While the end of the semester usually brings with it a slew of final assignments, this year the University also received a withdrawal — that of anthropology professor David Graeber’s petition to remain at Yale. Graeber, who had served for six years as an assistant professor, challenged the non-renewal of his contract in September, claiming that the decision was politically motivated. An avowed anarchist as well as a famous anthropologist, Graeber alleged that his quite public radical views lay at the root of his dismissal.
Since the University has made only surface comments regarding the sensitivity of the issue and has generally refused to defend itself against such charges, public information about the case has rarely risen beyond speculation, anecdotes and Graeber’s own statements. While we respect the importance of confidentiality and fairness, especially in such a contentious case that has become so highly publicized, we believe the University’s absolute silence on this issue is foolhardy.
Though it is obviously not as gratifying as press for low admit rates, high endowment returns or the publication of groundbreaking new studies, cases such as Graeber’s still turn the national eye toward Yale. While each incidence of a professor’s contract not being renewed carries unavoidable personal disappointments for the parties involved, this case in particular presented the University with the opportunity to demonstrate that such unpleasant decisions are not handed down without due deliberation and prudence.
Instead, the public outcry from Graeber’s supporters, when coupled with the deafening silence of University officials, only reinforced assumptions of foul play.
It would be unfortunate if Yale dismissed Graeber solely on the basis of his personal politics. We would like to believe it did not. But we believe that the departmental and administrative refusals to respond to such accusations sends the wrong message to faculty, students and the press.
Of course, the University cannot be expected to explain its every action. However harsh incidences of denied tenure and budget cuts may be on certain individuals, we do not expect transcript-length press releases or media blitzes at the conclusion of every Yale Corporation meeting or departmental review. But these were obviously extenuating circumstances, and it is reasonable to expect a more thoughtful response, or at least some response, to such issues. And while it may seem unfair to try the University in the court of public opinion, it seems clear that some rebuttal is necessary.
Graeber’s case has raised larger questions about the role of a professor’s personal politics and the tenuous positions of Yale’s junior faculty. By neglecting to address these questions, administrators seem to suggest that the University does not consider itself accountable to the faculty who comprise the backbone of Yale’s teaching staff, and regardless of its impact as a terrible public relations move, that is a dreadful message.