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Early Exit

May 18, 2005

Yale University is getting rid of a popular anthropology professor, setting off protests from supporters who believe he is losing his job for being an anarchist and for visibly backing graduate student unionization. As the professor considers filing a formal grievance with the university, anthropologists and labor officials nationwide have already organized an online petition signed by 3,000 people.

The decision not to renew David Graeber’s contract after the end of the 2005-6 academic year was made in a private meeting of 12 senior faculty members who are required to keep the proceedings confidential. ( Inside Higher Ed contacted several who said they could not comment.) In the absence of an explanation from the panel, Graeber and his supporters insist that the decision could not have been made based on his work.

"His scholarship was at the level he would have had tenure at any normal university," said Marshall Sahlins, an anthropology professor at the University of Chicago. “As he has become a more visible anarchist,” added Andrej Grubacic, a researcher at the State University of New York at Binghamton, who has worked with Graeber, "he has encountered more opposition, fallen out of favor."

The closed-door review was for promotion from assistant professor to "term associate," an untenured position that Graeber said is usually just a "rubber stamp," barring significant problems with teaching, scholarship or ethics. Graeber passed his first review at Yale, which came at the three-year mark. The review for term associate comes at the end of his sixth year, and normally renews the faculty member for four more years, after which he or she is considered for tenure.

Graeber, a self-avowed anarchist who has supported physical intervention at corporate globalization conferences, knew his politics were controversial.

Still, he said he passed the third-year review easily, having "kept my activism in New York, and scholarship in New Haven." The opposition began in the sixth year review, in 2004.

At that time, with a deadlocked vote, the panel gave Graeber a warning. It did so, admonishing Graeber for "being unreliable," he said, “showing up late to class, and not doing enough service work.” Graeber denies the charges, and none of the students interviewed who took his classes said they recall him having a punctuality problem. The board extended Graeber’s contract for two, rather than four years, and scheduled a review after the first year. In the meantime, Graeber organized a colloquium series and got involved in student projects in response to the criticism about his lack of service work.

Given his response to the criticism, and his prolific publishing – two books and dozens of papers, articles and essays – Graeber expected to pass the one-year review, which occurred May 3. Instead, based on a majority vote by senior anthropology faculty members, he was given a short letter saying that while the department recognized "a number of positive qualities of [Graeber’s] scholarship," it did not choose to renew his contract.

"It’s normal that these meetings are confidential, but not that no reason is given at all,” Graeber said. “I responded to their criticisms, so there was nothing to say this time, so they just didn’t say anything.” Helaine Klasky, a Yale spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail reply to a request for comment on the situation: “Personnel matters involving the Yale faculty are confidential and therefore cannot be discussed.”

Given the information vacuum, Graeber and his supporters assume that his politics forged his exit, though Klasky suggested otherwise in her e-mail. “It is the university's policy that political views of faculty members are not a factor in decisions about reappointment and/or promotion,” she wrote.

But Graeber said that he first started getting the cold shoulder from some colleagues after his third year when he became more visible in movements against the International Monetary Fund and Group of Eight. “The final straw,” Graeber suggested, came when he defended a graduate student who he had mentored earlier this year.   

Graeber believed that the student was being treated unfairly because of her involvement with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, a graduate student union that is not recognized by the university and has been locked in a longstanding battle with Yale administrators. Faculty members said that the unionization issue is a controversial topic in the anthropology department, and that some professors have openly expressed their distaste for the union. There is no evidence that Graeber’s backing of the student directly led to the decision on his contract. Still, he thinks it was “the excuse they needed.”

Anthropologists who find it hard to believe that Graeber was denied promotion would like some light shed on his review. “He has published as much in 10 years as many people do in a lifetime,” said Hylton White, an anthropology professor at the University of Chicago who knows Graeber from grad school. "And given how many students take his classes” – one course, Myth and Ritual, drew 137 students -- “it’s hard to understand. What does one have to do? I think it’s that secrecy of the process, that’s why so many people are supporting him.”

Support for him is strong. Thirty-nine Yale graduate students of anthropology, about two-thirds of the total, have signed a petition encouraging Yale to keep Graeber. Another 3,000 supporters signed a similar petition. Signers include a few high profile professors, some anarchists and union members, and some more unusual self-designations, like signature number 2,234: “Tom Welsh – Human Being.”

Many of Graeber’s staunchest supporters are students, both undergraduate and graduate, who describe him fondly. Thomas Frampton, an undergraduate who organized a  conference on globalization with Graeber’s help, said that undergraduate students generally believe Graeber was not renewed because of his involvement in the anarchy movement. “I know him as a teacher and as a mentor who gives himself to the students, and Yale needs that,” he added.

So what is the trouble with David Graeber? “That’s the problem,” said White, the Chicago anthropologist. "You just don’t know, and nobody has to tell."

 

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