Following a town hall meeting yesterday between students and administrators at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, students expressed concern regarding cultural insensitivity on the part of the school’s administration and faculty and the lack of faculty diversity at the school.
These concerns came to a head last week, when an exhibit dedicated to El Dia de los Muertos — a Mexican holiday which celebrates deceased ancestors — was taken down due to a donor event taking place in the same space on Nov. 7. At the forum, F&ES Dean Peter Crane said the display, installed on Nov. 1 by EQUID, the Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Committee— a body consisting of students, faculty and staff which aims to make the school more inclusive — in Kroon Hall at the School of Forestry Library with the permission of the administration, was taken down on Nov. 6.
Latha Swamy FES ’16 said EQUID initially planned for the display to stay up for over a week. But Maclovia Quintana ’11 FES ’14, diversity and sustainability fellow at F&ES, was asked by F&ES staff to remove the altar several days early in order to prepare for the donor event.
Crane apologized for the “miscommunication” surrounding the removal of the installation — an apology students criticized as intentionally downplaying the interrelatedness of this controversy with other problems at the school.
“There was a miscommunication, I think, that could have been handled better with regards to the installation taken down on the fourth floor of Kroon,” Crane said to an audience of over 100 students, staff and faculty during his opening remarks at the town hall.
Agnes Walton FES ’16 said that many students believed the display’s early removal was part of a broader culture in the school that considers minority cultural symbols “unclean,” and that weighs the desires of donors far higher than the needs of students. This culture, she said, was tied directly to administrative opacity and distance in the hiring of new faculty.
Similarly, Swamy said some student concerns could be attributed to a pervasive Christian hegemony not only present in the school. Swamy questioned whether an administration-sponsored cultural installation would be scrapped to make room for a donor event if the installation were a Christmas tree.
But Quintana said the removal of the altar resulted solely from miscommunication between the students who put up the structure and the staff of Kroon Hall, who were organizing the space for an upcoming donor event.
“The timing [of the altar’s removal] was unfortunate,” Quintana said. “This really is not part and parcel in terms of events on campus right now. I had to take the altar down, although I’m Hispanic and this festival is near and dear to my heart. This is not an example of institutionalized racism and oppression. I know those very well and this is not that.”
Quintana added that she had spoken and resolved the issue with the students involved in the installation of the altar, in addition to sending an apology email to F&ES students last night.
Myles Lennon FES ’20, a Ph.D. student in the joint forestry and anthropology program at the school, said the removal of the altar was “disturbing” and telling of broader issues of tolerance at the school, although he said that he did not believe the altar was removed with the intention of hurting anyone.
“The predominance of whiteness is very palpable at F&ES,” he said. “We see this in instances like this in which a very powerful cultural item gets denigrated for the sake of formality and cleanliness.”
At the forum, Crane also responded to student criticism about lack of faculty diversity. Students interviewed said that the lack of faculty of color in the administration and higher faculty ranks has resulted in a negative culture at the school.
Of the 49 faculty currently employed at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 44 are white, three are Asian, one is black and one is Hispanic, according to Kevin Dennehy, communications officer for F&ES. Out of the 49, 36 are male and 13 are female, he added. According to Walton, out of the 20 tenured faculty, only three are women in spite of the fact that 65 percent of the school’s students are women.
Quintana said the Dean’s Office has been made aware of student complaints regarding culturally insensitive remarks from faculty members. She added that this has created a difficult space for some students, but that the office was taking steps to improve the situation.
School of Forestry & Environmental Studies students interviewed spoke to their experiences of cultural insensitivity from faculty.
Lennon said that while he believes Crane’s concerns regarding faculty diversity are sincere, the dean still has a “very poor understanding” of the extent and impact of cultural insensitivity at the school. He added that the problem at the school is not only one of demographics, but also of racism, and is largely caused by the overwhelming lack of faculty diversity. Lennon said that some faculty members are “flat-out racist,” adding that he has heard one instructor refer to Hispanic women as “loud and opinionated” and Asian women as “quiet and timid” in front of a class. Additionally, Lennon said he heard another instructor refer to the African continent as “a heart of darkness,” and advise female students not to travel to Papua New Guinea because “the people are crazy.”
Lennon said that he does not blame the school’s diversity problems on Crane, adding that the school has historically been “very white” and has had problems recruiting faculty of color. He acknowledged that the administration had taken a positive step in working with EQUID, but added that insensitivity at F&ES was sufficiently pervasive to warrant an institutional response in which faculty participation is mandatory.
Quintana added that last year, the school created two Pinchot Fellowship positions on the faculty to attract young academics of color, and these fellows will join the faculty next August. This is an example of Crane responding quickly to the need for a more diverse faculty, she said.
However, Walton said that the Pinchot Fellowship did not lead to a genuine growth in minority representation because the candidates were hired as postdoctoral fellows, meaning that they lack long-term job security and a structural incentive to serve in an advisory capacity to students of color. Walton explained that postdoctoral fellows are primarily focused on research, allowing them to only teach one class.
Quintana also pointed out that a lack of diversity in the broader environmental movement as well as the comparatively low financial reward associated with a career in the field can often deter individuals of color from pursuing a career in environmental studies.
“The environmental movement has a very long history of not being inclusive in its messaging,” Quintana said. “The emphasis [of early environmental movements] was to save land conservation so that leisure activities could happen … The movement has started to tackle [the problem of inclusivity] head-on in past couple of years.”
She added that scholarship programs targeted at students from minority backgrounds are more often associated with traditionally lucrative fields than environmentalism such as law and medicine.
Nina Dewi Horstmann FES ’16 acknowledged that the school had taken positive steps toward increasing diversity, including the recent institution of the Pinchot Fellowship. However, she questioned the long-term ramifications of this step.
She said that FE&S students are wondering how this fellowship, which lasts three years, will translate into long-term faculty diversity.
“Are there structures in place in which they might be given a tenure-track position or opportunity to do so?” Dewi Horstmann said.
She added that the promotion of minority professors to tenured positions is part of a broader Yale problem with regard to the transparency of faculty promotions.
“At other institutions such as the University of California system, they are very transparent about what a faculty member needs to do in order to get tenured,” she said. “At Yale, this is more of a black box. We see very often this pattern of faculty being promoted from assistant to associate professor but not receiving tenure.”
Dewi Horstmann said that, in her time at Yale, she has seen F&ES professors who have not been promoted to tenure accept positions at comparable universities, including a non-tenured professor who recently took a position at Stanford University.
On Sept. 11 2015, Crane announced he would be departing from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. His last day in the deanship will be June 30, 2016.
Correction, Wed. Nov 11: A previous version misattributed a comment made at the forum to Crane, and incorrectly labeled the Pinchot Fellowship as a one-year fellowship.