While answering my e-mail Friday evening, I paused to read President Levin’s statement in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. This seemingly innocuous note reminded me yet again of how numerous social actors in the post-civil rights era have seized on the legacy of King in pursuit of their own objectives, regardless of how they conflict with King’s actual historical legacy and the values of racial and economic justice for which he stood.
Levin reminds us that the University was the site of racist and homophobic graffiti last fall. Aside from leaving out a number of other incidents that caused alarm — from the racial profiling of library worker Bernard Rogers (and its denial) to the use of blackface on Halloween — Levin’s e-mail distorts the history of the graffiti debate in noting that he was “gratified by the widespread concern expressed by students, faculty, staff, and alumni…” While many people expressed their anger over the graffiti, the notion that such concern was “widespread” implies a consensus that ignores condemnations of the rally against hate before it was even held, and neglects the insistent denials of many students of the possibility that the perpetrators were Yale students. Levin calls on us to speak out against such hate, and yet one cannot help but remember his bizarre silence in that moment.
Levin expressed excitement at expanding diversity among the faculty; yet he ignores the role of increasing casualization of academic labor (i.e. the trend of making more academic jobs part-time and without opportunity for advancement into job security or tenure) in affording such increases. The number of new faculty hires for non-tenure track jobs at Yale has increased 54 percent in the last 15 years, while the number of tenure-track jobs has decreased 27 percent. This has meant greater diversity among non-ladder faculty but only bare increases in the number of tenured women and people of color — a trend that holds across the Ivy League, as a 2005 GESO report entitled “The (Un)Changing Face of the Ivy League” documented. Yale still has only three tenured black women in its faculty. According to “Decline of the tenure track raises concerns” (11/20/07) published in The New York Times, non-ladder faculty are effectively silenced by constraints on their academic freedom, both in terms of greatly restricted research time and their fear of the effect their work will have on their chances of being offered tenure at their home institution or elsewhere. What, then, does it mean to have achieved this kind of diversity?
Finally, Levin turns to the University’s impact on New Haven. Yet in painting a problem-free picture of town-gown relations, Levin evades perhaps the most hotly contested site of economic injustice in our city in the past year: Yale-New Haven Hospital, where 1,800 workers’ chance to form a union through an agreement which Yale brokered was thwarted by massive intimidation that came from the highest levels of management. That intimidation, well documented in arbitrator Margaret Kern’s many rulings, made it impossible for workers to have a fair election on the question of union representation and thus improbable for them to win higher wages and benefits, including affordable health care, in the immediate future.
And so we can only ask where was Levin, who sits on the hospital’s Board of Directors and appoints a third of its members, when Borgstrom and other top administrators employed a multimillion-dollar union-busting firm? Where was he when it became clear that the chance for a fair election was slipping away?
And why did Levin, who calls on us to work against injustice in his e-mail, fail to use his real power to do justice in this particular situation to move all parties toward a fair resolution following the cancellation of the union election in December 2006? Why did he not insist that workers, a majority of whom had plainly indicated by signing union membership cards that they would vote for the union, should be able to collectively bargain? Had this university shown any willingness to hold its teaching hospital accountable for its lawlessness and violation of community trust, perhaps the arbitrator would have felt that she could have issued a ruling that had a more serious remedy. Instead, she saw that the University would fail to support true redress for such behavior, and thus issued what was ultimately a much weaker ruling. King, who was assassinated at a crucial sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis and who vigorously supported the efforts of Local 1199 to unionize non-profit hospital workers in the North and South, would have been appalled at Yale’s behavior.
And so I will echo President Levin’s question in 2005 in an address he gave to Congregation Mishkan Israel on the occasion of MLK Day: “On this day of remembrance for a paragon of social justice, we should ask ourselves: Are we doing enough to encourage the organizations where we work, live, and worship to act in the service of justice?” In 2008, the question remains: Is Yale really living by King’s values?
Hugh Baran is a junior in Davenport College. His column will usually run on alternate Thursdays.