Yale Graduate Teacher Arrested For Protesting Against Sexual Harassment, Sexism Vows Not to Back Down

"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."

Julia Powers, a graduate student teacher in comparative literature at Yale University, was one of 23 protesters arrested on May 11 for an act of civil disobedience after going seven days without food. Powers and many of her colleagues began a hunger strike a little over two weeks ago in an effort to to pressure the university to negotiate with their union, and they're showing no signs of backing down.

Earlier this year the graduate student teachers voted to unionize in elections held across eight departments, but Yale has ignored its duty to bargain with them in an effort to buy time until President Trump can seat new appointees to the National Labor Relations Board. Said appointees will almost certainly be anti-union and very likely to void the vote.

According to the New York Times, the graduate teachers are seeking better wages, health care, and access to a legal grievance process and better accountability for issues such as sexual harassment, but instead of negotiating Yale went ahead and hired Proskauer Rose — high-powered law firm that specializes in union-busting — to intimidate the students.

The paper notes graduate teachers were "badgered" on the witness stand for hours and told they don't qualify as professors because they "have no subject matter expertise." 

A Yale graduate student protesting in New Haven, Connecticut on May 11, 2017. Twitter

Harvard, Columbia, Duke, New York University, Emory and Barnard and many other elite schools have reportedly also moved to block unionization of graduate students or adjunct faculty members, just as American universities are becoming increasingly dependent on this cheap labor. According to a 2015 article in Forbes, nearly three-quarters of American professors are classified as contingent faculty.

In an essay for The Washington Post, Powers explains why she has no intentions of quitting the fight, even in light of her recent arrest. "I have fasted with my colleagues and gone to jail because our university — our employer — refuses to hear our voices," she begins. "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."

"One of the main reasons we want a union is to have a grievance procedure for graduate teachers who are sexually harassed," protester Lindsay Zafir, who was issued a summons for her actions in the protest, told the New Haven Register.

Police and Yale graduate student protesters in New Haven, Connecticut on May 11, 2017.

As Powers explains it, she and her female colleagues are powerless against the sexism and sexual harassment they face at Yale because the university routinely ignores their grievances. "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," she writes.

Powers also notes similar instances have taken place in the medical school and in the Near Eastern languages and civilizations department

She even cited Yale's own 2015 study to support her claim that sexism and sexual harassment are rampant at the graduate level. The study found nearly 54 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." However, only 5.7 percent of this group took any subsequent action, most likely because they were fearful of repercussions given the unfair power dynamic in play. 

Though Yale President Peter Salovey says he is"deeply distressed" about the misconduct on his campus, Powers points out he hasn't taken any action to address the problem. 

"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," Powers concludes. "That's why I fasted — because this is my way to bring power back into my own hands. We won't wait any longer."

Cover image via Shutterstock.