Anthropology profs fear exodus

Just months after the Anthropology Department voted not to renew sociocultural anthropology professor David Graeber’s contract, rumors are swirling that the department may lose as many as six additional professors by the end of the academic year.

At least one faculty member, tenured sociocultural anthropology professor Thomas Blom Hansen, will leave Yale this spring after accepting a job offer from the University of Amsterdam. Several professors and graduate students in the department said they have reason to believe that other professors are likely to follow.

“I think it’s confirmed that three are pretty much set to leave, David Graeber being one, but there are definitely rumors that there are more and I think it’s been described as a quote unquote ‘mass exodus,’” anthropology student Christina Moon GRD ’08 said.

The strife is centered in the department’s sociocultural sub-field — its largest field with 20 of the department’s 27 professors, according to its Web site — where the controversy surrounding the Graeber decision has sparked political tensions and concerns among some professors that the department’s prestige may suffer as a result.

Graeber, a self-described anarchist, is appealing the University’s decision not to renew his contract amid suspicion the denial was based on his political views and support for graduate student unionization. His fight to remain at Yale has drawn nationwide attention among left-wing academics and admirers of his work, and an online petition in support of his appeal has received more than 4,000 signatures.

Hansen, who came to Yale last year as its only tenured South Asian socioculturalist, said his decision to leave was motivated by personal considerations and was not influenced by the department’s climate. Still, Hansen said he has noticed a lack of cooperation among junior and senior faculty in the sociocultural field, as well as divisiveness over the issue of graduate student unionization.

“I’ve been surprised at the depth of some of these conflicts and divisions,” said Hansen who supports the efforts of Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization to be recognized as a union. “I was surprised that unionization was itself such a controversial issue, and a gulf between the tenured and non-tenured people which was not a relationship characterized by trust and respect but by the lack of that.”

Professors both within Yale’s department and at peer institutions said some of the faculty departures may also be due to Yale’s complicated tenure policy.

Andrew Hill, the department chair, did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week. But some professors denied the department was experiencing internal conflict, adding that periods of high turnover sometimes occur in many departments.

“Is the department in chaos and great trouble? No, nothing near it,” said anthropology professor Harold Scheffler, who has been in the department since 1963. “We go through periods of very low turnover, then five or six are leaving for a variety of reasons. A lot of that is happenstance.”

The other sub-fields within the department — archeological and biological anthropology — seem to be experiencing few internal problems, Graeber said. He said he thinks the sociocultural field is “fragmented” as a result of its structure, through which professors specialize in particular areas like Japan, South Asia and East Asia, and many have joint appointments with other departments.

Biological anthropologist David Watts said his sub-field, which has only four professors, has experienced no problems so far.

“Within my particular sub-field, we have a congenial group of students and faculty. We all have real interests in common and things to talk about with each other, and we get along,” Watts said. “The more people who are in a department, or part of a department, the more likely it is that some of them are not going to get along with each other.”

Watts said he thinks the rumored departures have been caused by the University’s tenure policy — in which junior faculty are not guaranteed a tenured slot in the department — rather than personal or political conflicts within the department.

“People are told, ‘You don’t have that much chance of getting tenure here,’ so most people within a few years say, ‘It’s in my interests to start looking elsewhere,’” Watts said. “I know that in some cases some of my junior colleagues, including people who would I would love to have here for years, are on the job market.”

Regardless of the root causes of the faculty departures, students and faculty said they are concerned about the impact the rumors will have on the department’s reputation and morale.

“There’s been a lot of rumors going around,” Hansen said. “There’s been quite a lot of people reacting to the David Graeber case. It’s very difficult to see how this will influence students in the future, but it certainly won’t have a positive impact.”

Graeber himself said an onslaught of departures may wreck havoc on the department.

“I think if the general exodus that seems to be going on occurs it’s going to be a disaster,” Graeber said.

Durba Chattaraj GRD ’09 said she thinks the faculty departures could affect next year’s crop of incoming anthropology students.

“When some of the top people in our department are leaving, it definitely has an impact on how we’re viewed from the outside, the kinds of students that want to apply here and what kinds of faculty might want to come here,” she said. “The David Graeber petition has been circulated so widely that people are thinking about what people are saying about Yale, what’s going on at Yale.”

Some graduate students said they are concerned that they will be left with little guidance in the future if the faculty who have served as their mentors and dissertation advisors during their time at Yale suddenly leave.

“Some of us came here to work with very particular people … and it’s really sad that this department always has to push out those professors who do provide that mentorship, that incredible teaching, that amazing scholarship,” Moon said. “Why does this department not value that?”

Chattaraj said the “crisis point” is how long it may take the University to hire replacements for departing faculty.

“How do we maintain mentorship?” she asked.

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said departments in the Graduate School will try to find other faculty to work with graduate students as mentors and advisors if dissertation advisors leave Yale.

According to several anthropology professors and graduate students, up to six professors may leave the department by the end of the academic year.
Lauren Fine
According to several anthropology professors and graduate students, up to six professors may leave the department by the end of the academic year.

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