From the Community | Stanford Medical School must address sexual misconduct by faculty

Nov. 17, 2022, 9:28 p.m.

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

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

I have worked at the School of Medicine in various roles for nearly twenty years. During that time, I have consistently observed a severe problem with sexual misconduct by the school’s faculty. In the last decade, there have been at least three Stanford physicians who have faced criminal investigations relating to sex-related crimes: Dr. Dylan O’Connor from Pediatrics was sentenced to prison this year for sexting with a minor. Professor John Giacomini — the longtime director of Stanford’s cardiology fellowship program — was sentenced to jail over the summer for sexually assaulting a former trainee in the workplace; and Assistant Professor Dan Garza from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery took his own life in 2013 while under investigation for allegedly drugging and assaulting multiple members of the Stanford community. In addition, Professor Jose Montoya from Infectious Diseases was fired in 2019 after accusations of “unsolicited sexual acts with his female employees, among many other instances of harassment and misconduct,” as reported by the Daily at the time.

The School of Medicine has shown significant resistance to publicly commenting on the problem generally and to publicly disclosing even the existence of individual incidents or perpetrators. In the case of Giacomini, it took three and a half years, three independent investigations, a criminal indictment, a guilty plea and conviction and several stories in the media before the school formally acknowledged to their faculty that any incident had occurred, finally doing so via a department-wide email in March 2022.

The school has never formally acknowledged the accusations against Garza. Several years ago, I reported a student’s off-campus stalking by a faculty member to the university. I later noticed the faculty had been scrubbed from his department’s webpages, and I was informed by the student that after an investigation, he had been allowed to quietly resign from Stanford rather than be publicly fired. He now works at another university.

There are grave consequences from the institution failing to publicly acknowledge sexual misconduct by faculty. Victims feel even more isolated and unvalidated, robbing them of full justice. It also increases the risk of professional retaliation against victims since perpetrators can more easily sabotage careers from behind the scenes when their misconduct and true motivations are unknown to those around them.

Fear of retaliation remains one of the biggest barriers to women reporting sexual violence in academia. Lack of transparency hides the scope of the problem from rank-and-file members of the faculty, as well as from staff, residents and students. Most importantly, a lack of public accountability of past perpetrators prevents the deterrence of ongoing and future perpetrators. They have relatively little to fear when the most likely outcome from sexually assaulting a colleague is only a need to quietly change jobs to another institution — one which will be totally unaware of their past misdeeds.

The School of Medicine cannot assume that changes in culture, attitudes and behaviors that may be occurring elsewhere at Stanford will simply diffuse into our corner of campus. I ask of the Undergraduate and Faculty Senates, Sexual Violence-Free Stanford, 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 target for change.

To that end, the Undergraduate Senate should add a sixth individual to the list of professors they called out by name as having “committed heinous acts of sexual violence” for which they should be fired and stripped of honors: Dr. Mark Perlroth, emeritus faculty in the Department of Medicine. Dr. Perlroth’s egregious alleged harassment of a student and later intern — infamous enough to be featured in the New York Times decades before #MeToo — resulted in him being censured by the university. Nonetheless, he subsequently resumed his prior duties, which included over a decade of additional service on the med school admissions panel.

While Dr. Perlroth’s harassment may seem like ancient history, precedent exists from other institutions for stripping emeritus status of faculty for long passed misconduct. While only a symbolic gesture, it would nevertheless be an important one, signaling that sexual predators among the physicians and scientists of the medical school are not immune to full culpability and consequences.

Had Dr. Perlroth been adequately 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 punishment from prior acts is too lenient, deterrence against future acts will be inadequate.

It is important for the university and School of Medicine to conduct a fair and confidential investigation into any accusation of sexual misconduct by faculty, via a consistent and transparent process. This includes ample opportunity for the accused to defend themselves.

However, once that investigation has been completed, if the accusation is found to have merit, three things must occur: First, punishment proportional to the misconduct needs to be handed out. Second, the identity of the perpetrator and the nature of their misconduct should be made public to the extent possible while simultaneously protecting the identity of the victims. Third, victims need to be supported and protected against retaliation. Our institution failed on these actions with Perlroth thirty years ago, and it continues to fail with perpetrators today.

While combating sexual violence is everyone’s responsibility, there is only so much that faculty members can do as individuals. Even when we feel adequately trained and empowered to report acts of misconduct, doing so can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. One perpetrator is sanctioned or quietly leaves, and another shows up somewhere else.

As part of a broader plan for the University and School of Medicine to address sexual misconduct, there must be sufficient, proportional and public punishment of faculty who have violated our community’s standards around this issue. This change will provide victims a greater sense of support, validation and justice; it will empower bystanders to report witnessed incidents; and it will help deter would-be perpetrators from future acts of misconduct.

Eric Strong is a hospitalist and a Clinical Associate Professor at the School of Medicine. He first joined the Stanford community as a medical intern in 2003. 

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