Light & Verity

Conflict in Spanish and Portuguese department

After a university review, action is taken to steady a divided department.

“It’s more than a can of worms. We’re a sinking ship.”

This is how David Jackson, a professor in the Spanish and Portuguese department, describes its climate in recent years. The department has been rocked by accusations that it lacked transparency, had tolerated sexual harassment, had an unwritten rule that nobody would be given tenure, and suffered from severe understaffing and a lack of new blood. The strife has led the Yale administration to undertake a review and to appoint a new director of graduate studies from outside the department.

Although complaints had been circulating since at least the fall of 2014, the situation came to a head in March 2015, when an anonymous letter detailing grievances was delivered to professors and graduate students in the department. The letter, which stated that it had been written by a group of graduate students, was also given to university administrators, including President Peter Salovey ’86PhD and Provost Benjamin Polak.

“The graduate students of Spanish and Portuguese wish to make known the level of discontent that we feel as a result of the highly negative atmosphere that has been created in our department,” the letter read. It charged department faculty with “blatant acts of discrimination and harassment” that “really should be investigated by the university administration.”

The controversy may have had an effect on admissions. The authors of the anonymous letter wrote that “visiting graduate students have been warned of the hostile environment and encouraged to go elsewhere.” In fact, none of the five students admitted to the department’s graduate program last spring chose to come to Yale.

A review was launched after the letter was sent. It took six months and included interviews with roughly 60 people. The results were never made public, but some actions were taken, including the appointment in January of Edward Kamens ’74, ’82PhD, the Sumitomo Professor of Japanese Studies, to serve as the director of graduate studies for the troubled department.

It was also announced that no new graduate students would be admitted until faculty in the department had received sexual harassment training. That ban has now been lifted, Kamens says, and the admissions process for new graduate students is under way.

Spanish professor Anibal González-Pérez ’82PhD says he finds it “incredibly ironic” that it took an anonymous letter to motivate the administration to take long-needed action. He is also critical of the administration’s decision not to make the results of the review public. “The style of administration” in the department “is totally inadequate,” he says. “It’s a complicated situation. A sad situation.”

But Lynn Cooley, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, is optimistic about the department’s future. She says the review revealed that the main issue was “the different educational and intellectual approaches and priorities of the faculty.” Because the department is so small—five full-time professors, one associate professor on term, one assistant professor, and several lectors—those differences had become “an obstacle,” she says.

Cooley says that Kamens was appointed “to overcome faculty disagreements, particularly in the area of graduate education.” Meetings were held with faculty, students, and staff, and Cooley is confident “we have identified the main issues and a workable plan for addressing them.”

Jackson adds, “I think the presence of Ed Kamens is a positive thing. He’s begun the process of improving the situation.” 

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