I am one of 30 Black men in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Yale’s lack of racial and gender equity among graduate students and faculty means that important academic perspectives are underrepresented or absent, to the detriment of all who share in our scholarly community. Yale is a leader in higher education and one of the richest universities in the world but chooses not to lead on making academia more equitable with respect to race and gender. During my time here I have been organizing to press Yale to make a different choice. That struggle is central to my experience at Yale.
My experience of that struggle is also why I was stunned by a message sent to graduate students by Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley. “Although we are grateful for the excellent work already being done in so many quarters that affects not just graduate students but our entire community,” Cooley wrote, “I have heard very little from or about the graduate student community in relation to these current issues.” She added that she hopes to ensure “open channels of communication” to facilitate this type of dialogue.
In fact, graduate students have been speaking on this issue loudly and clearly for years. I myself shared my experience as a graduate student of color on stage at a rally in October 2014. “I can’t wait to hear the administration’s response,” I told a crowd of over 1,000 Yale students, staff and members of the New Haven community. In April 2015, I and 13 other graduate students delivered a list of grievances pertaining to issues of race and gender at Yale. Dozens of us gathered on the provost’s steps to hear our brave colleagues tell their stories. As the News’ article on that action pointed out, “The grievances were also submitted to Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley and Dean of Strategic Initiatives for Yale College, the Graduate School and Faculty of Arts and Sciences Pamela Schirmeister.” Also in the spring semester, we submitted a petition signed by a majority of graduate students calling for concrete action on three issues: teaching and funding; mental health; and racial and gender equity.
All of the above actions were organized by Graduate Employees and Students Organization. It is curious that Dean Cooley claims to “have heard very little from or about the graduate student community” on race given that GESO has time and again demanded action from the administration in print and in the streets. I am a political scientist, not a statistician, but the probability that she is not aware of our demands is low.
GESO has demonstrated majority support for a unionization vote without intimidation on four separate occasions over the past 18 months. I organize for GESO because I believe a graduate teachers union is one part of the solution to institutionalized racism at Yale. A union can ensure a transparent and fair grievance procedure for addressing discrimination when it occurs. A union can bargain for better mental health care, including addressing the particular needs of students of color. A union can fight against insecurity in teaching and funding. These issues disproportionately affect graduate students of color and serve to further marginalize people who already feel at the margins at Yale. A union will not solve all of Yale’s problems on race, but it will be an important part of the solution.
Graduate students have made loud and clear demands on racial equity for years, and it is disingenuous for the dean to claim otherwise. It is not that we are silent. It is that the administration has not listened. The administration’s attitude that seeks to silence and intimidate a majority of graduate students is the same that led to the current explosion of activism on campus. I am profoundly grateful to the brave undergraduates of Next Yale for forcing this conversation, and I and my colleagues in GESO are proud to stand in solidarity. This is a historical moment for Yale and higher education more broadly.
Yale has a rare opportunity to reverse course and make a different set of choices about what to do with its leadership in higher education. I call on Yale to lead the way in creating a more just and democratic academy. As part of that effort, I call on Yale to finally hear the voice of a majority of graduate students and grant us a unionization vote, without intimidation, now.
Charles Decker is a third-year graduate student in the department of political science. He will graduate in 2017, Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .