On March 6, professors and graduate students in Spanish and Portuguese arrived at their department mailboxes to find an anonymous letter expressing grave concerns about their department. The letter, which said it was written by a group of graduate students, was also passed along to several top administrators, including University President Peter Salovey, University Provost Benjamin Polak, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler and Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley.
“The graduate students of Spanish and Portuguese wish to make known the level of discontent that we feel as a result of the highly negative atmosphere that has been created in our department,” the letter read. “Many issues related to Spanish and Portuguese are blatant acts of discrimination and harassment.”
Citing a November News article about the department, which reported student and faculty concerns about budget opacity and an atmosphere of intimidation, as “the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” the letter detailed five specific complaints against the department, ranging from curricular requirements to accusations of sexual harassment. It described a department fraught with fear and intimidation — one that current and former graduate students have complained of in the past — and called on the administration to investigate and resolve their concerns.
“The letter reflects a genuine sense of discomfort and a really deep sense of grievance on the part of the graduate students,” Spanish professor Aníbal González GRD ’82 said. “On the whole it certainly documents the attitude I feel has become prevalent among our graduate students: that the department is not a welcoming place for them. Also, it clearly reflects a sense that things seem to have reached a breaking point.”
On Tuesday afternoon, more than two weeks after the initial distribution, Polak, Cooley and Gendler sent an email to the department’s faculty, staff and students announcing a broad review of the department’s climate for working and learning. Leading the review will be Jamaal Thomas, from Yale’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, alongside Barbara Goren, an independent consultant. Neither Cooley nor Gendler returned request for comment as of Tuesday night.
“The intellectual quality of the Department’s faculty is second to none, and, year after year, it attracts outstanding graduate students to its program,” the email reads. “Sustaining the intellectual vitality of a department requires a sense of common purpose and mutual respect at all levels, and, for this reason, we wish to ensure that the educational and employment environment in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese matches its scholarly reputation.”
Three professors interviewed said the review is a positive development.
“To say that [the review] was long overdue would be an understatement,” González said.
Spanish Department Chair Rolena Adorno did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including five emails, four phone calls and two visits to her office.
The letter alleged that the department is rife with sexual harassment, targeting both department secretaries and graduate students. Specifically, the letter identified Spanish professor Roberto González Echevarría GRD ’70 as the “main assailant.”
“Our current secretaries, Susan Wheeler and Virginia Gutiérrez, endure the yells and condescending remarks of Professor González Echevarría on a regular basis. From demands that they make fresh coffee to yelling at them from behind his desk partway down the hall, his actions are some of the most misogynistic that anyone has ever heard,” the letter said. “His offhanded comments to female graduate students have not gone unnoticed either.”
González Echevarría did not return multiple requests for comment.
Other professors in the department confirmed that they have also witnessed González Echevarría verbally abuse administrative assistants. Neither Gutiérrez nor Wheeler returned request for comment.
Byrne said she has heard harassing comments made by professors both to their colleagues and to students, though she declined to name any perpetrators in particular. She added that since December — when all faculty and staff received a memo asking them to report inappropriate behavior they witnessed — she has not seen any such behavior.
While largely accusing González Echevarría, the letter also cited Adorno for failing to address the issue with him.
“This is an issue that MUST be investigated further,” the letter read. “Not only does it contribute to the negative atmosphere in the department but it is an overt case of sexual harassment that has been witnessed by a large number of people in the department.”
University Spokesman Tom Conroy did not return request for comment.
A “FAÇADE OF INCLUSION”?
The letter, along with both students and faculty, identified communication problems within the department.
“The opinions of graduate students are never taken seriously by the members of the faculty of our department,” the letter read.
The letter went on to specify that student input in the form of surveys and questionnaires is not taken seriously, adding that Adorno and Director of Graduate Studies Noel Valis merely “maintain a façade of inclusion and appreciation.”
Valis declined to comment.
One graduate student who was not involved in the letter said last year, several students completed an internal survey and brought the results to Adorno and Valis, but that few of these issues were addressed. These concerns included some expressed in the anonymous letter, but also others such as meager availability of teaching positions for Spanish literature courses and a lack of transparency surrounding departmental policies.
“Nothing seemed to actually be done about any of the concerns — they were kind of dismissed or explained away,” the student said. “It does feel like even when we expressed our specific issues, it was more of an exercise than an actual attempt to make changes.”
Moreover, the letter alleged that communication problems within the department extend beyond student-faculty relationships and into faculty discussions as well, detailing an opposition pitting Jackson and González against Adorno and González Echevarría. This divide, the letter said, makes graduate students and junior faculty feel as if they have to take sides.
