Trainees, we talk. As a 5th year PhD student at Yale I’ve grown aware of the breadcrumbs postbacs, graduate students and postdocs drop into their conversations about the abuse or neglect they are going through. You would be surprised how candid we are if anyone is willing to follow our trail of breadcrumbs. If you follow up and inquire about our acerbic joke, pessimistic comment or revealing silence. It is through these conversations that I have become increasingly aware of the ways in which an academic hierarchy and Yale’s fractured institutional structure allow for our issues to fall through the cracks. This is why I — along with the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate — want an Ombuds Office. Devoid of these conflicts and dynamics, this office would help us navigate our current quandary and hold an honest mirror to the places that need it most.
The Ombuds profession is built on the tenants of independence, impartiality, confidentiality and informality. When set up legitimately through a charter, like that of our neighbors at University of Connecticut, an Ombudsperson provides a space free of institutional and professional ties. In this space an individual is able to bring up issues without fear of retaliation; they explore institutional resources and procedures; they investigate the official and unofficial paths available to them and they can receive coaching or arbitration from the ombudsperson.
Earlier this month, I was flooded by deja vu reading Michael Balter’s reporting on the toxic working environment at professor Walter Jetz’s lab of the Yale School of the Environment. It is eerie how similar our stories can be. It felt like reading my postdoc friends’ story at the Yale School of Medicine. Their professor, who we christened “Stone” creates the same oppressive culture through unreasonable expectations. Professor Stone’s alias is rooted in a metaphor we created lightheartedly to validate my friends’ experience:
A hiker gets bruised tripping on a stone on a trail. Concerned, they warn the person behind them. The stranger brushes off the comment assuming awareness of the stone is enough to prevent injury. And a cycle is born where a consistent stream of hikers think they can circumvent tripping on the stone and are sorely proved wrong, destined to see the events repeat themselves to the next sucker that will ignore the warnings.
After much encouragement, one friend, with greasy, stringy hair and bags under their eyes, asked me to join them in a meeting with the Yale Office for Postdoctoral Affairs. I sat frustrated as we heard that, unless my friend wanted to place a formal complaint, they just needed to “survive” and find a position to escape to. The office would keep a confidential record of this complaint in case my friend changed their mind and was willing to accuse their professor officially. They did not offer strategies to safeguard themselves against future abuse, mental health support, resources or a referral to a dean. There was not even the courtesy of indignation. We were only met with gloomy conformity, which, one could say, is nothing more than complicity in denial. Since then, even though the Chair has been made aware of this behavior, Prof. Stone has risen within their department. I often wonder how this story would have developed if we had been sitting at Yale Univerity’s Ombuds Office.
In academia, as in life, there are many “Stones” one can trip on. Through my roles at the GSA and Title IX Graduate Student Advisory Committee I’ve come across many other unresolved stories. They all have one thing in common: trainees talk about their issues at length unofficially and in confidentiality. We rarely bring up these issues to faculty or administrators because of fear of reprisal and of endangering our careers. Although we don’t have a full picture of them, we are aware of the political, professional and personal ties that link administrators and faculty members to each other.
I speak from a graduate student perspective, but similar pressures prevent post-docs and faculty from communicating, and ultimately resolving, conflicts. The asset the Yale Corporation is unfortunately forgoing is the anonymous feedback the institution receives and the conflict resolution training an Ombudsperson provides. At a panel hosted by the Yale Postdoctoral Association on April 24, Mellissa Brodrick, ombuds and director at Harvard University, Julie Weber, ombuds at Brown University, and Ellen Miller, executive director of the International Ombuds Association, offered to meet with the Corporation themselves to address their reservations. Hopefully this conversation happens.
Isn’t it about time, Yale?
P.S. To the subsection of graduate students at GSAS: four of our deans are trained Deputy Title IX, Discrimination and Harassment Resource Coordinators: Deans Suzanne Young, Ksenia Sidorenko, Michelle Nearon and Matthew Tanico.
John T. González is a PhD Candidate in Experimental Pathology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org