Susan Byrne, a former professor in the Spanish and Portuguese Department, has filed a lawsuit claiming that she faced sexual harassment and bullying from professors in the department and was denied tenure for speaking out against it.
The lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, claims that the department perpetuated a culture of harassment and discrimination. It levels multiple allegations against Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria GRD ’70, a professor of Hispanic and comparative literatures, claiming he repeatedly made crude comments to and about female professors in the department, played with the hair of undergraduate and graduate students and “surprised” Byrne with a kiss on the mouth in front of hundreds of colleagues at a 2014 party.
The Spanish and Portuguese Department has faced repeated allegations of sexual misconduct and misuse of power over the last three years. The University’s spring 2015 climate review, which concluded in December of that year, led to a series of changes in both leadership and organization.
According to the lawsuit, Echevarria, department chair Rolena Adorno and department professor Noel Valis made “unsupportive and negative” statements to Byrne about her work between October 2014 and February 2015 “in retaliation for plaintiff’s speaking out against discrimination and harassment and to deny plaintiff a full-year sabbatical awarded under Yale University’s tenure-track system to all associate professors on term.”
Byrne was denied tenure in 2015 and terminated from Yale on June 30 following months of appeals, per the lawsuit.
She claims that her going public about the department’s “discriminatory practices in tenure cases” in February 2015 at a University forum attended by faculty members and administrators resulted in her being “cast out as a victim.”
“Defendant acted with reckless disregard for Plaintiff’s right to be free of retaliation for her speech related to sexual harassment and discrimination involving members of the Department and students under the care and supervision of the Department,” the lawsuit reads.
University spokesman Tom Conroy declined to comment on the suit.
Byrne had been at the University since 2008, underwent tenure review in 2015 and learned she had been denied in early 2016, a decision she twice appealed through the Provost’s Office. The vote to deny Byrne tenure was 3-2. Despite a request for the administration to recuse Echevarria, Adorno and Valis from the vote, they were allowed to participate and each voted against granting Byrne tenure.
The three professors involved have since been removed from their leadership positions within the department.
“They had an excellent scholar, someone who was top notch in her field and declared so by the same people who, after she came out and provided information about the harassment going on, decided that the very same work they said was excellent was not good enough,” said Jacques Parenteau, Byrne’s attorney. “You don’t have to go to Yale to figure out this is retaliation.”
The lawsuit alleges violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, and seeks Byrne’s reinstatement as associate professor with tenure and punitive damages.
Parenteau said that per state proceedings, Byrne filed her claim in the summer of 2016 and it that has remained pending at the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities for a year, adding that the University could have offered her the available “remedy” — an apology and reinstatement with tenure — during that period.
A trial will not occur for at least a year, Parenteau said, as federal court cases typically do not go to trial for 18 months.
Byrne — who was granted her request for an unpaid leave of absence for the 2016–17 academic year and permission to hold a position at another university during that time — joined the faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2016, according to its Department of World Languages and Cultures website.
She is represented by attorneys from Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau, a New London-based firm that specializes in employment and benefit law.
After two years of limited or no enrollment, at least five graduate students will be joining the Spanish and Portuguese department this fall.