Administrators have instituted a range of changes in the Spanish and Portuguese Department — including appointing a new director of graduate studies, mandating sexual harassment training for faculty and temporarily banning recruitment of graduate students — following a review of long-standing allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power against senior faculty. But the measures have been criticized by some professors and graduate students as failing to address deeper-rooted issues within the department.
In March 2015, an anonymous group of Spanish and Portuguese graduate students wrote a letter criticizing a “highly negative atmosphere” within the department. In particular, the letter denounced an environment of fear and intimidation and alleged that the director of graduate studies, Noël Valis, and the department chair, Rolena Adorno, did not take students’ concerns seriously. It also contained allegations of sexual harassment against Spanish professor Roberto González Echevarría GRD ’70. The letter was circulated among students and professors in the department as well as to administrators.
In response, administrators announced a broad review of the department led by Jamaal Thomas from Yale’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and Barbara Goren, an independent consultant. The review took approximately six months and consisted of interviews with over 60 people, according to Dean of the Graduate School Lynn Cooley and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler.
The process culminated in a report which administrators, including Cooley and Gendler, summarized for the department’s ladder faculty, lectors and graduate students at a meeting on Dec. 15. While the report made no findings of fact about misconduct within the department, students in attendance said it revealed many of the problems outlined in the March letter. The document itself was not shared with any department members but remained confidential among top administrators. At the December meeting, administrators also announced a host of changes to the department, including the appointment of a new DGS from outside the department and mandatory sexual harassment training for faculty members. Administrators have stressed that the changes are non-punitive.
Several graduate students interviewed expressed disappointment that Adorno and González Echevarría in particular faced no consequences, even though they said the summary of the report confirmed that there are significant outstanding accusations of sexual harassment and abuse of power against these individuals. Students and professors say the University’s handling of the report has raised questions about the level of administrative oversight in departmental affairs and the challenges of taking disciplinary action against established faculty members.
“Nothing is going to change, basically,” said a graduate student who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “None of the changes are substantial. I don’t know why the administration is afraid. Why are they not making the changes that need to be made to revamp the department? And why are they not taking action against people who have been abusing their powers for such a long time?”
A CONTENTIOUS MEETING
At the December meeting, administrators addressed the ladder faculty, lectors and graduate students in separate rooms. Attendees offered the News differing accounts of the information that administrators shared with them, although all confirmed that the report provided no conclusions about accusations, nor did it make recommendations for disciplinary action.
“We learned that the main issue in the department was the differing educational and intellectual approaches and priorities of the faculty,” Cooley and Gendler wrote in a joint statement to the News. “In a large department, those kinds of differences can be managed and can even be fruitful, but, in the case of Spanish and Portuguese — which is a very small department — we learned that they had become an obstacle.”
Students and professors who attended the meeting used stronger language to describe the summary of the report’s contents. It revealed “damning things” about the climate of the department, according to a source present at the meeting who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic.
According to several sources who were in attendance, the report highlighted the fact that graduate students rarely voice their concerns about departmental climate — including problems of sexual harassment — to faculty due to fear of retaliation. It also noted that conflicts exist between senior faculty members, which have adversely affected graduate students’ education. The report also alluded to “authoritarian decision-making” within the department — whose chairmanship has been passed back and forth between Adorno and González Echevarría for years — and pointed out several controversial events, such as the denial of tenure to former Portuguese associate professor Paulo Moreira and the expulsion of a graduate student through the rejection of his dissertation prospectus, as evidence of contention within the department, according to a source at the meeting.
Professors and graduate students interviewed said they were unsurprised by the details of the report.
“The issues are widely known in the academic community and in my field,” Spanish professor Anibal González-Pérez GRD ’82 said.
But when asked about whether there are issues within her department, Adorno maintained that the review made no charges against any faculty members or students. She said she judges the climate of the department by its academic productivity, which she said was “healthy.”
Administrators also presented a series of changes to address the issues highlighted in the report, although there remains uncertainty about the specifics of some measures.
Cooley and Gendler have appointed East Asian Languages and Literatures professor Edward Kamens ’74 GRD ’82 as a temporary external DGS, effective starting this term. Kamens will work with graduate students and faculty to introduce changes to the requirements of the Ph.D. program and will help students address concerns as they arise, Cooley and Gendler said.
