a tale of working at yale


The bulk of this website presents the documents directly related to the NLRB case against Yale. As voluminous as they are, they restrict themselves to content (and style) suitable for consideration by the NLRB and are therefore framed in a labor-management context. This postscript in no way attempts to complete the overlong story of living the experiences clinically condensed in the NLRB charges. But it offers two items for context: One is a PDF of the critique of YCIAS published by H. Salome in 1990 that analyzes its problematic higher-level administrative practices. The other is a somewhat reflective narrative by H. Salome, as if told to a friend — a friend, however, with only a passing interest and with little stomach for details.

Reflections (as if to a friend)

A cause so trifling

by H.G. Salome

The most consequential education I got at Yale came long after graduate school, in an initially undemanding part-time clerical job. It was there that I observed a great university transforming itself into a modern corporation, and its once cultivated administrators eagerly adopting base behaviors befitting corporate lackeys.

However, my particular ordeal at Yale was due not so much to the failure of an institution and its mechanisms, but over and over again to the choices and deliberate actions of individual humans — people in charge of minor fiefdoms who were evidently driven by motives that should have had no place at all in the education or care of students. They and their minions and allies, long in the habit of inflicting petty abuses to rid themselves of people in their midst who challenge or otherwise displease them, seemed to lose all sense of proportion when the petty abuses failed to do the job. Ultimately, it was merely another unfolding of the inherent moral and ethical weaknesses of human beings.

And for what? There was no grand cause in this workplace environment.

Likewise, one may ask, why resist when all was trifling? I had a job of no particular significance (indeed I feared and resented being defined by it), but a very long career of harassment. Perhaps because I lack a normal social sense, as events played out I was often able to see myself at some remove. That likely spared me some emotional distress. Nevertheless, the ordeal went on so many years that it wore me down and affected me in ways physical and mental that, as I later learned, others had noticed. If I seldom felt hurt, I was often indignant, angry, sometimes frightened, occasionally stunned by the obsessive degree of animosity toward me, and, on a couple of occasions just before the end — but those were the worst — utterly, desolately humiliated.

I think also that my ordeal was made easier to endure because it arose from a kind of political conflict, trivial though it was. Many people connected to area studies came to know of the history and issues of YCIAS I had written about, at least in part, and I hung on long enough to establish a reputation. This got me a few loyal supporters who helped in various ways when the stunning end came: my student employees (who demonstrated moral support by going out on strike when I was fired), a couple of intelligent co-workers (who knew the truth and remain allies), and, surprisingly, a handful of senior faculty (who were essential in establishing my credibility in that class-conscious environment). The long development also gave me time to learn and understand what was happening and why, and to devise strategies along the way.

I tell my stories backwards — all analysis and summation first, and the actual events second. Now to the story, much abridged, and this time not the chronicle of the harassment campaign (found in the rest of this website for those with the stomach for it), but briefly how it came about, and how, after all had been lost, a settlement came together without the designated actors knowing what was going on behind the scenes.

The setting

First, the setting: Six or eight of us, clerical workers, managed similar autonomous interdisciplinary departments (called councils or programs) in foreign area studies — West European Studies, Latin American Studies, etc. Each council had a prominent senior faculty as chairman, affiliated faculty members drawn from the conventional disciplines, (history, economics, etc.) as members, and a one- or two-person permanent staff — us. We staff answered solely to our respective chairmen, but because theirs was usually an extra uncompensated duty, chairmen touched base only occasionally and left most administrative matters up to us. As jobs go, these were quite nice — at least for someone with an extremely passive personality and no ambition, like me.

The councils were loosely gathered under an intermediate level of bureaucracy initially called the Concilium (council of councils), and later named YCIAS (for Yale Center on International and Area Studies). A professional — but non-faculty — Executive Director took care of general administration and was liaison to the councils, their faculty, and other Yale entities. As a structure, it was collegial.

Later, as Concilium became YCIAS, its central staff increased, the executive director was pushed out, and a big-shot faculty Director (capital “D”, no “executive”) was installed at the top.

