While recent headlines about the Yale School of Medicine and the decision-making authority of the University-Wide Committee have been embarrassing, they also encourage us to discover the real problems that need to be addressed. These embarrassments can provide the opportunity to change the status quo with regard to race, gender and the problem of diversity at Yale.
Decades of research into sexual violence and sexual harassment have told us that these are problems of power. Persons belonging to a powerful group think that they can get away with abusing that power, or that their power protects them from the consequences of their actions. Such power often tries to protect itself.
At Yale, this power is clearly about race and gender. The lack of diversity among leadership, faculty and the paucity of research and teaching about many aspects of race, gender and sexuality (quite dire in some national and many global contexts), may signal that the University does not consider these issues as vital or important. Research into race, gender and power is often not seen as constituting excellence, and those who do this research may not be valued. Those who embody the vectors of diversity come to suffer the consequences. Diversity is often something to be “managed,” rather than valued for its contribution to scholarship, research and teaching. “Diversity” can be just tokenism, rather than a positive response to embracing the innovations and contributions it can bring.
How to change this dynamic in a world of changing sexual and gender politics? I believe the University would like to make it possible for everyone to thrive and succeed, learn and grow. But it has to make the changes that encourage such flourishing. The power of one group — white males — is infused into every part of the University. This hierarchy is taken for granted, and yet keenly felt by everyone in the community. As chair of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, I was often one of few women or even the only woman of color in the room during meetings of Faculty of Arts and Sciences department chairs.
To be sure, it is probably not possible to prevent all incidences of sexual harassment and violence. But a lot can be done to reduce them, and this is necessary for the sake of so many in our community. We know that a first step is that harassment or violence against women, people of color, transgenders, queers who are students, junior faculty, postdocs or staff has to be quickly dealt with, and those responsible must not be protected. The decision-making process of the UWC needs to be protected so that its members believe that the long hours that they spend on these cases are worth it, and that their findings are respected. The work of changing sexual climate on campus by the Office of Gender and Campus Culture has been another positive step, so important because it is based on educating all Yale College students (not just women). One more positive step is the faculty vote to create a faculty senate, which can challenge and support leaders and provide accountability.
There needs to be accountability for leaders of departments whose diversity numbers remain a problem, or where sexual harassment remains unaddressed. As it stands, there are few consequences for those departments that do not include scholars, research topics or approaches that might bring in a diverse group of faculty. Retention of faculty of color and women must be given as much attention as hiring; Yale cannot afford to lose a person of color or a woman from the faculty. Benchmarking, which Provost Benjamin Polak advocates, can help — but it must be done against the most diverse institutions rather than the most elite ones.
One more problem is that those programs and departments that have robust and diverse faculty and research (and help Yale’s diversity numbers!) might be penalized — what I call the “diversity penalty”— where the University refuses to give additional faculty positions to those programs because they are seen as already diverse. Those who have resisted diversifying their faculty and research may instead be rewarded by new positions, instead of having to use their existing slots to achieve diversity goals. Capping the faculty numbers has not helped, since faculty diversity becomes less important than keeping the numbers down.
Finally, as chair of WGSS, I saw the low value and respect given to research on gender and sexuality. That opinion was reflected in the very small size of our program and in my struggles to expand it.
Without valuing the contributions of a diverse faculty and what they can bring to it, the University loses out in numerous ways. It cannot retain great scholars or support junior faculty or postdocs or students who are more likely to take risks to create innovative research and vigorous debate. Diversity is not only about adding women or non-white people at every level of the University, but of valuing research, teaching and challenges by a heterogeneous group. While such real diversity might upset hierarchies and the status quo, I believe that Yale should embrace such challenges as positive contributions to its excellence.
Inderpal Grewal is a professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.