The Cost of Sleeping On a Wakeup Call
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Evelyn Yang was sexually assaulted by a Columbia doctor. Why does nobody care?
By Hailey Ryan
Content Warning: This piece includes descriptions of sexual assault.
We talk about privilege a lot at Columbia. Comment sections, op-eds, and seminars caution us to check our privilege, while constant reminders that we attend “the greatest University in the greatest city in the world” encourage us to celebrate our privilege. But rarely do we talk about the very real, often dangerous repercussions of living and learning in an environment whose foundation is built upon a narrative of exceptionalism. Rarely do we push beyond the conceptual and talk about privilege as a mechanism of silencing people who attempt to shatter the exclusive bubble of self-protection in which we so comfortably reside.
I have grown frighteningly indifferent to this danger. I find myself slipping into an ethos of exceptionalism—“I’m special!”—more than I would like to admit. I did not have my wakeup call until winter break, when Evelyn Yang, one of the many people who have paid the price of our privilege, called Columbia out on national television.
On January 16, Yang, a Columbia graduate and the wife of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, said in an interview with CNN that she was sexually assaulted by Robert Hadden, her obstetrician/gynecologist, in 2012, when she was seven months pregnant. Yang explained that Hadden, an esteemed Columbia doctor, misled her into thinking she needed a C-section and proceeded to grab, undress, and internally examine her, ungloved.
Yang remained silent after the traumatic appointment, hiding the abuse from even her husband and blaming herself for not realizing the extent of Hadden’s predatory nature earlier. Yang explained that gradually, Hadden began asking her unsolicited questions about her sexual activity with her husband, which were unrelated to her health or that of her unborn child.
“There was absolutely no premise for that line of questioning, and it seemed like he just wanted to hear about me talking about sex. What I kept sticking to was this: ‘OK, so my doctor is pervy. I have a pervy doctor, but I’m going to focus on having a healthy baby,’ and the idea of changing doctors was overwhelming for me,” Yang explained.
Illustration by Mwandeyi Kamwendo
Little did Yang know that she was one of at least 70 women who have fallen victim to Hadden, a serial sexual abuser who preyed on pregnant women for years under the facade of legitimate medical practice. It was not until months later, when Yang was notified that Hadden had left his practice at Columbia, that she did some digging and discovered that Hadden had been arrested six weeks before Yang’s own assault after a patient informed the police that he licked her vagina during an exam. Hadden’s arrest, however, was nullified, and he was allowed to keep practicing with no repercussions from the University.
“Can you imagine the audacity of a man who continues to do this after being arrested? It’s like he knew that he wouldn’t face any repercussions. That he was protected. That he wouldn’t be fired,” Yang said.
It’s likely that Hadden did, in fact, know that he wouldn’t face any repercussions—that he would be protected by his longtime employer. According to Yang and the other women who are now suing Columbia University, its affiliates, and Hadden, the University “actively concealed, conspired, and enabled” Hadden’s sexual abuse as a part of a “massive coverup” to avoid negative publicity.
“It’s a name-brand university behind this doctor, using their influence to protect themselves at the expense of the victims in the case,” Yang said. It’s tragic that the University would defend their reputation over their own alumna, sending a frightening message to female community members that the University’s status matters more than its students’ health and safety.
The valiance that Yang demonstrated during her interview with CNN, in which she ultimately appeared triumphant if deeply pained, felt like the impetus for a long-overdue wakeup call on this campus to hold the University accountable for its instrumental role in enabling abusers like Hadden. I went to bed that night overwhelmed with sadness but inspired to contribute to this University’s rich tradition of activism by protesting Hadden. I expected to return from break and find my campus in a state of outrage, to a student body inspired by Yang’s monumental bravery, disheartened by her pain, and disgusted by the University’s role in provoking it. Instead, I quickly learned that many of my peers had no idea what happened to Yang and that many who did saw it as a tragic inevitability.
My sadness quickly turned to anger. After a week of school passed, I called my mom to ask why no one cared about what happened to Evelyn Yang. Why no rallies had been planned in protest. Why no Instagram stories had been circulating in solidarity. Why The Spectator hadn’t written a story on her assault. “How can my peers walk around campus proud and upright when they have no moral backbone?” I asked her.
She told me that privilege has a way of bending us. I couldn’t help but think back to what Yang so humbly said about privilege in her interview: “Not everyone can tell their story. Not everyone has the audience or platform to tell their story, and I actually feel like I’m in this very privileged position to be able to do that.”
Yang does not view her privilege as protecting or entitling her, but as an opportunity to give voice to survivors across the country. Yang’s understanding of her privilege made me realize that what was wrong on campus was not a lack of empathy for Hadden’s victims, but rather a blindness to the exclusionary culture that forms when privilege goes unchecked. At an elite institution, where student and faculty identities are grounded in a narrative of exceptionalism, this is the status quo. Members of elite circles are used to receiving forgiveness and expedited consequences, an immunity that undermines the severity of injustices like sexual assault. When people we are supposed to admire and learn from, like doctors and professors, can do harm for years unchecked, it becomes astonishingly easy to collectively overlook the culpability of those who should be held accountable.
When you do a little digging, there is nothing exceptional about what happened to Evelyn Yang; she is one member of a tragically long line of people who have fallen victim to sexual assault under Columbia’s eye.
We missed our opportunity to stand in solidarity with Yang and to express our disappointment with the University’s role in covering Hadden’s tracks. But we can view our inaction as an opportunity to reshape our relationship to privilege and dismantle our campus’s exclusionary culture. We can view our shameful inaction as an opportunity to do better, to realign our moral backbones, and to not sleep on yet another wakeup call.