A small group of Yale students delivered a thick packet of letters to the Provost’s Office on Wednesday protesting the administration’s decision not to renew anthropology professor David Graeber’s contract — an issue that has provoked anxiety in the Anthropology Department after two other professors recently announced they will leave Yale this spring.
Graeber’s potential departure falls at an awkward time for the department, as two other senior sociocultural anthropology professors, Thomas Blom Hansen and Eric Worby, recently announced they are leaving Yale. The administration’s decision not to renew Graeber’s contract has sparked widespread outrage among anthropology professors, left-wing academics and commentators throughout the United States and England who contend the decision was influenced by Graeber’s anarchist politics.
Although the Anthropology Department has not yet launched faculty searches to replace Hansen and Worby, the department is looking to hire a female professor with a joint appointment in anthropology and African-American studies, Director of Undergraduate Studies David Watts said.
Yale President Richard Levin said the public demonstration will not affect the University’s review process for Graeber’s case.
Emily Friedrichs ’07, an anthropology major who was one of 10 students delivering a total of 30 letters on Graeber’s behalf yesterday, said she thinks Graeber’s contract situation is “really frustrating.”
“He’s really the most brilliant man I’ve ever met at Yale,” Friedrichs said. “This is a huge dilemma … The exit of several of these professors is definitely going to be a concern for many others, and for me specifically, in terms of finding an advisor for my senior essay.”
The students — many of whom have taken Graeber’s popular lectures courses “Myth and Ritual” and “Power, Violence, and Cosmology” — delivered the letters to an administrative assistant in the Provost’s Office and tried to meet with the provost to urge him to renew Graeber’s contract for another two years.
Yale Provost Andrew Hamilton said Wednesday afternoon that he was away from his office giving a presentation in Woolsey Hall at the time the letters were delivered.
Graeber said he has had little contact with the students advocating on his behalf, but he hopes the committee reviewing his appeal will take students’ support, as well as that of his colleagues at other universities, into consideration. He said he expects a decision on his appeal in the very near future.
“When you’re in a position like this, the worst thing that could possibly happen is for someone to say, ‘This guy is manipulating his own students for political advancement,'” Graeber said. “The only thing I really said [to the students] was, ‘Be careful not to put pressure on … other students, make sure everyone only does what they feel comfortable with.'”
Professors from the University of Chicago and the University of Sussex, England, among others, also have sent letters supporting Graeber to Yale’s appeals committee. An online petition protesting Yale’s decision to not renew his contract has received over 4,000 signatures.
Hylton White, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago who signed the letter of support, said the level of support for Graeber that has been expressed among his colleagues is unusual.
“The normal rule would have been for people not to comment on a decision taken by colleagues in another department,” White said. “In this case, the people who did respond were driven by a number of things: first of all, the gross disparity between David’s record and what happened.”
White said he and many of his colleagues were surprised that Graeber was denied a contract renewal, especially in light of Graeber’s strong reputation among colleagues in his field.
“There were some very senior and prestigious names in the discipline who put their names behind this effort,” White said. “There were people who didn’t make this public but also wrote private letters to the department. The people at Yale who made this decision were certainly made aware of the degree of disapproval.”
The planned departures of professors Hansen and Worby will create a larger problem for the Yale’s Anthropology Department, particularly if Graeber leaves Yale.
Watts said he is concerned about students’ prospects for finding faculty advisors in the department, as well as the department’s potential need to hire replacements for three faculty members.
“Given limits on the size of departments, and as we try to have some diversity in terms of research specialties, it means that having one person depart can leave a real gap,” Watts said. “If we lose those three people, yes, there will be a shortfall, but it’s not like there’s no one here for majors to work with. But … when you find a professor’s work inspiring and then suddenly that person’s going, it’s not really satisfying to be told there are plenty of faculty left.”
Watts said the Provost’s Office has most of the power in making personnel decisions.
“We didn’t have a contingency plan, and I guess that’s a fault, that’s a criticism on one level, but we don’t have the decision-making power anyway,” he said. “We can make plans, but then we have to go start playing politics with people in the Provost’s Office about what decision-making power we should have.”
Graeber said the University of Sussex is “actively wooing” him, and he has already been urged to apply for many other jobs, but he does not yet know where he will go if he leaves Yale.