On October 14th, 2010, Professor Melanie Boyd ’90 met her 23-person seminar, Theorizing Sexual Violence, as usual in the Hall of Graduate Studies. But this wasn’t just any other class session. Less than 24 hours before, a group of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity pledges had paraded around Old Campus, chanting a series of sexually degrading phrases.
The occurrence could not be ignored — it was too closely related to the purpose of Boyd’s seminar, which she said aims to provide “a variety of frames for understanding the dynamics and impact of sexual violence.”
Boyd arrived and calmly announced that she was pushing back that week’s scheduled discussion — the class would serve instead as a mini think tank to address the previous night’s actions. “She asked us ‘What is a script breaking response? How can we respond to this in a nontraditional way, a way that changes people’s thinking?’” recalled Rachel Milewicz ’13, a student in the seminar.
Boyd, currently 43, began teaching at Yale five years ago in the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Department. Two years later, Yale College Dean Mary Miller created the position of Special Assistant on Gender Issues and appointed Boyd. She was an “ideal candidate to develop a robust program of education that could launch very quickly,” Miller wrote in an email to the News, because of her sexual violence research and WGSS teaching experience.
Miller initially outlined the job as a quarter-time position, but Miller explained that after the DKE incident last year the job increased to half-time because “it became clear” that the University needed to devote more resources to gender issues on campus.
Now, following Boyd’s recent appointment as assistant dean of student affairs, she devotes all of her time to work with the Dean’s Office. As Yale remains under investigation from a Title IX complaint filed this spring, Boyd is leading efforts to reshape how Yale handles cases of sexual assault. While the University is working to provide her with the tools to be more proactive, Boyd also calls on her knowledge from a long history of teaching and discussing issues related to sexual misconduct.
During her undergraduate years at Yale, Boyd was unexpectedly introduced to the field that has provided both the focus of her academic research and the guiding principles of her everyday work.
She arrived at Yale as a member of the class of 1989 and as the first from her family to go to college. Having grown up in Bermuda, where her father worked as a hotel manager and her mother as a research assistant in a marine biology lab, she said she was accustomed to a classroom environment based not on discussion, but on memorization.
“I was completely unprepared on many fronts for what it would be like to be in a place like this,” she said.
Originally a physics major, Boyd intended to graduate from Yale without ever writing an essay, a feat that she says could be accomplished in those days. During the second semester of her junior year, at the urging of her roommates, she enrolled in a class with a writing section: the introductory women’s studies lecture.
“It was mind-blowing to me that I was in this sort of interdisciplinary social science, humanities class, writing a five page essay,” Boyd said, adding that it was the hardest work she had ever done.
By the end of that semester, she had officially switched her major to Women’s Studies. As a result, Boyd would need to stay at Yale for an extra semester.
“The combination of the topics and the kind of intellectual work you could do as a writer,” she said, “was just incredibly exciting to me.”
Boyd returned to Yale five years ago after earning her Ph.D. in English and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan and doing her post doctorate work in Gender Studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. She lectured in Yale’s WGSS department and went on to serve as its director of undergraduate studies.
But while Boyd’s decision to change majors came late in her undergraduate career, her activist approach to social issues was present from the start.
SPACE FOR DISCUSSION
On a Tuesday night in William L. Harkness Hall, a group of 25 communication and consent educators — students who teach in the residential colleges about issues relating to sexual assault — discuss their opinions on a reading about sexual assault prevention. As the founder of the recently-formed CCE program, Boyd is the senior figure in the room, but her presence is not obvious.
She rarely chimes in with her own opinions. Instead, Boyd is the passive facilitator — nodding her head, muttering “mhmm, mhmm” and posing occasional questions to prompt further conversation.
Part of Boyd’s job today is leading student forums that discuss issues of sexual misconduct. Guided by an aim to create what she describes as “a positive campus culture,” this space is an example of how Boyd is opening conversation about difficult issues.
Sexual assault prevention and rape crisis counseling, Boyd says, only became professionalized programs at universities in the 1990’s — after she graduated from Yale.
In some ways, Yale was not “geared up” to appropriately support female students during their time at Yale, said Jessica Bauman ’90, Boyd’s college roommate of three years.
“I think we didn’t know that anything could be different, but I feel that now there’s a whole level of talking about what it means to be a woman on campus,” Bauman said. “Those weren’t even conversations that we knew we could be having.”
As a freshman and sophomore, Boyd participated in student protests against the University’s investment in South Africa by building shantytowns in Beinecke Plaza. After her sophomore year, she lived in what she called an off-campus “activist household” with housemates involved in animal rights issues and Central American politics. And, by the fall of her junior year, Boyd took on a new role — women’s rights advocate.
After training with the New Haven Rape Crisis Center to be certified as a rape crisis worker in Conn., she said she went on to apply her knowledge to programs on campus. Thursday through Sunday nights, Boyd ran a rape crisis hotline that another student had started one year earlier. Soon after, she formed semester-long support groups for sexual assault victims and initiated freshman orientation programs about sexual assault prevention.
“As an undergrad, it was formative for me to listen to people figure out ways that they were going to be able to cope with this experience and move on with their lives,” Boyd recalled. “You can see what people can do individually, but there’s also a limit to what individuals can do.”
A NEW DIALOGUE
From her work in the classroom, Boyd has learned how to communicate closely with undergraduates, a tool that she uses to bridge the perceived gap between her administrative role and the student body.
“We don’t think of ourselves as the administration with a capital ‘A’ but many students do,” said Maria Trumpler, the director of Yale’s Office of LGBTQ Resources and current WGSS director of undergraduate studies. “You just have to accept that and find ways of working when you’re seen as the administration and therefore part of the problem.”
In addition to starting the Communication and Consent Educator program that began this fall, Boyd has also helped to implement the new University Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, a centralized board that hears sexual misconduct cases from across the University.
“Rather than a list of ways sex can go wrong, which is the way sexual prevention often goes, she’s working to say, ‘Well, what do we want to put in place of the things you’re not supposed to do?’” said Theresa Braunschneider, an English professor at Washington and Lee University and Boyd’s classmate from Michigan. “Melanie has a much higher standard which is not just trying to make sure people don’t get raped, or hurt, or violated, but actually trying to figure out what kind of cultural moves you can make where people can thrive and flourish in their sexual practice.”
It is not yet clear what effect the CCE program or the new University-Wide Committee will have on the campus’s sexual climate, but Boyd acknowledges that change is slow. And, Bauman said, “In retrospect, there’s something really satisfying about the fact that she’s gone from being a student leader to now having an important voice in the administration to change things for the better.”
Miller announced Boyd’s appointment to the position of assistant dean of student affairs on Oct. 6.