’s standard of silence is more formalized.
When Menon, the secretary of the University-Wide Committee, allegedly asked Wolf to agree to confidentiality in the proceedings of her pending misconduct case, she refused because “she had nothing to hide.” But, in an email to the News, Salovey said that confidentiality is an essential prerequisite for addressing sexual misconduct complaints. He wrote that it ensures that both the accuser and the accused are willing to engage fully in the grievance process, and it helps members of the Yale community who have experienced sexual misconduct feel comfortable pursuing the available options for reporting complaints.
Still, Salovey said that Yale’s commitment to confidentiality has a cost. According to Salovey, the administration cannot advertise the instances in which it has punished misconduct. And on the occasions in which it hasn’t, Salovey said the University often could not act because there was insufficient evidence, no available complaint or because the misconduct occurred outside the University-Wide Committee’s jurisdiction. But because of confidentiality obligations, the University generally cannot explain these circumstances publicly.
“Although this is an unsatisfying state of affairs, I am willing to let the University’s reputation (and sometimes my own) suffer in these instances because I believe so strongly that breaches of confidentiality and a public airing of our misconduct cases deters individuals from reporting, undermines the integrity of our process, and ultimately compromises our ability to eliminate sexual misconduct,” Salovey wrote.
In the Facebook reaction to Salovey’s email against sexual misconduct, students demanded transparency. They wanted to know how the University has fulfilled its promise to protect students and create the best academic environment possible.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences Deputy Dean for Diversity and Faculty Development Kathryn Lofton acknowledged that knowing the truth about what happened in a sexual misconduct case and how the University responded can be deeply relieving. But Lofton, a member of the University-Wide Committee, who, in her capacity as dean, is in charge of identifying and establishing best practices in the recruitment, retention, promotion and support of faculty members, challenged those people to ask themselves whether or not a lack of privacy would diminish the number of cases brought to the committee in the first place.
Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said that the allegations against Pogge affected the climate of the department, with graduate students in particular concerned that the department did not take these allegations against Pogge seriously. Faculty members met with graduate students several times after the allegations surfaced and tried to reassure them that the department took issues of climate and sexual misconduct seriously. But it was difficult to reassure students that the proper actions had been taken because of issues of confidentiality, Kagan said. Faculty members often had to respond to students’ concerns with hypotheticals because he could not specifically discuss the Pogge case.
Some professors’ behavior, though inappropriate, does not fall under Yale’s jurisdiction to punish, Kagan said. Lopez Aguilar was not a Yale undergraduate at the time of Pogge’s alleged misconduct, nor was she a Yale employee, even though Pogge allegedly promised her she would become one.
“Nobody would want [Yale] to be the morality enforcer,” said Kagan, who teaches the undergraduate course “Introduction to Ethics.”
Still, Kagan was troubled by some of Pogge’s alleged behavior, so he signed the open letter condemning Pogge’s actions. Kagan said that though, given the available evidence, it does not seem that Yale has any jurisdiction over Pogge’s actions, he saw signing the letter as a type of social sanction of Pogge’s behavior.
On the first day of Pogge’s “Introduction to Political Philosophy” course in 2016, students found copies of a New York Times article detailing his alleged sexual misconduct scattered on their seats. Pogge’s class is a requirement for the ethics, politics and economics major, although another course in the Political Science Department with the same name also fulfills the requirement. When the News interviewed students in 2016 after Pogge’s first class since the allegations against him went public, a prospective EP&E major said that she could not take the alternative course because of scheduling conflicts. She said she faced the difficult decision between jeopardizing her academic career and taking an ethical stand in the matter. Ultimately, she decided to take Pogge’s class.
As a first year at Yale, Fernanda Lopez Aguilar faced a similar moral dilemma: At the time, Harold Bloom taught one of the literature sections for Directed Studies — a humanities sequence focused on the Western Canon. Many of her peers boycotted the program because of Bloom’s alleged sexual misconduct detailed in Wolf’s New York magazine story. Lopez Aguilar said that, to this day, she still feels like “a moral failure” for having chosen to participate. She expressed frustration that the the University continues to put students in this uncomfortable position of having to choose between morals and academics.
“With the decision to [retain these faculty members], Yale is effectively saying to that whole group of students that does care about morality and the meaning of the knowledge they’re getting, ‘You don't matter. You as women … do not matter to this administration,’” Lopez Aguilar said.
Universities have a “certain calculus” when it comes to sexual misconduct, Spanish professor Anibal González-Pérez said. The administration considers the prestige of a faculty member vis-a-vis his or her behavior when deciding how to respond to a case of sexual harassment or assault. Though some universities pressure distinguished faculty members to resign or retire after allegations of sexual harassment are made public, González-Pérez said, Yale is not one of them.
