“An oppressive status quo”: School of Nursing director of diversity, equity and inclusion resigns as student frustration mounts
Nick Tabio, Contributing Photographer
Just 15 months after assuming the position, Raven Rodriguez has resigned from her post as the Yale School of Nursing director of diversity, equity and inclusion effective immediately.
In an early Thursday morning email obtained by the News, Rodriguez announced her decision to several students “whom [she has] worked with personally and advocated for,” she told the News in an interview. In the email, she cited a need to prioritize her “physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being” and criticized “an oppressive status quo” at the nursing school, where, she said, “Black people from all corners of this institution … regularly experience racism.” On Thursday afternoon, School of Nursing Dean Ann Kurth sent a schoolwide email confirming Rodriguez’s resignation and announcing a search for her replacement.
“I stayed at Yale for black people, and I am leaving Yale because of the way black people are treated,” Rodriguez wrote in her email. “Since the murder of George Floyd and the movements of global unrest that have followed, it has become abundantly clear that Yale has always been a dangerous place for black people to learn and work, and an even more dangerous place for us to speak out.”
“I have learned that there is no title or salary imaginable worth watching you all arrive at Yale excited and idealistic about their futures,” she told students in her resignation email, “only to grow discouraged and depressed from your experiences with racism.”
University officials declined to comment for this article and referred the News to Kurth’s Thursday email about Rodriguez’s resignation.
Rodriguez’s resignation comes just a few months after the School of Nursing issued an anti-racism statement via email on June 18, which acknowledged specific “times when YSN did not effectively address racism that happened right here in our own environment” and outlined a path forward. In the email, administrators at the School of Nursing specified eight initial action items ranging from an internal curriculum review to plans to contribute to national conversations about anti-racism policies.
No Black students were consulted on that email, according to Jelissa Neal NUR ’22 and another nursing student who is involved with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion — or DEI — and requested anonymity due to fear of retribution.
But according to Kurth, Black students were on the IDEAS council and looked at the anti-racist action plan draft before the June 18 email was released to the student body.
In an email one month later, Kurth said that LaRon Nelson — who had previously served as the associate dean of global health and equity, a position in which he oversaw the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — had been named the associate dean of global affairs and planetary health. Kurth said that she would be “stepping up to ensure that YSN makes good on the commitments that we outlined in the Anti-Racism Statement.”
Under the new leadership structure, Kurth’s role includes liaising directly with the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Action, Solutions council, or IDEAS council — an internal advisory body created under Nelson’s leadership as associate dean of global health and equity and composed of nursing faculty, staff, students and alumni. Nelson has continued to serve as a faculty member on the IDEAS council since transitioning positions this summer and will “re-incorporate the work of DEI into his portfolio” following Rodriguez’s resignation, according to Kurth’s Oct. 22 email.
Students, outraged at the administrative change and that the School of Nursing is a “community where institutional racism and resistance to change is the norm,” circulated a petition demanding that the school reinstate a “full-time DEI leader who is qualified to implement an action plan” — a reference to Nelson’s previous, and now unoccupied, role. According to the petition, “Dean Kurth holds the highest position of power related to DEI’s issues.”
School of Nursing administrators have yet to respond to the students’ demands, which students plan to bring up at a meeting scheduled for Monday, Oct. 26.
In January 2019, School of Nursing administrators announced the creation of two new positions: associate dean of global health and equity — to be held by LaRon Nelson — and director of diversity, equity and inclusion, to be filled in the coming months.
According to the student who requested anonymity, the IDEAS council was involved throughout the search and hiring process. That process included several rounds and ultimately resulted in two finalists who were invited to give presentations at the nursing school. As outlined in a flyer inviting students to attend, Rodriguez discussed “white allyship and anti-oppression” at her job talk on June 20, 2019. She was hired one month later and began in her new role on July 29.
In an interview with the News, Rodriguez said that her role was to promote the implementation of anti-racist initiatives and further faculty and student education on anti-racist practices. Still, she underscored that students are the center of most of the work being done to combat racism at the School of Nursing — and that there is still a lot of work to be done.
