More than 35 state assemblymembers, led by Assemblywoman Grace Lee, sent a letter to Columbia University’s new president last week demanding that the school investigate how disgraced OB/GYN Robert Hadden was allowed to work and abuse patients for more than two decades. As two of Hadden’s victims, we’ve been asking Columbia this same question for more than a decade. Will they listen now that more than 500 victims have stepped forward and a bombshell investigative report revealed just how much they in fact did know?
In her inaugural address earlier this month, President Minouche Shafik said her vision for Columbia University is for it to be “a beacon in this world.” We want that, too. The inauguration of a university president often signals change within an institution — even more so when the new leader is the first woman in 270 years.
For years we have pushed for the university to be better, specifically in its handling of sexual assault cases and its treatment of survivors like us. It failed, and continues to do so. Columbia not only didn’t protect us from Hadden, a known sexual predator, but the university used its power to intimidate us and conceal its role in the abuse we experienced.
After Hadden’s first arrest for sexual assault in 2012, Columbia allowed him to return to work just days later, despite an on-going NYPD investigation. Had Columbia believed the woman who put her trust in a doctor and conducted its own investigation of Hadden, at least eight women, including one of us, could have been spared from his assault.
When local prosecutors began investigating Hadden later that year, the university withheld evidence and did not inform the district attorney when more patients came forward, which would have bolstered the case. The district attorney later found Columbia intended to destroy emails (which the university denies). Columbia contends Hadden “worked to evade [their] oversight.” But a former prosecutor who handled the case says Columbia “didn’t have clean hands.”
After 25 years of abusing patients, Hadden was sentenced in July to 20 years in prison. While Hadden finally is being held accountable for his crimes, Columbia continues to shirk its own responsibility.
To date, Columbia has paid $236 million to resolve lawsuits by 226 of Hadden’s patients. Earlier this month another 301 lawsuits were filed on behalf of Hadden victims. As part of the first round of settlements, the university did not accept fault or apologize.
Last month, after a thoroughly reported investigation published by ProPublica that exposed the university’s coverup, Columbia distributed a statement, not to survivors, but solely to its internal community. It was a tepid apology at best and self-serving propaganda at worst.
No statement came when we asked Columbia for support. The university again remained silent after Hadden was arrested. It said nothing when he was sentenced. Acknowledgment came only after a cycle of bad press. It was a continuation of Columbia’s strategy to deflect and pass blame. As survivors, it was incredibly disheartening, and a reminder to all women how and why abusers and predators so often behave with brazen disregard.
This is an opportunity for President Shafik to make Columbia that “beacon in the world” and usher in a new era — one of integrity and accountability rather than whitewashing and secrecy.
She can start by following a 2016 order by the state Department of Health to alert Hadden’s patients to the loss of his medical license and subsequent criminal conviction. There are likely hundreds more survivors who, like us, will not know there are other victims until they read about it in the news. They should not be left in the dark.
But Shafik’s administration has shown no signs it plans to comply. Instead, Columbia appears to be running out the clock on the Adult Survivors Act, which closes on Nov. 23, and will bar many victims from seeking justice through the courts.
In her speech, Shafik spoke about how imperative it is for institutions like Columbia to have fair processes and the ability to measure progress. We could not agree more. Columbia must conduct a formal investigation to understand how a predator was allowed to assault hundreds of women over 25 years and ensure the safeguards are now in place to prevent it from happening again.
A beacon lights the way, but Columbia must turn the light on itself to chart a new course forward. The university and many in its leadership are complicit in the victimization of hundreds of women. We hope Shafik recognizes and addresses these institutional failures so her inauguration can usher in lasting change.
Hoechstetter and Yang were patients of Hadden in the Columbia University medical system.