Faculty interviewed agreed that while this designation was oversimplified or exaggerated, conflict does exist within the department. González said he is not on speaking terms with several of his colleagues, but added that it would be wrong to identify the rift as “factionalism,” given that the opposing groups are not equally matched and sometimes shift.
“It’s such a small department, some faculty members are marginalized from the decision-making process,” he said. “There is this group of faculty members who essentially have been administering the department for many years and they seem to consider … that other faculty members really shouldn’t be involved in the running of the department. It’s not a democratic set up.”
One graduate student uninvolved in the letter said everyone is aware of these issues, as professors make little attempt to hide them. However, the student added, the letter exaggerated these conflicts.
The letter also claims that Poole decided to leave Yale because he no longer wishes to work in such a negative environment. Poole said this was part, but not all, of his reason for not seeking reappointment.
Several professors also identified the department’s size as a contributing factor to some problems of collegiality, along with the fact that the department has long had the same leadership.
Adorno serves as the current chair of the department, a role she has had for several years, prior to which González Echevarría filled the position. Each time Adorno has gone on leave, he has served as acting chair, professors in the department said. González said the feeling is that the two are “chairs-for-life.”
Still, Spanish professor Susan Byrne said she gets along with all her colleagues, and that department meetings are always civil.
Faculty also raised issue with the department’s unwritten tenure policy, which some claimed exacerbates the divide between senior and junior faculty.
In 2007, the University implemented a tenure track system that guarantees junior faculty members an evaluation for promotion, where formerly they could only be considered when a spot opened or was created in their departments. But professors and graduate students interviewed said this policy is largely ignored in the Spanish and Portuguese department – while junior faculty are evaluated for tenure as per the requirement, they have little chance of actually receiving it.
“It is very well known around the University and even outside of the University that the Spanish and Portuguese Department does not give tenure to anyone,” Poole said.
Poole came to Yale in 2009 from Clemson University, but, now nearing the end of his sixth year, has decided not to pursue tenure, partly due to this unwritten rule.
Several graduate students and professors in the department reported that González Echevarría has publicly stated that no junior faculty member will ever get tenure in the department. Earlier this year, Portuguese professor Paulo Moreira came up for tenure in the department. The senior faculty in the department voted three to two against Moreira, though Poole described him as “the most tenurable person” he had ever met. All other faculty interviewed agreed about Moreira’s merits, expressing surprise that he had not been granted tenure.
Moreira’s departure will leave the department with just one Portuguese ladder faculty member.
Byrne, whose own tenure case will come up for review next year, said hearing that no junior faculty member will be granted tenure in the department is worrying, but that she is confident in her record of publications.
“I would hope that anyone who has anything to do with my tenure case will give me a fair and equitable hearing,” she said.
A MESSAGE FROM WHOM?
The letter did not list any signees, nor did it specify how many graduate students in the department supported it. Of the six graduate students who returned request for comment, none said they were involved in writing the letter. In fact, many were upset to hear that the letter was presented as a message from the graduate student body in general. In the days following the letter’s distribution, several graduate students sent emails to members of the department disassociating themselves from the letter, with some even stating that they were offended by portions of its content. According to one graduate student who spoke on the condition of anonymity, many even suspect that it was not written by a graduate student at all.
However, even graduate students not involved in the letter said they agreed with many of the concerns it raised. In the past, several current and former graduate students have detailed complaints echoing those outlined in the letter.
Six non-ladder faculty in the department said they were unaware of the letter, with some adding that it was not sent to lectors or lecturers. Meanwhile, faculty who did receive the letter expressed mixed opinions on its credibility.
Four faculty members agreed that some of the letter’s concerns were valid, with some even citing additional departmental issues the letter had not included. Still, they identified aspects of the letter that detracted from its credibility, including its inaccuracy in some places, its anonymity, its lack of specificity and its poorly written text.
Byrne described many of the points in the letter as “gross exaggerations,” and some as fully inaccurate. The letter claims, for example, that Byrne is “actively seeking employment elsewhere,” which is not the case. Both Byrne and Spanish professor Kevin Poole emphasized that they were not at all involved in the letter’s creation, and do not support its method.
“They make points that are relevant to their position as graduate students, but they make a lot of other points that are quite separated from their experience, on which they have opinions but not necessarily a lot of information,” Portuguese Director of Undergraduate Studies David Jackson said. “Nonetheless, most of the points they bring up do deserve discussing.”
With an investigation set to take place, professors interviewed are optimistic.
“Whatever is perceived as negative about the department can be addressed and, hopefully, remedied; whatever is perceived as good can be highlighted and continued,” Poole said.