“I think that [my role] evolved to be larger and larger, because I think the student expectation and the momentum of everything happening in the world right now put a lot of pressure on the folks who sit in these roles to create change — and to create it quickly,” Rodriguez said.
In interviews with the News, students described Rodriguez as a passionate advocate for anti-racism education and for individual nursing students. However, they said, her powers as director of diversity, equity and inclusion were unclear, leaving students without a set path to address grievances against professors or the nursing school as a whole.
School of Nursing administrators encouraged students who wished to report discrimination or harassment to speak directly with the offending professors, said Kierra Jackson NUR ’21. But given that instructors are also the people who provide academic assistance and evaluations, Jackson continued, that channel of communication was “awkward.”
After professors, the next point of contact was Rodriguez, who was responsible for taking student concerns to Kurth and Nelson, who would then “deal with it,” according to Jackson. However, what exactly happened after Rodriguez brought a concern to Kurth remained unclear to nursing students. Students asked for transparency about the process in an Oct. 5 meeting with Kurth, who did not answer their questions clearly, they said.
“The students love Raven. Raven is an expert in the field,” Neal said. “She knows what she’s talking about, she’s dedicated her life to anti-racism, but she wasn’t given the tools she needed to adequately do her job.”
In announcing her departure, Rodriguez told students that she has full confidence in them and in the much-needed change they will enact.
“Please know that your voices are too powerful to be silenced and your brilliance cannot be overlooked,” she wrote. “I am PROUD to leave Yale knowing that in the next few years a MASSIVE wave of genius will be leading the charge against structural racism in health care.”
Confusion and calls for change
Frustrations mounted this summer when Kurth issued the school’s anti-racism statement in a June email.
In an interview with the News on Oct. 26, Kurth and Nelson said that Black students did engage with the anti-racist action plan draft before it was publicized. One student, Nnemdi Azubuko, confirmed to the News that she participated and gave feedback.
“We have this statement, I feel and other Black students feel, don’t represent us,” Neal said.
Following the June email, Neal formed the Black Council, a collective for Black students to ensure that their voices are heard at the nursing school. The council asked for a meeting with Kurth to discuss their experiences as Black nursing students and their frustrations that no Black students were involved in drafting Kurth’s anti-racism statement.
That meeting occurred months later on Oct. 5. But the meeting, Neal and Jackson said, produced more questions than answers. Students demanded more transparency from Kurth on the process of making a complaint to the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — and what specific role Rodriguez would play during this process. But Kurth, according to Jackson, simply responded that “it goes through the appropriate channels and it’s taken care of.”
At the same time, students were growing increasingly frustrated with what they described as a lack of transparency in the DEI office as a whole. Nelson’s transition over the summer indicated a lack of administrative commitment to DEI efforts at the school, they said, because there was no longer a full-time administrator focusing on the DEI office. The office is now under Kurth’s purview.
In her July 17 email, Kurth pledged to work with the DEI office and the IDEAS council “to ensure that anti-racism work is woven into all aspects of life at YSN.”
In an Aug. 11 email to Yale University President Peter Salovey, University Provost Scott Strobel, other administrators and student groups, nursing students issued a petition to “formally present [their] discontent with the Yale School of Nursing’s new organizational changes.” The petition garnered over 150 signatures from students in the nursing school and across the University.
Students at the School of Nursing plan to meet with administrators on Monday, Oct. 26, to discuss the petition and other concerns.
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article read: “Students, outraged at the administrative change and what they call ‘institutional racism’ at the School of Nursing, circulated a petition demanding that the school reinstate a ‘full-time DEI leader who is qualified to implement an action plan’ — a reference to Nelson’s previous, and now unoccupied, role.”
This sentence has been updated to include a longer quote from the student’s petition — a “community where institutional racism and resistance to change is the norm” — because the original version attributed the term institutional racism to the students and did not represent the full context of their criticism.
Clarification, Nov. 3: An earlier version of this article read: “Frustrations mounted this summer when Kurth issued the school’s anti-racism statement in a June email — without consulting any Black students.” This sentence and the article has since been updated to clarify that a Black student did participate on the IDEAS council between June 4th and June 18th and gave feedback on the anti-racist initial action plan statement before it was released, as confirmed by the News.