The Spanish and Portuguese Department has once again found itself embroiled in controversy after senior faculty members in the department recently voted to deny Associate Spanish Professor Susan Byrne tenure — prompting renewed accusations of abuse of power and unfair retaliation within a small yet divided faculty body.
Byrne, who has been at the University since 2008, came up for tenure review in 2015, but deliberations for her case were postponed due to an external climate review of the Spanish department triggered by allegations that senior faculty members had created an environment of fear and intimidation. On Feb. 15, Byrne was informed that she had been denied tenure at the departmental level.
While promotion denials are not uncommon, professors interviewed suggested that Byrne’s tenure review was shaped by an already problematic faculty power dynamic within the department.
The department’s climate woes have been well-publicized. A six-month review of the department, the results of which were shared in a December 2015 meeting with members of the department, revealed fissures between the five senior faculty members and alluded to “authoritarian decision-making” within the department, whose chairmanship has been passed back and forth between current chair Rolena Adorno and Spanish professor Roberto González Echevarría GRD ’70 for years. Both professors and graduate students within the department alleged that senior faculty have engaged in misconduct ranging from sexual harassment to unfair decision-making, in particular with the controversial denial of tenure to former Portuguese associate professor Paulo Moreira in 2015.
Byrne said Adorno and González Echevarría have explicitly told her that they are against FASTAP and would not grant any junior faculty member tenure, regardless of their academic record.
“The Department of Spanish and Portuguese has once again disgraced itself, and the administration has allowed it to do so,” Byrne said. “The result is that my years of dedicated work were ignored in the service of their open political stance against [the tenure system]. I am appealing to the provost, and hopefully his office will right the wrong.”
Byrne has submitted two appeals to the Provost’s Office. One is against Spanish professor Noel Valis for her role as chair of the departmental review committee in Byrne’s tenure case. Valis informed Byrne of the decision and was one of the five voting senior faculty.
The second appeal is against Gendler for failing to enforce fairness in the review process. In particular, Byrne pointed to a Faculty Handbook policy that dictates that anyone with a personal or professional conflict of interest must recuse him or herself from voting. Because of Adorno and Gonzalez Echevarría’s allegedly open opposition to the tenure process, Byrne asked the two professors to recuse themselves from her case in April 2015. Both refused to do so.
She then requested that Gendler’s office recuse the two individuals. But on Jan. 19 — nine months after her request and one month after the conclusion of the external climate review — Gendler informed Byrne that both professors would be allowed to vote on her case. Two faculty members from outside the department were asked to take part in the review in order to ensure impartiality, but they were not given voting power.
“Once I knew about that, I knew what the result would be,” Byrne said. She said the vote was 3–2 — the same split as in Moreira’s case — but no other faculty interviewed could confirm the details of the vote due to confidentiality rules.
Byrne said her two appeals address the perceived bias and unethical motives of some individuals in the tenure review as well as the administration’s failure to ensure a fair process.
“For me to have the fair and equitable tenure review on my merits promised in the Yale Faculty Handbook, the recusals were necessary,” Byrne said. “I knew that, and the administration knew that. I acted, they failed to support me. It couldn’t be clearer: The administration protected those it knew to be corrupt.”
Both Gendler and University Provost Ben Polak declined to comment on Byrne’s case, citing University confidentiality policies.
Byrne said her case illustrates the departmental leadership’s policy not to grant tenure to any junior faculty members. Both Portuguese Director of Undergraduate Studies Kenneth David Jackson and Spanish Professor Anibal González-Pérez GRD ’82 said the department has not granted tenure to any junior professors since the 1990s. Spanish professor María Rosa Menocal, who died of melanoma in 2012, had been promoted to professor in 1992 after she was first hired as a visiting professor. Before her, the most recent tenure case both professors recalled was that of Professor Nicolas Shumway, who received tenure in 1986 and was promoted to full professor in 1992. Shumway is no longer at the University.
Jackson said many junior faculty members before the current FASTAP system did not come up for tenure review. “Under the old tenure system, they knew that they would not get tenure from the start,” he said.
According to Byrne, both Adorno and González Echevarría openly told her they would not grant her tenure, regardless of her academic merits. Non-tenured associate professors usually receive a one-year sabbatical to focus on their research and to prepare for the tenure review. However, Byrne’s application for the sabbatical was declined by the department’s leaders.
“When [Byrne] was promoted to associate on term, her publication was praised. But she did not get a year off, which is unusual,” Jackson said. “This is part of her claim — that the discrimination and bias started earlier on in the process.”
Adorno and González Echevarría did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Byrne is the second junior faculty member in the department to be denied tenure since FASTAP was implemented in 2007. Last year, the denial of tenure to Moreira sent shock waves through the department. Jackson said Moreira had significant publications and was so shocked by the decision that he failed to submit an appeal within the necessary time frame of 45 days.
Byrne added that during a meeting in December 2015 following the climate review, administrators specifically pointed out the department’s “flagrant rejection of FASTAP,” but did nothing to address the issue in her situation.
Byrne’s tenure case and pending appeals also reveal the challenges in identifying and addressing potential abuses of power in academic decision-making. The climate-review report suggested that graduate students rarely voiced their concerns about departmental climate due to fears of retaliation, sometimes in the form of subjective judgement of their scholarship. Byrne said this same tactic has been the “department’s road-tested method to deny advancement to junior faculty.”
Byrne said she is “completely confident” that she deserved tenure. She said she does not accept Valis’ explanation that “there were questions” about her scholarship, which she said was praised when she was promoted to associate professor on term.
The decision to deny her tenure, she added, was “subjective judgment used as cover for improper motivations.”
Other professors in the department vouched for the quality of Byrne’s scholarship.
“Not granting tenure to Professor Byrne was — as in the case of Professor Paulo Moreira — another missed opportunity to renew the professorial ranks in [the department] by not promoting highly qualified — indeed, internationally distinguished — junior faculty at Yale,” González-Pérez said. “I think this is a further demonstration that, under its current leadership and faculty composition, the [Spanish and Portuguese] Department is incapable of reforming itself.”
Byrne said the Provost’s office will send her appeals to a review committee. The committee has 90 days to come to a determination, according to the Faculty Handbook.