I went seven days without food. Then, on Thursday, May 11, I was arrested for an act of civil disobedience. I’m a teaching assistant at Yale, and I have fasted with my colleagues and gone to jail because our university — our employer — refuses to hear our voices.
In February, we voted to unionize in elections held in eight departments. Since then, Yale has ignored its obligation to bargain with us in a bid to buy time until President Trump can seat new appointees to the National Labor Relations Board to void our votes.
I became involved in the union and joined the fast because of the intersection of two phenomena I face daily: the collapse of the academic career track; and sexism in academia. My PhD will be in comparative literature, a field for which universities have all but ceased professorial hiring, using cheap replaceable teachers instead. This puts me in a situation of extreme professional and financial vulnerability.
Likewise, graduate school itself is an unequal environment. To find employment, we need professors’ goodwill, support and professional references. The more the academic career track declines, the more goodwill you need to preserve your narrowing path to your next job.
Because everything runs on personal relationships, workplaces are highly unequal along gender lines. Every academic knows the “boys’ club” — where men dominate, accruing recognition while women are marginalized.
Then there’s outright harassment. Yale’s own 2015 study found that 53.9 percent of women in the university’s graduate and professional schools experienced “insulting remarks,” “inappropriate personal comments,” “unwelcome sexual conversation,” “offensive digital communication” or “persistent advances.” Only 5.7 percent of this group took any subsequent action.
I do a lot of work in the Spanish and Portuguese department. In 2015, an open letter identified a senior professor there as the “main assailant” in repeated cases. This same professor was put in a supervisory position over me, even when his history was widely known. I’ve encountered harassment up close. I’ve heard the demeaning remarks. I’ve seen faculty denied tenure for speaking out. I’ve watched as Yale applies no consequences.
Similarly, in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, long-standing complaints of favoritism blew up into the revelation of an affair between the department chair and a graduate student promoted under his supervision. Yale administrators acknowledged having known about this for years. BuzzFeed reported in 2016 that Yale ignored harassment allegations against a philosophy professor when hiring him. “There is a culture of male discretion,” said a professor from the hiring committee. In the medical school, administrators overrode a committee’s recommendation of sanctions against a professor who’d harassed a researcher. Yale backtracked only when caught.
For many years, Yale has conducted internal research finding that graduate students don’t report harassment because of the “power gradient,” in the words of a 2013 study, and “fear of negative repercussions on a victim’s career,” per a 2011 study. These are Yale’s own terms. Yale’s most recent survey — the one that found the 53.9 percent — provided respondents no opportunity to identify fear of “negative repercussions” or the “power gradient” as the reason we don’t report harassment. Instead, it creates the appearance that the overwhelming majority of harassed women, in the words of the survey, “did not think it was serious enough to report” — despite Yale’s own quietly held understanding otherwise. Moreover, the university refused to release data broken down by school or division. Dean Lynn Cooley explained, “Publicly releasing the data would encourage unhealthy comparison.”
Yale President Peter Salovey claims to be “deeply distressed” about the misconduct rate. His actions indicate nothing of the kind. It’s just the sophisticate’s version of Donald Trump claiming “locker room talk.” After the latest survey, we were asked to be “patient” while Yale does “everything we can to fix this.” We’ve heard it before. We’ve heard it for years. And it’s now what Yale says about our union — wait longer.
When we win our union, we will be more empowered and economically secure. Desperation for work, wages and health insurance will not serve as now to intensify our reliance on our professors. And we will have a direct mode of redress and protection in the form of a fair, neutral grievance procedure.
I’ve learned in the past couple of years that shaming men in power doesn’t work on its own. Getting power of your own works. That’s why I fasted — because this is my way to bring power back into my own hands. We won’t wait any longer.