How Columbia University Ignored Women, Undermined Prosecutors, and Protected a Sexual Predator for More Than 20 Years

Bianca Fortis and Laura Beil, ProPublica and New York Magazine, How Columbia University Ignored Women, Undermined Prosecutors, and Protected a Sexual Predator For More Than 20 Years. For decades, patients warned Columbia about the behavior of obstetrician Robert Hadden. One even called 911 and had him arrested. Columbia let him keep working. Tuesday, 12 September 2023: “Columbia University — where Robert Hadden spent his entire medical career — has never fully accounted for its role in allowing a predator to operate unchecked for decades. To date, more than 245 patients have alleged that Hadden abused them, which by itself could make him one of the most prolific sexual assailants in New York history. But the total number of victims may be far higher. On any given day during his two decades of practice at Columbia, Hadden saw 25 to 40 patients. Tens of thousands came under his care. A baby girl he delivered grew up to be a teenager he allegedly assaulted. Hadden, 65, was sentenced in July to 20 years in federal prison — the result of a long, arduous process that Columbia often undermined. One of the country’s most acclaimed private universities was deeply involved in containing, deflecting and distancing itself from the scandal at every step. In agreeing to pay $236.5 million to resolve lawsuits brought by 226 of Hadden’s victims, Columbia admitted no fault, which is in keeping with public statements over the years placing the blame for what happened solely on Hadden. But the university’s own records show that women repeatedly tried to warn Columbia doctors and staff about Hadden. At least twice, the fact that Hadden’s bosses in the OB-GYN department knew of the women’s concerns was acknowledged in writing. They allowed him to continue practicing. Once Hadden’s crimes became clear, Columbia worked to tamp down the crisis. It waited months to tell his patients that he was no longer working, and then sent matter-of-fact letters that omitted the reason. After police and local prosecutors began to investigate Hadden in 2012, Columbia failed to hand over evidence in its possession, despite subpoenas that compelled it to do so. The university also did not tell the district attorney when more patients came forward — witnesses who could have strengthened the case prosecutors were trying to build. The DA found Columbia’s conduct so concerning that the office launched a criminal investigation into the university itself, along with the affiliated hospital where Hadden had admitting privileges. The inquiry found that Columbia had, by neglecting to place document-retention holds, ‘intended to destroy’ emails written by Hadden and his former colleagues who had left the university. The DA found the records because they were ‘inadvertently left on an old server.’ (Columbia disputes this.) The local investigation of Hadden ended in a 2016 deal that allowed him to avoid serving a single day in jail. Cyrus Vance Jr., who was DA at the time, says that if Columbia had fully cooperated, it might have made a difference in his office’s decision to accept a plea. ‘Obviously that did not happen,’ Vance says. His former deputy, Karen Friedman Agnifilo, is more direct. Columbia, she says, ‘didn’t have clean hands here. If they didn’t know, it’s because they chose not to know.’ Hadden remained free until his victims began to go public in such numbers that federal investigators took up the case in 2020 and secured his conviction.”