Just over a year after Yale assembled an eight-person oversight committee to address accusations of power abuse within the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, faculty are optimistic that better times are ahead.
Yale created the committee, which has full voting rights on hiring and promotion decisions within the department, after an anonymous group of Spanish and Portuguese graduate students distributed a letter condemning the hostile atmosphere of the department. The letter also singled out Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria GRD ’70, a professor of Hispanic and comparative literatures, for inappropriate behavior. This summer, Echevarria was named in a lawsuit filed by former Spanish professor Susan Byrne alleging that she faced retaliation for speaking out about sexual harassment. Still, some department members believe the department has begun to move away from the problematic behavior of the past few years.
“I think the department is headed in the right direction,” professor of Spanish Anibal Gonzalez-Perez GRD ’82 said. “There is openness in the faculty to renew the department. There is really a consensus that the department needs to be revitalized.”
Upgrades to the department include extra resources for more lectures and events and a new presidential visiting professorship funded by the University that will be filled for the first time in the spring by an expert on contemporary Cuban affairs. With regard to graduate studies, professor of Portuguese Kenneth David Jackson said that the new director of graduate studies put in place by the administration, German Languages and Literature professor Rudiger Campe, seems to be more flexible in allowing course selection for current students to involve or accommodate corollary areas and interests.
Yale’s 2015 review of the Spanish and Portuguese department, which resulted in the administration recommending changes to the department, was never released to Spanish and Portuguese faculty, generating concerns in some quarters.
“I don’t think that these documents should be, perhaps, so secretive in nature,” Gonzalez-Perez said.
A graduate student, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, told the News that he wishes the findings would be made public. Everyone who dragged the department into a “rough time,” the student added, should be held accountable.
Others within the department were more hesitant to say that the report should be made public. Jackson said that while some parts of the climate review may contain personal information or other details rightfully kept confidential, a summary of principal content could help faculty navigate departmental issues.
But according to Dean of Humanities Amy Hungerford, confidentiality is ordinary protocol at Yale for departmental reports.
“Departmental reviews conducted at Yale and elsewhere — usually on a cyclical basis every five to 10 years or as needed when departments need to engage in long-term planning — routinely entail confidential reports,” Hungerford said. “What can and can’t be shared directly with the chair and the department depends upon what is in the report. That can’t be predicted at the start.”
On the basis of recommendations from the oversight committee, French professor Howard Bloch became the Spanish and Portuguese department chair and Campe is now the current director of graduate studies. Neither administrator responded to requests for comment on how the Department of Spanish and Portuguese has adjusted to new oversight.
Some members of the department view the new oversight favorably.
“I have enjoyed good communication with the chair and the program committee members. They are very receptive to new ideas and are cognizant of the fact that the members of this program committee are not specialists in the field of Spanish and Portuguese, even though they are very distinguished scholars in their own fields of German, French, Comparative Literature and so on,” Gonzalez-Perez said. “I’ve seen a more cooperative attitude in general among all my colleagues.”
Four members of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese interviewed for this article said there has been no mention of the lawsuit within the department. Most faculty and graduate students feel optimistic that their department is heading in a good direction, they said.
Still, responses varied. Lector of Spanish Lorena Garcia Barroso simply told the News in an email that “everything is fine.” But the anonymous graduate student said that although the department is heading in “a more positive direction,” there is still a “toxic split” among faculty over whether there should have been a departmental review in the first place.
Outside of cultural and behavioral problems, the department has faced several logistical issues over the past few years, namely recruiting graduate students and maintaining a healthy number of professors. But this year, the department is making strides in both those areas. Six new Spanish graduate students arrived at Yale this year for the first time after two years of limited or no enrollment.
And according to Gonzalez-Perez, the department hopes to hire two new senior faculty and has already put an ad out for one of them. Gonzalez-Perez added that the department is looking for both “senior people” and younger, recently tenured academics. At the moment, there is only one assistant professor in the Spanish department, Leslie Harkema.
The Portuguese hiring situation, however, is more daunting. Ever since the University denied tenure to Paulo Moreira in 2015, Jackson has been the only Yale faculty member teaching Portuguese.
“To sustain the undergraduate major and the half Portuguese track in the Ph.D., it is essential to bring another person on board at whatever rank,” noted Jackson.
In 2016, the Spanish and Portuguese department made offers to six graduate students, none of which were accepted.
Britton O’Daly | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Oct. 6: A previous version of the story described the lawsuit involving Susan Byrne as a sexual harassment lawsuit. In fact, the lawsuit alleges that Byrne faced retaliation for speaking out about sexual harassment in the department.