Centralization, covert style

In the 1980s two successive YCIAS directors evidently embarked on a course of becoming even bigger shots in their protected, ivory-tower world. God knows, nothing YCIAS or any of us did (other than dispense money) mattered in the real world, but they appeared to lust after power nevertheless and went after it by attempting to control our little autonomous councils — spending our funds (but not helping obtain funding), taking over any successful program a council might come up with, appropriating council staff time, skills, office space, etc. Most significantly, the YCIAS directors were covertly easing the council chairmen out of the advise-consent-authorize role they had historically played in the YCIAS organization, exploiting the innocent inattention of these overburdened faculty scholars.

The entire organization could have simply and openly been restructured to put everything clearly and legitimately under YCIAS authority. But major changes required collegial consent of the faculty chairmen, and no senior faculty would knowingly agree to being chairman of a department over which he had no authority. So the YCIAS continued to humor the council chairmen by explicitly reaffirming chairmen’s autonomy and authority over their councils in faculty meetings with them and in written notices, while in actuality usurping and undermining them.

YCIAS did this in part by exerting pressures on the council staff, issuing policies and directives to us that conflicted with our responsibilities to our council programs. On top of that, the YCIAS directors unleashed their own jealous staff against the councils’. Such a scheme depended on secrecy and deceit — fooling the chairmen and affiliated faculty, hiding budgets and other resources from them. For staff, morale became nonexistent; we were in an untenable position, caught in the conflict. All our attempts to work politely within the system to improve things were answered by impolite lies and intimidation. When any council worker appeared to object, conditions for that particular worker were made so unpleasant that he or she would soon leave — “voluntarily.”

My offense seemed to be in resisting and speaking out a little too much and too long against the general abuse of power by the YCIAS, their malignant mismanagement, their sadistic treatment of the most vulnerable of my co-workers, and the lies and corruption that damaged everything we were supposedly there to do. The YCIAS powers reacted as if I were a whistle-blower (albeit for an inconsequential cause), though what I was saying was hardly news in the councils.

Audits, investigations, and harassment

For a long time many of the council chairmen didn't suspect and wouldn't believe what was going on; but I had credibility with my own chairmen. In 1990, five or six years into this struggle, I published an analytical article about the condition of area studies at Yale with suggestions for improvement. It prompted the Provost to investigate the YCIAS for the first time, and later to initiate an administrative audit of the organization by outside professionals. The audit concluded with a condemning finding that was issued publicly. At other times, certain council chairmen alerted higher-ups in the Yale administration about the misdirection and mismanagement by the YCIAS. Toward the end (my end, that is), such alerts led to the President appointing an outside commission of nationally known figures to investigate the YCIAS. That study concluded with another devastating (though not widely disseminated) criticism of the place.

These efforts and follow-up investigations helped lead to the quiet removal of first one and later the other of two directors from the YCIAS. (The latter director — Gaddis Smith — reportedly later complained he had been deposed by a “coup.”) Unfortunately, the ousted directors’ paranoid, sadistic staff and their corrupt allies in the University’s middle management remained and reinfected next director, while collegial silence allowed both men to return and rise again — with evident renewed vengeance and a need for someone or something to take it out on. The YCIAS then seemed to turn their guns almost exclusively on me.

In the ostentatiously collegial atmosphere of Yale there was never much that anyone could do about the grumbling chairmen, who hadn't merely tenure, but almost clubby relationships among one another. So the YCIAS directors continued to deceive the chairmen as necessary and wait them out — wait for summer, wait for leaves of absence, wait for them to move on from their chairmanships. As the years wore on, the chairmen who knew me and the truth of the YCIAS left Yale, retired, or simply tired of the hassle and resigned abruptly. Meanwhile, my co-workers who hadn't already been driven away were easily intimidated (no tenure, of course). It got so that when a faculty member complained of his own accord about the YCIAS, the YCIAS thought I was behind it — I should have had such influence!

All is lost

I will not repeat here episode after absurd episode of this prolonged and complicated harassment campaign. Much is clinically described and documented at lux et veritas, and personally addressed in the FAQ. Instead, I skip to what at the time appeared to be the end — my firing by the petty administrators at YCIAS, with the apparent assistance and approval of deluded higher-ups all the way up to an assistant provost.

