The Spanish and Portuguese Department received just 19 applications to its graduate program this year — less than half of its usual application numbers — as it continues to struggle with internal controversies.
Following a six-month review of the department’s climate in light of long-standing allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power against several senior faculty members, University administration instituted a series of changes at the start of this term, including the appointment of a new director of graduate studies from outside the department and a ban on the recruitment of new graduate students until all faculty attended sexual harassment training. That training took place on Jan. 19, and the ban has now been lifted. While faculty and students in the department said they are waiting to evaluate the effects of these changes, the significant decrease in applications suggests that the department has an urgent need to repair its reputation within the wider academic community. Professors and graduate students interviewed overwhelmingly agreed on one point: The department needs to revamp its faculty.
“Unfortunately the pool of graduate program applicants is very, very small, and the candidates are not very promising,” Spanish professor Anibal González-Pérez GRD ’82 said. “The recruitment of new professors at assistant and senior level will be important to give our department a new perspective. It is true that the department can become very isolated and backwards-looking if it does not refresh its faculty.”
While some fluctuations in application numbers are the norm, this year’s numbers are uncommonly low. The number of applicants usually ranges from 40 to 60 students. Newly appointed Director of Graduate Studies Ed Kamens announced to the department that it will be allowed to make five offers for three spots.
This year’s low application numbers come a year after none of the five admitted candidates accepted Yale’s offer of admission. The students turned Yale down just weeks after many of the outstanding allegations in the department began to come to light in March 2015, when an anonymous letter circulated in the department criticized the program’s “highly negative atmosphere” and accused top departmental administrators of not taking students’ complaints of intimidation and sexual harassment seriously.
The dearth of graduate students two years in a row would be very detrimental to the graduate program, González-Pérez said. He said the decrease in the quantity and quality of applicants is directly related to the well-publicized controversies within the department, notably the anonymous letter and the subsequent six-month review of the department.
Portuguese Director of Undergraduate Studies K. David Jackson said the situation is widely known in his academic field, and his peers at other universities have inquired about it.
González-Pérez added that while many of the recent changes are positive and promising, the broader community does not see the department making significant and urgent changes. He proposed that hiring new faculty members and promoting junior faculty within the department would send a strong, clearly visible signal of progress.
“If people don’t see the department making real, significant changes, we will continue to see small pools of applicants,” he said.
A Spanish graduate student who wished to remain anonymous said that the administration failed to address systemic problems in the department by failing to take disciplinary action against senior faculty members who were directly accused of misconduct in the letter. Specifically, the letter said that department chair Rolena Adorno and former Director of Graduate Studies Noel Valis were unresponsive to students’ concerns, and it also accused Spanish professor Roberto González Echevarría GRD ’70 of sexual harassment. The anonymous graduate student added that new faculty and a revamped program could help, but if these faculty members continue abusing their power, sooner or later graduate students would discourage prospective candidates.
Another Spanish graduate student, who also wished to remain anonymous, said prospective students have asked about the program.
“I, personally, have had prospective students reach out to me to inquire about the possibility of working on Latin American/Spanish/Brazilian film in our department because they couldn’t find any professors on the faculty page who worked on this area,” the student said. “Unfortunately, I’ve had to tell them the truth, which is that our department does not support this type of research project — only literature.”
The student added that the program is failing to attract qualified candidates because it lacks professors who specialize in all areas of the field and is narrow-minded with respect to curricular and interdisciplinary options.
Jackson said the department has three faculty positions that need to be filled, including one previously held by former Portuguese professor Paulo Moreira, who was denied tenure last year in a decision that split the department’s senior faculty. Several graduate students and professors within the department told the News in March 2015 that González Echevarría has publicly stated that no junior faculty members will ever receive tenure in the department.
Spanish professor Susan Byrne, who has taught at the University since 2008, is currently up for tenure review. As part of her internal review process, the administration has recruited faculty members from outside of the Spanish and Portuguese department to participate in discussions.
Gonzalez-Perez said he hopes changes in the tenure review process will help rebuild the strength of the department.
“This is an area in which changes are taking place,” González-Pérez said. “I would like to see us recruiting, retaining and promoting good faculty internally.”