Stanford Medical School must address sexual misconduct

Last month, the Undergraduate Senate unanimously approved a resolution to address sexual violence. This resolution contained a number of sensible and actionable changes that will make our campus safer. I wholeheartedly congratulate the sponsors, authors, and supporters of the resolution for continuing this fight.

But this problem extends beyond undergraduate education to graduate schools, most notably the School of Medicine.

I have worked at the School of Medicine in various roles for almost twenty years. During that time, I have consistently observed a serious issue of sexual misconduct on the part of the school’s faculty. In the past decade, there have been at least three Stanford physicians who 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 going to jail over the summer for sexually assaulting a former trainee in the workplace; and Assistant Professor Dan Garza of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery took his own life in 2013 while under research for allegedly drugging and assaulting various members of the Stanford community. In addition, Professor José Montoya of Infectious Diseases was switched on in 2019 following allegations of “unsolicited sexual acts with his female employees, among many other instances of harassment and misconduct,” the Daily reported at the time.

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, he took three and a half years, Three Independent researcha criminal accusationa guilty plea and conviction and several media stories before the school formally acknowledged to its faculty that any incident had occurred, eventually doing so via a department-wide email in March 2022.

The school never formally acknowledged the allegations against Garza. Several years ago, I reported to the university about the off-campus harassment of a student by a faculty member. I later learned that the faculty had been removed from his department’s web pages, and the student informed me that, after investigation, he had been allowed to quietly resign from Stanford rather than be publicly fired. He now he works in another university.

There are serious consequences if the institution does not publicly acknowledge sexual misconduct by faculty. Victims feel even more isolated and unvalidated, depriving them of full justice. It also increases the risk of professional retaliation against victims, as perpetrators can more easily sabotage careers behind the scenes when their misconduct and true motivations are unknown to those around them.

Fear of retaliation continues to be one of the biggest barriers to women who denounce sexual violence in academia. The lack of transparency obscures the scope of the problem from rank-and-file members of the faculty, as well as from staff, residents, and students. More importantly, the lack of public accountability for past perpetrators prevents deterrence of current and future perpetrators. They have relatively little to fear when the most likely result of sexually assaulting a colleague is only the need to quietly switch jobs to another institution, one that is completely unaware of their past misdeeds.

The School of Medicine cannot assume that changes in culture, attitudes, and behaviors that may be occurring in other parts of Stanford will simply spill over to our corner of campus. I ask the undergraduate and faculty senates, Stanford Free of Sexual Violence, the Title IX Office, and our administrators that future campus-wide efforts to address sexual violence include the medical school as an equally important partner and a target for change.

To that end, the Undergraduate Senate should add a sixth person to the list of professors it called out by name for having “committed egregious acts of sexual violence” for which they should be fired and stripped of honors: Dr. Mark Perlroth, Professor emeritus in the Department of Medicine. Dr. Perlroth’s egregious alleged harassment of a student and then an intern, infamous enough to be Featured in the New York Times decades before #MeToo—led to being censored by the university. However, he later resumed his previous duties, which included more than a decade of additional service in the medical school admissions panel.

While Dr. Perlroth’s bullying may seem like ancient history, preceding it exists of other institutions to strip the emeritus status of the faculty for long past misconduct. While this is only a symbolic gesture, it would be important, as it indicates that sexual predators among medical school doctors and scientists are not immune from blame and full 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 subsequently commit their own horrible acts. Deterrence is a critical component 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 ample opportunity for the accused to defend himself.

However, once that investigation is complete, if the allegation is found to have merit, three things must occur: First, a sanction proportional to the offense must be imposed. Second, the identity of the perpetrator and the nature of his misconduct should be made public to the extent possible while protecting the identity of the victims. Third, victims must be supported and protected against retaliation. Our institution failed in these actions with Perlroth thirty years ago, and continues to fail with the perpetrators today.

While combating sexual violence is everyone’s responsibility, there is much that faculty members can do as individuals. Even when we feel appropriately empowered and empowered to report acts of misconduct, doing so can feel like a game of whacking a mole. One perpetrator is sanctioned or goes quietly, and another turns up elsewhere.

As part of a larger plan for the University and School of Medicine to address sexual misconduct, there must be adequate, proportionate, and public punishment for professors who have violated our community’s standards around this issue. This change will provide victims with a greater sense of support, validation, and justice; empower passers-by to report witnessed incidents; and will help deter potential perpetrators from 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 an intern in 2003.

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