After the shock, I was frankly relieved at last to have a break from the overwork, as well as from the stress and harassment. I looked forward, finally, to that long delayed hearing that would now reinstate me, clear my record, and expose some of the evils that had been transpiring. Alas, the Union, about to begin what became a year-long labor strike, abandoned me (I later learned that they had been fed the YCIAS line from on high), and despite having some earnest volunteer supporters, I decided to give up what I had lost and just be glad I didn't have to go back.

However, one of my faculty supporters, a dear old former chairman and emeritus economic history professor who had long been an intellectual friend, would not hear of my giving up. He wrote me, and later called, insisting that if I wouldn’t fight, he’d do it for me. He was in failing health and didn’t know all the details; but he meant what he said. Though he had a reputation as something of a stubborn iconoclast, he also maintained ties in the upper reaches of the University — the new president had been his student, for example. He helped me find a lawyer, the former wife of a history professor colleague. She was a cigar-smoking Vassar grad and Yale PhD who had taught in the Yale English Department for 16 years, was booted out, sued Yale, enrolled in Yale Law School, became a lawyer, won a fat settlement in her long suit, turned the money over to her then husband (who had paid her law school tuition), then was dumped by the husband for a graduate student — in other words, she had the necessary credentials, knowledge of Yale, and was still mad. She offered to help me nearly pro bono for a few months, as long I did most of the work; after that, she suggested, I should find a law student to help me navigate the legal waters, warning me that any course could last for years.

I had decided exactly what to aim for: clear my record, restore my back pay and benefits (especially health insurance), and, so I wouldn't have to go back to work at Yale, get an administrative leave, with benefits, until I was old enough for retirement. The third goal was the tricky one because the standard legal remedy for every wrongful firing case that I had been learning about was to get the old job back — like going back into hell, I felt.

My lawyer really didn’t know what to do, sometimes had difficulty in comprehending the totality of my case, and made a few major booboos along the way. But she had a good presence (cigars and all), seemed impressed by my situation and, particularly, the faculty support I had (lots of Yale snobbery there), and was terribly sympathetic. I really needed some assistance. My case didn’t fit into any of the commonly allowed reasons for seeking redress — discrimination or harassment because of sex or age or race or the like. And it was so long and complicated, it was almost too difficult and too inside-the-academy for outsiders to comprehend. Another attorney in her law firm suggested approaching the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and the three of us put together an appeal.

My lawyer additionally suggested that I meanwhile contact the Union once again, at least to keep options open. The Union was incredulous I was still around, told me that the NLRB never takes cases of individuals, and didn’t even have the courtesy to mail some promised papers to me. My lawyer next tried to settle with Yale, counting on her old-girl-to-old-girl relationship with Yale’s General Counsel (its top attorney), but Yale’s old girl didn’t even answer my old girl’s letter.

At this point three senior professors also went to Yale’s General Counsel in person to press my case. The three consisted of my old emeritus chairman; a second longtime former chairman who had kept in touch with the first; and, notably, a longtime chairman of another council and a director of a new program at YCIAS, a respected mover and shaker in academia (and part-time sheep farmer) with whom I had only an indirect personal acquaintance, though we both knew each other by reputation. This little delegation was supplemented by a surprise letter of support, vehemently sparing no details, faxed from the UK by another former chairman of mine, a brilliant (and kindhearted) Dutch professor who had since left Yale to teach at Cambridge University. The Yale lawyers showed surprise at any faculty support for a clerical worker. But, after the delegation left, and after the letter from Cambridge had been consigned to their files, they did what they had been doing all along — continued to ignore my situation.

Better news

Then some better news: we learned that the NLRB had accepted my case and would issue a decision in six months. They really did make a federal case out of it! My lawyer was so excited at the news she decided to stay on instead of leaving me to find a willing law student.

But meanwhile — and first — the NLRB instructed Yale to try to reach a settlement. Yale sent an underling lawyer to deliver their insult — that is, Yale’s offer. We rejected it. Then we waited the anticipated six months for the NLRB decision.

