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Professor points to politics as Yale fails to renew contract

Associated Press Writer

October 23, 2005, 3:03 PM EDT

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- By all accounts, Yale anthropology professor David Graeber is one of the brightest minds in his field. His books are taught worldwide and the London School of Economics recently asked him to give its annual Malinowski lecture, an offer reserved for the world's most promising young anthropologists.

And he's about to be unemployed.

Graeber is an anarchist whose counterculture writings are nearly as popular as his academic work. He carries an Industrial Workers of the World union card and has been arrested during anti-globalization protests.

So when Yale recently told Graeber not to return next year, it touched off a letter-writing campaign from professors worldwide, some of whom suggested that the Ivy League university is letting politics influence its hiring.

"It's extremely odd that one of the most brilliant anthropologists is being excluded from the department at Yale in such an extraordinary fashion," said Maurice Bloch, a London School of Economics anthropologist and one of many professors to write letters to Yale.

Graeber, who has taught at Yale since 1998, has appealed the decision. University spokesman Tom Conroy said the university is negotiating an informal settlement but would not discuss the reasons behind the contract decision.

Dozens of the 250 non-tenured professors at Yale come up for contract renewal each year, Conroy said, and it's not unusual for them to leave. He said some leave for personal reasons or take tenure-track jobs at other universities. Others, like Graeber, are not renewed.

Graeber, 44, is the son of a seamstress and a print plate stripper and still lives in the same New York City co-op where he grew up. "Socialist housing," he calls it. He wears cargo pants to class and is not shy about his disdain for the tenured Yale faculty who showed him the door.

"I'm both more productive intellectually than they are and I'm having more fun. It must drive them crazy," he said in an interview.

Later, he added: "I'm publishing like crazy. I'm all over the place. I try hard not to rub it in."

Graeber said he got along with his colleagues at first and passed a three-year review before leaving for sabbatical in 2001. While away from New Haven, Graeber joined groups such as the Direct Action Network and Ya Basta and began appearing at anti-war and anti-globalization protests and in newspaper articles.

When he returned to Yale, he said things changed.

"All of a sudden, people weren't speaking to me," he said.

At his six-year review, he said he was given only a short-term renewal because some colleagues expressed concerns.

"It was incredibly petty," Graeber said. "It was stuff like, 'He turns in grades late, comes in late to class.' Really stupid little things."

He said he made more enemies by objecting when some colleagues tried to kick out a graduate student. The student, Christina Moon, was an organizer trying to unionize graduate students and prepare a strike.

This spring, when his contract was up for review again, the department voted not to extend it. Like all employment decisions, it was made behind closed doors. Even Graeber doesn't get to know why.

Andrew Hill, chairman of anthropology at Yale, did not return a call for comment. He told the student-run Yale Daily News that professors should not assume they will be rehired.

Enrique Mayer, a Yale anthropology professor who was in the department's meeting, said he doesn't believe Graeber was fired simply for being an anarchist.

"I have my own opinions, but I'm gagged," Mayer said. "There are people who don't like his politics and people who don't like internal graduate student issues. That's true."

Despite being eccentric _ an adjective echoed by several anthropologists and students _ Graeber's classes are among the most popular in the department, Mayer said.

"If Yale can't cope with eccentric possibilities, that's rather odd," Bloch said. "It's had many in the past. He doesn't run around naked in the middle of lectures. He doesn't do anything as radical as that."

Moon, a doctoral candidate, is one of dozens of anthropology students who signed a student petition supporting Graeber. She said he is the department's most popular professor but is not liked by the senior faculty.

"He was really challenging the attitudes, the politics and the conservative views of the department," Moon said.

Since Graeber's firing, he has become a cause celebre for student union activists. It's bittersweet, he said, because he disagrees with the union's centralized organization and tried hard not to get political on campus.

"I figured, I'll be an anarchist in New York and a scholar in New Haven," he said.

Peter McLaren, a UCLA professor and outspoken Marxist who is among more than 4,000 names on a general online petition supporting Graeber, said that can be difficult. He said he was similarly fired early in his career.

"It's the professors that get active locally and in their communities, where newspapers stories come out about them. They're the professors very often that are in trouble," he said. "If you keep your ideas to your politics and your books, you're OK."

As negotiations continue between Graeber and Yale, letters keep arriving on campus. A student-run Web site supporting Graeber has collected nine letters signed by several dozen professors.

"It has also led to widespread speculation on the motives that lie behind it," University of Chicago faculty members wrote. "None of this can do anything but a disservice to anthropology at Yale and to the discipline at large."

With his job prospects for next year uncertain, Graeber didn't renew a lease on his apartment. He splits his time between his New York co-op and apartments in New Haven where friends let him sleep.

Though he said he'd like to stay at Yale, he's touching up his resume just in case. But he worries whether his reputation is tainted.

"Anybody looking at this is going to think one of two things: Either Yale is very, very bad or I did something very, very bad and they're not saying what it is. You're going to cut it either way depending on how you feel about anarchists and how you feel about Yale."


On the Net:

David Graber's official Web site: http://www.yale.edu/anthropology/people/dgraeber.html

Student-run protest site: http://www.geocities.com/graebersolidarity/

Source: Newsday Inc.

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