Yale University has denied increasing the punishment for a senior academic convicted of sexual harassment as a result of critical coverage in a US newspaper.
Michael Simons was head of cardiovascular medicine at Yale and director of Yale Cardiovascular Research Center. He was also pivotal in establishing its collaboration with University College London and is currently a visiting British Heart Foundation professor at UCL.
In 2013 he was convicted by Yale’s University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct of sexually harassing Annarita Di Lorenzo, a postdoctoral researcher in a different School of Medicine department to whom he had unsuccessfully declared his love. He was also criticised for “exercising improper leadership and compromised decision-making” over Frank Giordano, an associate professor in his department, who Dr Di Lorenzo had begun dating and to whom she is now married.
The panel recommended that Professor Simons be suspended as head of cardiovascular medicine for five years, but Yale provost Benjamin Polak reduced it to 18 months.
On 1 November last year, a New York Times article claimed that the case had “led to new allegations that the university is insensitive to instances of [sexual] harassment”.
Yale, like other US universities, has been dogged by such allegations for several years, and the newspaper said it had interviewed 18 faculty members upset by the supposed leniency shown to Professor Simons.
Shortly before the article’s publication, Professor Simons said that he would not return as chief of cardiology, but he told Times Higher Education there remained a “firm understanding” that he would remain as director of the research centre. However, on 14 November, The New York Times reported that he had been “removed” as director.
A Yale spokesman told the paper that this was due to a previously completed “independent management review”. Professor Simons told THE that he had been told the real reason was to prevent any more negative articles, but a Yale spokesman reiterated that the decision “was not influenced by, or made in response to, media coverage of the School of Medicine or Professor Simons”.
Professor Simons denied mistreating Dr Di Lorenzo or Dr Giordano. Rejecting the former’s claim that his treatment drove her out of Yale in 2011, he said that his letter of recommendation, seen by THE, helped her to move to a permanent assistant professorship at Cornell University.
“Many” female colleagues wrote supportive letters to Yale and the newspapers, he said, but only one was published – by Yale Daily News.
“The whole episode is an example of mass hysteria at a time when the US is awash with sexual paranoia on campuses,” he said. He noted that 16 members of the University of Pennsylvania’s law faculty wrote an open letter last month warning that US universities were adopting “procedures that do not afford fundamental fairness” to those accused of sexual misconduct.
John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at UCL, said: “It will require institutional wisdom and courage if the effects of the polemic and irresponsible New York Times article are not to impede the socially important research of one of the world’s best vascular biologists.”
Dr Giordano denied that he and his wife had initiated the newspaper investigation. However, he believed that it had “resulted in a just decision that should have been the outcome without whatever influence the article may or may not have had”.