The Right Direction
As a prospective student, Lopez Aguilar remembered her tour guide pointing to a painting of a woman at the far end of the Sterling Memorial Library nave. The woman, the guide said, was the embodiment of “lux et veritas” — values that the University claims are foundational.
“Yale is a liberal place that values social justice. That’s how it’s sold to you in catalogues,” Lopez Aguilar said. To her, Yale seemed to have the moral compass that other big-name universities lacked. But after the University’s handling of her case against Pogge, Lopez Aguilar no longer felt that morality guided the Yale administration’s actions.
Still, Lopez Aguilar said that she finds hope in the next generation of Yale students when she reads News op-eds criticizing the University’s handling of her case against Pogge and sees events like Calnek-Sugin and Newhouse’s, to which she accepted an invitation.
“I’m really happy to see that students have taken up the mantle for fighting for a morally pure campus because it seems like the president is unwilling to do so,” Lopez Aguilar said.
Medical School faculty members similarly took action after Simons’ permanent removal from chief of cardiology was reduced to an 18-month suspension from the position. According to professor of medicine John Hughes, there was a “dramatic outpouring of concern and anger” about the University’s mishandling of the case, with faculty members organizing a series of community meetings and town halls to discuss recent complaints of sexual harassment and the climate for women within the Medical School. Hughes added that he was “impressed” at how the women faculty members mobilized colleagues of all genders.
Hughes and professor of biochemistry and biophysics Joan Steitz, both vocal opponents of the University’s handling of the Simons case, said that Simons’ ultimate demotion largely resulted from faculty activism.
And yet, Simons retained his endowed professorship at the Medical School. Steitz said that Yale should implement a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and misconduct because the lack of appropriate repercussions “encourages” this kind of behavior.
Claire Bowern, chair of the Women’s Faculty Forum and a linguistics professor said that, when faculty members do face repercussions for their misconduct, it is problematic that the specific disciplinary actions and sanctions leveled against those professors closely resemble rewards given to faculty members for exemplary service. For example, being put on administrative leave can easily be confused with receiving an extra sabbatical. In the fall semester of 2016, González Echevarría took an unexpected semesterlong leave without any public explanation for the reason behind his absence.
Bowern said the Women’s Faculty Forum is trying to explore ways of punishing faculty members in a way that minimizes negative effects on students and faculty colleagues. But she conceded that there are few disciplinary actions that do not “ultimately rebound” on these innocent parties.
“Once we get to the point of sanctions, in many ways it’s too late,” Bowern said. “That reinforces why we should be thinking about this in terms of civility and community standards of behaviors that don't make it as far as formal complaints and sanctions. That’s why it’s so important to prevent this behavior as much as possible.”
Bowern emphasized that, although top-down changes can set the tone for the University, it is up to everyone in the Yale community to steer the University in the right direction.
Though not directly related to sexual misconduct, González-Pérez said he thinks that hiring new tenure-track faculty will help improve the climate of the Spanish Department. The Spanish Department started one of two searches for new senior faculty members last year.
“When a department has been affected by sexual harassment, it creates a type of malaise and distrust in the department, so bringing in new voices is extremely important because they are likely to be the future leaders of the department,” González-Pérez said. “I’m very hopeful about that, that we're going in the right direction.”
Bowern stressed that the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct is not just a problem for the women on campus, although they are disproportionately impacted and often deal with the bulk of the fallout.
“It’s to everyone’s benefit to have everyone at the University being able to do their best work,” Bowern said. “If we have certain students or certain faculty who are not able to do their best work, … that’s not something that benefits the University as a whole, and so the University as a whole should be taking steps to address it.”
Lofton, who is in charge of identifying and establishing best practices in the recruitment, retention, promotion and support of arts and sciences faculty members, said that listening to each other, asking questions and adjusting behavior accordingly are key to creating the culture we desire at Yale. According to Lofton, faculty members are taught to promote their own excellence as part of their careers, but in situations involving the academic climate, it is important to “amplify” the voices of others.
Though Lofton maintains that the University-Wide Committee does “great” work, she said students’ frustration about the cases of Pogge, González Echevarría and Bloom is indicative of a broader dissatisfaction regarding the lack of improvement of the culture at Yale. She added that it is the job of University leaders and faculty members to listen to students’ concerns and take them seriously.
The December email campaign called on the University to prove to students that it is, indeed, moving in the right direction toward a respectful and open academic climate.
“I think students have full rights to ask that and continue to voice those concerns,” Lofton said. “It is only in the light of inquiry, as our motto suggests, that truth will be found.”