Kamens told the News he did not know the details of the report beyond the summary he was given.
“It is well understood that graduate students [in this department] have had some troubles, and my goal will be to ensure that policies, expectations and requirements are very clear and transparent, and followed in a reasonable manner,” Kamens told the News. “I don’t really know what has happened. That was then, and this is a new day.”
Graduate students and professors interviewed expressed enthusiasm about the change in the DGS position, but many expressed surprise — and in some cases dismay — that there were no other administrative changes, especially regarding the position of the department chair. Adorno will continue as chair until she goes on leave in January 2017. Details of her replacement remain unclear.
“Given the extent of the report, what must have been enormous cost and time involved, I would say that many found the reaction and changes to be very minimal,” Portuguese Director of Undergraduate Studies David Jackson said. “It was surprising that they would change the DGS and not make any other administrative changes. Was the DGS one of the main problems? Not that I was aware.”
Another graduate student said graduate students feel a lot of disappointment and anger about the changes. The student said many feel like there were no consequences for those who had not done their jobs properly.
“It feels like all of our grievances and the things that have been done to us, the administration is blaming it all on the DGS position,” the student said. “The DGS did not do her job, but she was doing it on the demand of the chair. And there are no consequences for the chair.”
In their email to the News, Cooley and Gendler emphasized that the change did not reflect on Valis’ work as the current DGS. Valis did not return a request for comment.
It is also unclear what role, if any, Kamens will play in resolving existing disputes between faculty members.
Still, González-Pérez said the change in the DGS position was “substantial,” and said he hopes Kamens will address the perceived unfairness against some graduate students.
Besides working with graduate students as a typical DGS would, Kamens said he hopes to encourage the faculty of department to review and update its requirements and procedures, which he said is “always a good idea.”
Some of these changes have already been implemented: for example, the department’s Graduate Studies committee, of which Kamens is now a member, has changed some of the rules governing the dissertation prospectus, making them more flexible and non-punitive, Jackson said. Jackson added that this change had been resisted “tooth and nail” in the past but that has now been passed unanimously due to pressure from the report and from Cooley.
Ladder faculty members of the department were also required to attend a one-time mandatory sexual harassment training, held on Jan. 19.
A graduate student said the allegations of sexual harassment against faculty arose during the meeting between administrators and students, and that the mandatory training was a direct response to these allegations. But Adorno said she was told the report found only that a member of the faculty had heard rumors about sexual harassment and did not know where to report them. The training was therefore mandated in order to educate faculty members about the resources, Adorno said.
González-Pérez said the measure seems to make everyone “pay” for what others may have done, but he added that he understands the administration’s need to show even-handedness.
Graduate students interviewed expressed frustration that no action was taken against González Echevarría, who was described as the “main assailant” of sexual harassment in the March 2015 letter. One speculated that because the report was a review and not an investigation, and all the information was confidential, no disciplinary action could be taken. Still, the student said the administration should have taken more substantial action.
“Even if you are doing a review, if you find something that is not handled properly, it seems ethical to do something about it,” the student said.
REPAIRING A REPUTATION
Despite these changes, the department’s future remains uncertain, especially regarding the recruitment and retention of graduate students.
Kamens confirmed that one graduate student has recently withdrawn from the program, and another has taken a leave of absence, although he did not say if these departures were due to turmoil within the department. The department is not allowed to bring in new graduate students until Kamens judges the climate “acceptable,” Jackson said. Jackson added that he expects Cooley to allow new applicants to be recruited after the sexual harassment training session, although the provision has not yet been lifted.
Both Jackson and González-Pérez expressed concerns about the reputation of the program and the recruitment of new graduate students. This past year, none of the five graduate students offered admission to Yale’s program chose to matriculate.
“I already see that the applicants for next year seem to be of lesser quality than some from the past,” Jackson said. “In my opinion, the graduate program would have to be rebuilt with some new hires before its reputation could be restored.”
González-Pérez expressed similar concerns, agreeing that the composition of the department must be renewed to send a message to prospective students. He added that the current changes are very discreet, and those in the field may not be aware of the changes, making it difficult to recruit students. He called for a sense of urgency and immediate change, although he admits that any drastic measures may be implausible.
Kamens admitted that his appointment would likely not directly affect the attractiveness of the program to prospective candidates.
“It is the faculty of the department that is primarily the attraction,” he said.