Activism, apathy reign in different Yale departments



Mathematics professor Harald Helfgott says his mother always told him never to cross a picket line. Helfgott, whose class, “Introduction to Number Theory,” now meets at the United Church on Temple Street, is the only mathematics professor to move his class off campus in response to the strike that began on Aug. 27.

But in the second-floor offices of the Hall of Graduate Studies, home of many professors in the American Studies Department, cloistered silence and dark offices tell another side of the story.

According to a Web site maintained by the striking unions, 22 American studies classes and sections have moved off campus, leaving empty classrooms and locked offices as subtle signs of the strike’s influence on campus intellectual life. Telephones ring unanswered, and colleagues can go days without seeing one another.

The strike “has reduced significantly the daily personal contact,” said Jean-Christophe Agnew, chairman of the American Studies Department. “It has reduced the sense of community.”

Although the unions’ site said about one-third of Yale’s faculty members have moved their classes and office hours off campus for the duration of the strike, this number does not reflect the wide disparity among departments. While the American Studies, Sociology and African American Studies departments have had significant portions of their professors move classes off campus, most Group IV departments, including mathematics, have had few classes move. Professors whose classes require laboratory space or involve extensive multimedia presentations find relocation virtually impossible.

Vicki Shepard, a striking worker and the senior administrative assistant for the American Studies Department, said she thinks American Studies has higher numbers of professors unwilling to cross picket lines because their areas of specialization relate closely to the issues surrounding the strike.

“Labor rights are civil rights, and both of these programs understand that in a way that is intensely personal,” Shepard said.

Shepard also points to the American Studies Department’s close community as part of the reason that so many faculty members in the department support the strike.

“I am called at home, I am joined on the picket line,” she said. “My chairman has come to events — A temporary mission has taken place. Everybody wants this settled.”

Some of the faculty members have not moved far from their home in the Hall of Graduate Studies. Agnew meets students in Au Bon Pain instead of his office, while Director of Undergraduate Studies Steve Pitti signs student schedules in Koffee Too?

But in the Mathematics Department, Helfgott’s decision to move his class is an anomaly and has been met with little controversy.

“I’m a first-year assistant professor, and none of the others seem to be strongly against or for it,” Helfgott said. “I have not been intimidated in any way by my colleagues. They’re quite apathetic.”

Mathematics professor Per-Gunnar Martinsson said the department’s apathy is not limited to the strike.

“People just aren’t really involved,” Martinsson said. “Many of the teachers are foreigners. [Mathematics professors] tend to be less progressive and engaged in public debate than those in the humanities and social sciences. In the natural sciences, teachers aren’t as interested in politics.”

Graduate students in the department are equally disengaged, with few joining colleagues, many of them members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, on picket lines. Director of Undergraduate Studies and professor Andrew Casson said the Mathematics Department is simply trying to keep classes running and staffed.

Both Casson and Martinsson added that they are personally against the strike.

“I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of the union leadership,” Casson said. “[The strike] reminds me of the time coal unions would go out on strike during the coldest times of the year in England. I haven’t detected any reason not to support the university.”

While individual members of the Mathematics Department may have opinions about the strike, the department as a whole remains uninvolved in campus discussion about the strike.

“Maybe it’s our mindset,” one clerical worker in the Mathematics Department said. “We’re a low-key, efficient department.”

Students seem equally unaffected. Dimple Mirpuri ’04 said the strike has not even been acknowledged in any of her math classes.

“I’m taking three math classes and nothing has been moved,” Mirpuri said.

James Campbell ’05 said the decision to keep classes on campus was simply one of practicality.

“In math classes you need chalkboards,” Campbell said. “You’re not going to teach a math class by standing up there and lecturing.”

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