Last month, the Undergraduate Senate unanimously passed a resolution to address sexual violence. This resolution contained a number of sensible and achievable changes that will make our campus safer. I wholeheartedly congratulate the sponsors, authors and supporters of the resolution for continuing this fight.
But this issue goes beyond undergraduate education to graduate schools, including the School of Medicine.
I have worked at the School of Medicine in various roles for almost twenty years. During this time, I constantly observed a serious problem of sexual misconduct by teachers at the school. Over the past decade, at least three Stanford doctors have faced criminal investigations related to sex crimes: Pediatrics Dr. Dylan O’Connor was sentenced to prison this year for sexting with a minor. Professor John Giacomini – longtime director of Stanford’s cardiology fellowship program – was sentenced to prison over the summer for sexually assaulting a former intern in the workplace; and Assistant Professor Dan Garza of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery killed himself in 2013 while under investigation for allegedly drugging and assaulting several members of the Stanford community. Additionally, Professor Jose Montoya of Infectious Diseases was fired in 2019 after accusations of “unsolicited sexual acts with his female employees, among numerous other instances of harassment and misconduct”, as reported by the Daily at the era.
The School of Medicine has shown significant resistance to publicly commenting on the problem in general and to publicly disclosing even the existence of individual incidents or perpetrators. In Giacomini’s case, it took three and a half years, three independent investigations, an indictment, a guilty plea and conviction, and several media stories before the school officially acknowledged his faculty as an incident had occurred, finally doing so. via a department-wide email in March 2022.
The school has never officially acknowledged the charges against Garza. Several years ago, I reported the harassment of a student off campus by a faculty member at the university. I later noticed that the faculty had been erased from his department’s web pages, and was informed by the student that after an investigation he had been allowed to quietly resign from Stanford rather than be fired publicly. He now works at another university.
There are serious consequences if the institution does not publicly acknowledge sexual misconduct on the part of faculty. Victims feel even more isolated and unvalidated, depriving them of full justice. It also increases the risk of professional retaliation against victims since perpetrators can more easily sabotage behind-the-scenes careers when their misconduct and true motives are unknown to those around them.
Fear of retaliation remains one of the biggest barriers for women reporting sexual violence in academia. The lack of transparency masks the magnitude of the problem from rank-and-file faculty members, as well as staff, residents, and students. More importantly, a lack of public accountability of past perpetrators prevents the deterrence of current and future perpetrators. They have relatively little to fear when the most likely outcome of a sexual assault on a co-worker is only the need to quietly change jobs to another institution – one that will be blissfully unaware of their past misdeeds.
The School of Medicine cannot assume that changes in culture, attitudes, and behaviors that may occur elsewhere at Stanford will simply diffuse to our corner of campus. I ask the undergraduate and faculty senates, sexual violence-free Stanford, the Title IX office, and our trustees that future campus-wide efforts to address sexual violence include the medical school as a as an equally important partner and target of change.
To that end, the Undergraduate Senate should add a sixth person to the list of professors they named as having “committed heinous acts of sexual violence” for which they should be fired and stripped of honors: the Dr. Mark Perlroth, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Medicine. Dr Perlroth’s alleged blatant harassment of a student and later an intern – infamous enough to be featured in The New York Times decades before #MeToo – led to him being censored by the university. Nonetheless, he later returned to his previous duties, which included over a decade of additional service on the medical school admissions panel.
While the harassment of Dr. Perlroth may seem like ancient history, there is precedent at other institutions for stripping emeritus status from faculty for long past misconduct. Although only a token gesture, it would nonetheless be an important gesture, signaling that sexual predators among doctors and medical school scientists are not immune to guilt and blame. consequences.
If Dr. Perlroth had been properly punished thirty years ago, his colleagues Drs. Montoya and Giacomini, among others, would have felt less emboldened to commit their own gruesome acts afterwards. Deterrence is an essential element of punishment. When the punishment for past acts is too lenient, the deterrence against future acts will be inadequate.
It is important that the university and the School of Medicine conduct a fair and confidential investigation of any allegations of sexual misconduct by faculty, through a consistent and transparent process. This includes many opportunities for the accused to defend themselves.
However, once that investigation is complete, if the charge is found to be founded, three things must happen: first, a sentence commensurate with the misconduct must be meted out. Second, the identity of the perpetrator and the nature of their misconduct must be made public to the extent possible while simultaneously protecting the identity of the victims. Third, victims must be supported and protected from retaliation. Our institution failed on those actions with Perlroth thirty years ago, and it continues to fail with authors today.
Although the fight against sexual violence is everyone’s responsibility, there is little that faculty members can do as individuals. Even when we feel sufficiently trained and empowered to report misconduct, it can feel like a mole game. An author is sanctioned or leaves quietly, and another presents himself elsewhere.
As part of a larger plan for the University and School of Medicine to address sexual misconduct, there must be sufficient, proportionate, and public punishment of faculty who have violated our community standards at this topic. This change will provide victims with a greater sense of support, validation and justice; it will allow passers-by to report incidents they have witnessed; and it will help to deter potential perpetrators of future acts of misconduct.
Eric Strong is a hospitalist and clinical associate professor in the School of Medicine. He first joined the Stanford community as a medical intern in 2003.
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