Amid an upcoming dual staff departure at the Native American Cultural Center, some students have expressed frustration to Yale administrators about the lack of continuity with leadership at the center.
NACC Director Kelly Fayard and Assistant Director Kapi’olani Laronal are both slated to leave their posts at the cultural center after this semester. Fayard announced her departure in January, and Laronal announced hers in an email to the NACC community Feb. 7. Earlier this month, students upset by the departure of the center’s two main leaders penned letters to Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun and Associate Vice President of Student Life Burgwell Howard, prompting the two administrators to host a listening session for concerned students at the NACC last Wednesday evening.
“No one is happy about the situation,” Chun said in an interview with the News. “Turnover happens, and turnover in student life happens more frequently than turnover in faculty, and so part of it is just the landscape. But it is unfortunate that both will be leaving at the same time — that is not ideal. We have a very, very strong commitment to searching for the best and recruiting to Yale the best folks we can find for those positions.”
Fayard is leaving Yale to work in the anthropology department at the University of Denver. In an email to the News, Fayard said that while she feels “privileged” to have taken on the director role at the NACC, she decided to depart her position because she has “sorely missed teaching full time as well as writing and research.”
Laronal did not mention her reasons for departure in her February letter to the NACC community, and she did not respond to two email requests for comment from the News. When asked about the reasons for Laronal’s departure, both Howard and Chun told the News that they could not comment due to the confidentiality of personnel matters. Howard said Laronal assumed the assistant director role in the summer of 2016 — shortly after its creation — and “it is our expectation that she will finish out the academic year, in her role of supporting students and the NACC.” According to Chun, employment contracts for assistant directors at the cultural centers are three years long.
In the email announcing Laronal’s departure, Fayard wrote that she knew that many community members “may feel unsettled because of these two sudden departures from the NACC leadership.” Still, she emphasized her and Laronal’s commitment to the community and its individual members, assuring the community “that we will end on a positive note and look forward to new and energizing leadership for the fall.”
Following the announcements, students wrote individual and group letters to Howard and Chun expressing concern at the potential effects of the departures, particularly that of Laronal.
“Assistant Director Laronal’s end of contract comes at a time during which NACC leadership is already entering a period of transition with the departure of the NACC’s director,” a letter signed by 11 students read. “The one-two punch of letting go of Laronal as the director leaves will have serious consequences for the coordination of the Center and its community, and this move is completely antithetical to the emotional and mental health needs of students.”
The letter posited that the administration neglected to consider student feedback on Laronal’s performance when considering whether to renew Laronal’s contract, “illustrat[ing] the blatant disregard the administration has for student interests, and especially the interests of students involved with the NACC.”
Lindsey Combs ’19, a member of the NACC community, said that she finds it disappointing that administrators did not explicitly solicit feedback on Laronal’s performance from students and bemoaned ongoing staffing instability at the cultural centers.
“Yale has the cultural houses to be a space for students to find community, to feel safe, to have people who are doing programming that is to build up the strength of the community,” Combs said. “And then they just yank away an administrator without students even having the chance to defend them or to say, ‘No, they’re doing a great job.’”
Chun told the News last Wednesday that administrators “attend to student feedback” throughout the duration of a staff member’s term, not only at certain periods. He highlighted that the administration is “always very mindful of how a leader is serving the community,” especially due to the student-facing role that such officials play. Still, Chun noted that other considerations, such as “administrative responsibilities for Yale University and Yale College,” go into the decisions of whether one’s contract will be renewed.
Howard added in an email to the News that “students frequently offer comment about their interactions with folks, and that input is definitely considered during discussions with staff, and is an important part of the annual performance evaluation process done for staff in Student Life at Yale.”
The student-written letter also emphasized that the departures will create a “leadership vacuum,” and the loss of Laronal in particular will lead to decreased institutional memory and knowledge. The letter highlighted the relationships she has built with the Peabody Museum, other cultural centers, the Yale Sustainable Food Program, admissions, the graduate schools, regional tribes and other New Haven organizations.
According to Austin Bryniarski FES ’19, who has worked with Laronal on the Yale Sustainable Food Program — with which Laronal has worked informally but extensively, in part to form a liaison initiative with the NACC, according to Bryniarski — it remains unclear who will fill her current role with the food program.
“So much of the relationship building that went into that is uniquely the result of her hard labor, and for the institution to not value that is for the institution not to recognize [her work],” Bryniarski said. “Her presence has been felt so far beyond the center, and is illustrative of the way she embodies the role of assistant director.”
A separate letter, signed and sent by five Native Hawaiian students and their allies, outlined the “deleterious” effects that they expect to see on the Native Hawaiian students following the departure of Laronal, who herself is Native Hawaiian. It discussed the support Laronal has provided for the “small yet growing” population at Yale and her outreach work to Native Hawaiian high school students to persuade them to apply to Yale.
The influx of student concerns to administrators prompted Wednesday’s listening session. In advance of the session, Chun told the News that the administrators would aim to make “open and transparent and clear” the process for searching for new staff members and soliciting student feedback. He stressed that the University wanted to address anxieties and misunderstandings, affirming its commitment to the NACC community.
“Given that many students were unfamiliar with how staff transitions are handled within Yale College, we were able to share how the search committee process would unfold, and assure students that they would have opportunities to meet and offer input on the various short-list candidates who would be invited to campus for both staff positions,” Howard wrote in an email to the News after the session.
Howard noted that this practice is routine for “all university hires, including staff at the cultural centers and even when there is a transition among Residential College Deans.”
Combs, who attended the listening session, said that she believed the administrators sincerely listened to student concerns during the meeting, but she left with a sense of doubt about whether they would act upon them. She said that at the session, she raised concerns about the lack of student input going into the renewal of assistant director contracts, and is hopeful that this input will create institutional change.
“I’m hoping that from this meeting, Dean Howard and Dean Chun have seen that they have made decisions from outside of the community,” Combs said. “I hope that they will see that and they will right that wrong. … I trust that they care, but I’m a little bit doubtful about them actually making decisive change. But I’m hopeful.”
The search for a new NACC director will be co-chaired by Howard and history professor Ned Blackhawk, and “undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni who are actively involved with the community” will also play an active role in the search, Howard said. Fayard said that the committee to search for Laronal’s replacement has yet to be formed, but will “also consist of students and staff.”
Fayard said that she “plan[s] to overlap with the new director over the summer to create as seamless a transition as possible.” She emphasized that she and others are working diligently to support students during the transition and to communicate student “needs and wishes” to the search committee.
“Yale’s cultural centers are truly a special resource, as they provide places for community, learning and engagement for undergraduates, graduate and professional students and other members of the Yale and New Haven communities,” Howard said. “We are very hopeful that we will be able to attract some quality candidates for our openings, and get them in place before the next academic year.”
The NACC is located at 26 High St.
Asha Prihar | firstname.lastname@example.org