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Stanford's medical dean discusses resignation of neurosurgeon who alleges widespread sexual discrimination

STANFORD--Dr. David Korn, responding to a widely publicized neurosurgeon's resignation, told news reporters Monday that "the School of Medicine does not and will not tolerate inappropriate sexual behaviors or actions," such as were alleged by the departing faculty member.

However, the Stanford University vice president and medical school dean, in a statement handed to reporters, said he believed Dr. Frances Conley resigned because of his decision to appoint Dr. Gerald Silverberg, a colleague, to the chairmanship of the Department of Neurosurgery, and not because of widely reported allegations of sexual harassment.

As an institution, Conley said in an interview on Tuesday, "we have to provide a climate where students can get their education in an environment where everyone feels equal. I don't think that environment is being created with the (chairman's) appointment that is being made in the Department of Neurosurgery."

Conley said the appointee -- whom she didn't name -- "is a wonderful physician, that has to be emphasized, but he is an old style surgeon in terms of attitude about women. Once you put a person into a high executive position, you simply validate his behavior about sexual differences in the workplace, providing for another generation of male chauvinistic surgeons."

In a letter to several newspapers last week, Conley noted her displeasure at functioning in an environment where "faculty are using slides of Playboy centerfolds to 'spice up' lectures; sexist comments are frequent and those who are offended are told to be 'less sensitive'..." (Korn responded that he was unaware of any specific incidents where magazine nude photos were used in lectures).

In his statement, Korn said he "accepted Professor Conley's resignation with regret." In response to reporter's queries, he said, "I would love Dr. Conley to stay...I don't think losing Frances Conley is good for the community."

Korn said he received Conley's resignation on May 23, one day after he told her that because of financial constraints he had terminated a national search for a chief of neurosurgery and decided instead to recommend the acting head, Silverberg, for the position. Conley and Silverberg are the only two full professors in the five-person neurosurgery department.

Conley told the dean, he said, that while not surprised at the decision, "she was sufficiently unhappy with it that she intended forthwith to notify me of her intention to resign her faculty appointment" to pursue a major administrative post elsewhere.

Korn said he had "written many letters of reference on Professor Conley's behalf" to recommend her for a senior leadership posts in academic medicine. While he said Silverberg "appeared to be the best qualified candidate for the (department chair) position at this time," he felt that Conley was looking for a larger leadership role since receiving a master of science in management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1986.

"I believe that Fran Conley would bring an impressive array of capabilities to such a position of academic medical center leadership, and I have prepared my reference letters with enthusiasm and sincerity," the dean's statement said.

Dr. Charlotte Jacobs, senior associate dean for education and student affairs, told reporters that while she has experienced sexual harassment in the past, not one incident has occurred in the 16 years since coming to Stanford, although she said she has heard allegations of such discrimination from other women.

Jacobs said the allegations raised by Conley will not initiate a debate but instead will underscore the need for a continuing process of change which is already occurring.

"It just gives us a challenge to carry forward what we are already planning to do" in terms of increasing medical opportunities for women. "I don't think this profession is any worse for women than many other professions," Jacobs said.

Korn cited statistics that the number of women at Stanford Medical School is growing, and that this year women represent almost a full 50 percent of the incoming medical student class.

During the past five years, Korn said, the percentage of women in the faculty has increased from 9 to 14 percent. The dean noted that he has appointed two women to major posts, including two academic chairmanships (Dr. Mary Lake Polan in gynecology and obstetrics, and Dr. Lucy Shapiro, in developmental biology).

At the news conference, Korn distributed Stanford's policy on sexual harassment, and said:

"I wish to state clearly for the record that the School of Medicine does not and will not tolerate inappropriate sexual behaviors or actions, for they degrade the learning and working environment of this institution. Any such behaviors that are brought to the attention of the Dean's office will be dealt with vigorously, fairly and effectively."

Korn said no cases of sexual harassment were brought to the attention of the Medical Center Ombudsman in the most recently completed fiscal year which ended Sept. 1, 1990. Only two cases were reported in the previous academic year. The office handled a total of 195 cases of other matters during the two-year period.

"We still have much work to do in changing attitudes, beliefs and behaviors within our profession, to eliminate bigotry and bias and to make the medical profession more hospitable and nurturing to its women and ethnic minority members," Korn said.



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