Yale astronomy students speak out against institutional racism

Students are leading the charge to make changes at Yale University after a heated debate over systemic racism at the institution went public. 

Last month, in the midst of rising racial tensions in the U.S., a group of professors at the Yale Department of Astronomy sent out an email, since obtained by Buzzfeed News, to the entire department regarding its history with race. 

In the email, Richard Larson, a professor emeritus at the university who retired in 2011, expressed doubts at the existence of systemic racism in the department, and he used one particular woman — Ella Greenes, a Black office staffer who worked in the department in 1985 — as an example of what he described as a lack of systemic racism within the astronomy department, according to a report from Buzzfeed News

"We haven't seen many Ella Greenes," Larson wrote, as reported by Buzzfeed News. "But Ella was an ambitious and self-made person, and she didn't receive and didn't need any special help for black people." He went on to assert that Greenes was "not defeated" by systemic racism at the university. 

Willian van Altena, another professor emeritus in the department, added to the conversation, asserting that there is a lack of diversity in the department because students have a lack of interest in astronomy, "not due to inherent racism in our department." 

These assertions conflict with recent research on diversity and inclusion in astronomy, which show that, across the field of astronomy, there remain systemic issues relating to race. For example, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) National Task Force to Elevate African American representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy, known as TEAM-UP, released a 2019 report which details the obstacles facing African American students in both physics and astronomy and makes suggestions for how institutions, like Yale's astronomy department, might begin to make changes to better support and uplift their students.

AIP representatives have said that they hope that this report could serve as an important tool for all institutions looking to address issues with diversity and inclusion within their departments. "AIP does not wish to comment on a specific institution, but our stance on correcting systemic racism in the physical sciences community is well established with the creation and continuing work of the TEAM-UP report and our statement on diversity," a TEAM-UP representative told Space.com in an email. "In both instances, AIP hopes institutions, both public and private, take a comprehensive look at their programs and environments, and address the necessary work and change needed to make physics and astronomy more inclusive to all people."

In a statement emailed to Space .com, Yale astronomy department representatives said the university is committed to addressing diversity and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"The Astronomy Department stands in support of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who continue to suffer from long-standing systemic racism. Recent incidents of police brutality against BIPOC are symptomatic of systemic racism that cannot be tolerated. The senseless murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice and too many others cannot be tolerated. Their lives matter. Black Lives Matter," the statement reads. 

A community responds

The comments from Larson and van Altena were met with substantial criticism from researchers and students in Yale's astronomy department. 

"Directly in response to the all-department emails, a group of undergraduates wrote a letter calling on us as a department to not be just not racist but truly anti-racist," Claire Dickey, a graduate student at Yale's department of astronomy, told Space.com in an email. "A group of us who are senior graduate students also wrote an open letter to the faculty, signed by about 25 grad students and postdocs, outlining some of the immediate changes we felt the department needed to make."

"Speaking up from vulnerable positions isn't easy, but it felt critical that we take a stand together against the sentiments expressed by emeriti," Dickey added. 

Astronomy undergraduate students at Yale also issued a joint statement on the email exchange saying: "If people of color do not feel comfortable in the department (and the current state of representation indicates they do not), it is due to our lack of trying," according to Buzzfeed News.

"The emeriti involved may have had good intentions in sending those emails, but what they said was racist and profoundly harmful, especially to students of color," Dickey told Space.com.

"Watching all of this unfold has been painful, but it's been much more painful to really come to grips with how badly we as a department have failed students of color," she added."And obviously what I feel, as a white person processing this now, is nothing compared to the pain experienced by astronomers of color, not just on the day these emails were sent but throughout their time in academia."

While Larson and van Altena's comments sparked friction with students, there are active professors and leaders in the department who are in agreement with the students. 

"I think the scientific community in general, and the astronomical community in particular, have not come to terms with racial inequity," Charles Bailyn, a professor at Yale's Department of Astronomy who also serves as the head of one of Yale's undergraduate residential colleges, told Space.com in an email. "The Yale astronomy department is typical of this, and I think we need to do better."

"What we've come to realize is that it isn't just a matter of how many people one has who [fit] this category or that. What matters is whether they feel fully included in the department, whether they feel they truly belong," Bailyn said. "This is an attitudinal issue, one that is affected by many small incidents (what's sometimes referred to as 'microaggressions') as well as overall policies and demographics," he said, adding that "just as the accumulation of many microaggressions has an effect that's much bigger than any one incident, we will need the accumulation of many individual actions and policies to make progress."

Bailyn added, "We will not succeed until EVERY person who shares our passion for the cosmos not only feels that they belong in our department, but feels that the department, and the university more generally, belongs to them."

Outside opinions

Others in the astronomy community have also spoken out about this ongoing conversation and systemic racism in the field of astronomy and at institutions like Yale. And, while people weighing in on the debate have shared their unique viewpoints, it seems as though most agree that the statements from leaders at Yale are two things: upsetting, but not surprising.

"To use a tired phrase, the statements were appalling but not at all surprising," Isabel Rodriguez, an astrophysics graduate student at Oregon State University who also serves as vice president of the Black Graduate Student Association, told Space.com in an email.

Edmund Bertschinger, a professor of physics at MIT and a co-chair with TEAM-UP, echoed that sentiment in an email to Space.com. "[I] find it disturbing but not surprising," he said. "Many astronomy and physics departments at predominantly white institutions have had zero or few black students, staff, or faculty members. I would hope that all astronomers and physicists would be curious about this and seek understanding with as much rigor as they pursue their own research." 

Bertschinger added that "the TEAM-UP report provides a solid social science research foundation for self-examination."

While this work outlines this "foundation" for implementing effective changes at the institutional level, Rodriguez highlighted the systemic struggles that face marginalized groups around the world.

"White supremacy permeates our society and the globe, and operates in such a way that its invisibility to those who benefit is the very source of its power," Rodriguez said. 

"The dearth of Black people in any space is not due to lack of interest, yet it's a myth we continue to perpetuate even under the best intentions (e.g., fixing 'the leaky pipeline'). Institutions close or push us out, and systems make it hard for us to want to stay. Those who persist often do so at a price, especially those who are critical of, or working to dismantle, the barriers they faced," Rodriguez added.

Making changes

It is yet to be seen exactly how and if the department will make changes, but according to Bailyn, the conversation is continuing. 

"We've had two departmental town halls recently, one on the day of the email thread, and one since then, and both of those events have been quite positive, in my view," Bailyn said. "Some hard truths were spoken, and there was consensus, from students, staff, alumni, and faculty, that we need to move forward in ways we haven't before," he added.

"Our words of empathy and outrage must translate into persistent action. As members of an institution with elite privilege, we have not done enough to overturn, and therefore have been responsible for perpetuating, the oppression that our BIPOC colleagues regularly face. This injustice is present at all levels within the academic environment," the Yale University representative said in the university's official statement. 

Yale's official statement also went on to add that to affect real change, the academic community must model a "culture that values diversity."

"Our words of empathy and outrage must translate into persistent action. As members of an institution with elite privilege, we have not done enough to overturn, and therefore have been responsible for perpetuating, the oppression that our BIPOC colleagues regularly face. This injustice is present at all levels within the academic environment," the statement read. "We will work hard to mitigate the effects of systemic racism within our astronomy community. We will work to be part of the change that the world needs now." 

According to Dickey, Yale's astronomy students also understand there is more work to be done.

"There's a collective understanding that sending letters will never be enough, and we've made a concerted effort to pause and think forward, to imagine a department that truly supports students of color and that we're all proud to be a part of, and now we are starting the hard work of figuring out exactly how to get there," she said.

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.