When the response came from the Feds, it was a strong one in my favor. It would eventually have meant a trial before an administrative law judge with the NLRB representing my side — but not quite yet. Because the Union had never defended me in a grievance, as they were contractually supposed to, the NLRB ordered that Yale and the Union first either hold the hearing or settle the case; if anything was unsatisfactory about that outcome, then I could continue with the NLRB and the administrative trial.

It was another test of endurance to get the Union to believe the orders came from the NLRB and to pay attention. Finally the Union set up an interview for me with their part-time lawyer — three hours in a freezing room. The lawyer was initially rather hostile. Yet he was also the sharpest person I dealt with in the whole affair. By the time my teeth quit chattering (both from the cold and my nervousness), he came to understand the whole, complicated story better than any other person, whether Union, faculty, student, or staff. Before becoming a union officer he had, like me, been both a student and a clerical worker at Yale (and coincidentally, a typographer). I suspect that only someone who had lived both of those very different roles, plus subsequently acquiring knowledge of all the players in the administration (including faculty), could comprehend the forces in play. He knew exactly what I needed and wanted without my having to explain any more.

He pressed Yale for a hearing, threatening exposure of Yale’s liars and abusers but realistically expecting a settlement. Unfortunately, Yale sent a mid-level functionary to represent their side, one who could not make decisions and had no leverage to bargain for that long leave and retirement I sought. The functionary conveyed Yale’s remote message that pension and health plans legally did not allow such discretion. Period.

How Yale did what it could not do

Without a settlement, and with the NLRB monitoring, Yale could no longer avoid the hearing. As the date loomed, we were to have a preliminary meeting with with the Yale reps — the mid-level functionary and the underling lawyer. When they showed up, they brought an offer containing essentially everything I needed!

The Union lawyer was stunned at the unexpected leave provision, but played it cool. What he had not been aware of was that, behind the scenes, my old and increasingly decrepit emeritus chairman had politely, but forcefully and relentlessly, confronted and challenged his former student, the now owned-by-the-establishment, I’ll-have-to-ask-my-advisors president of Yale, Rick Levin. My old chairman never quite comprehended what the Union lawyer was doing, and the Union lawyer didn’t have the time even to consider what my old chairman was doing. But we all three knew well that Yale could do ANYTHING to or for anybody it wanted (that’s what power is at that level) and that the so-called legal restrictions were just b.s.

So the two forces — the Union lawyer’s brilliant and righteous zeal, and my old chairman’s kindness, courage, and political savvy — came together at the right moment, and I had my settlement. I would have preferred a victory in a trial. But such a resolution would have been perhaps years away. I didn’t want to have to live with the uncertainty and the increasing strain it put upon me, and the Union lawyer was honest with me about the Union’s lack of both resources for and interest in a sustained fight.

Besides, there was one bit of icing on the cake: We had got word after I was gone of a whisper campaign to discredit me and to prevent me from keeping my independent clients. So we got Yale to agree to issue a gag order to the perpetrators of my choice (I gave them a list of thirteen faculty and administrators) to forbid them from ever speaking of anything related to the now-undone firing, suspensions, and the like, and from ever discrediting me again.

Yale signed the settlement in the spring of 1997, nearly a year and a half after the firing (now transformed into a resignation), but dragged its feet all summer about implementing it. It took another nudge by the NLRB on the Yale lawyers, and a final push by my old chairman on the Yale president, to make it happen. When it did, my record was finally cleared (not that I or anyone would ever look at it again); the gag order was issued (not that I believed it could possibly prevent the YCIAS administrators, who remained there, from continuing to interfere with my independent business); I got most of my back pay (minuscule, but a matter of principle); health insurance (with the same Yale HMO of questionable competency I had had as an employee) was restored; and I was granted leave until old enough for retirement. Deo gratias.

For a long time I had naïvely believed that at the end, when the case of my harassment finally had a hearing at the top levels of Yale, I would still find some greatness in the institution. It never happened, and I am ashamed to have endured so much for so long for nothing of importance.

Disquisition — the 1990 publication by H. Salome that intensified the harassment campaign

Last updated 11 December 2022 (Sunday) at 13:10:14 EST