david on tenure not tenure
via simona ferlini fb share.. article: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-it-wasn-t-a-tenure-case
There are many mysteries of the academy which would be appropriate objects of ethnographic analysis. One question that never ceases to intrigue me is tenure. How could a system ostensibly designed to give scholars the security to be able to say dangerous things have been transformed into a system so harrowing and psychologically destructive that, by the time scholars find themselves in a secure position, 99% of them have forgotten what it would even mean to have a dangerous idea? How is the magic effected, systematically, on the most intelligent and creative people our societies produce? Shouldn’t they of all people know better? There is a reason the works of Michel Foucault are so popular in US academia. We largely do this to ourselves. But for this very reason such questions will never be researched.
I think it’s important to do so, in part, because it illustrates that one way that tactics of bullying, silencing, and other abusive structures of power operate is by the insistence on the part of the bulk of the academic community that things like this cannot possibly happen.
I was encouraged to think I had a strong chance at tenure if I followed this advice. In fact I was aware that the Yale tenure rate was roughly 7% so tenure struck me as unlikely, no matter how well I played my cards. Therefore, when the Global Justice Movement picked up and I felt I was uniquely positioned—and therefore had an historical responsibility—to contribute, I effectively told myself “well, it’s not like I’d have gotten tenure anyway” and jumped on board. I soon became convinced the tools of ethnography could be useful to those trying to create new forms of direct democracy and took a sabbatical year (2001–2002) to pursue this idea. In the course of that sabbatical year I also made press statements as a member of various direct action-oriented and broadly anarchist groups involved in the protests that successfully halted the Free Trade Area of the Americas treaty and other neoliberal trade initiatives. When I returned in the fall of 2002, several previously friendly members of the senior faculty – people I had not been in contact with at all during my sabbatical – refused to speak to me.
If they were known outside New Haven for anything, at that time, it was for their unique institutional culture, epitomized by the habit of some members of the senior faculty of writing lukewarm or even hostile letters of recommendation for their own graduate students—students who, I might note, were on average of a clearly higher intellectual calibre than the faculty, but lived in a climate of fear and intimidation as a result.
In the end, I was not allowed to remain neutral.
When the time came in 2004 for the normally routine promotion to “Term Associate” (an untenured position that would lead in four years to tenure review), this same handful of senior faculty tried to deny me reappointment, despite uniformly positive external reviews (one by Laura Nader) and strong student evaluations (I had taught some of the most popular courses in the department’s history). They told the dean I had not done enough committee work—but when challenged were forced to admit they had not given me any. Informed they couldn’t simply fire me without warning, they solicited, and were granted, special permission to review my case again after a year—and this time, at their insistence and as far as I know in violation of all precedent, without external or student input.
This was of course primarily an attempt to intimidate the union organizers, but partly also meant to test my loyalty. I failed the test spectacularly by defending her
After that my dismissal was a foregone conclusion. All that remained was to find a pretext. This however proved difficult, since I did not have a drug or drinking problem, had never been accused of plagiarism, unethical academic practices, or sexual or any other form of harassment, had never been convicted of a crime, never slept with students, had no history of clinical mental health issues, and never been the object of student grievances or complaints (in fact, it’s quite possible I was the only member of the socio-cultural faculty at that time of whom none of these things could be said.) I was also by then doing quite a bit of service work and had contracts for two forthcoming monographs in addition to the two books already out. Some students told me they were pressured to bring false charges but refused. Many wrote unsolicited letters of support. The best the other side could do was to get one foreign student, who was told she was in danger of flunking out and being deported, to write a letter complaining about the overly democratic way I had organized a seminar (!). This however allowed them to claim the students were not unanimous, and the student letters weren’t entered into evidence anyway. Some brave and wonderful colleagues fought hard to defend me, but in the end it was to no avail. (Most also left in frustration soon after.) In the end, I was told my contract was not being renewed but no reason was given—other than a newfound concern with the supposed weakness in my academic work.
At the time, it honestly never occurred to me that I would not be able to find a job elsewhere in America.
In my own case, too, matters were complicated by the student protest. I was labeled a “trouble-maker” who would turn their students against them (a silly idea, as my subsequent history attests). So in many cases at least, the moment one person raised any such objections, my application was instantly rejected.
I’ll stop the narrative here, and just underline a few relevant lessons:
4\ In extremely hierarchical environments, being nice is often seen as impertinent or subversive—at least, if one is equally friendly and sympathetic to everyone.
5. In academic environments where most people were first drawn to their careers by a sense of intellectual excitement, but feel they then had to sacrifice that sense of joy and play in order to obtain life security, it is extremely unwise to be seen as visibly enjoying oneself, even in the sense of being excited by ideas. This is viewed as inconsiderate.
6. The term “collegiality” often operates in a deeply insidious way to disguise the workings of points 4, and 5. If one hears that someone is “uncollegial” one typically assumes they are rude, contentious, nasty, unsociable, or otherwise a jerk. In fact the term is never applied to superiors for abusing inferiors, but is almost invariably used for people lower down in a hierarchy for acting in way that others (often but not only superiors) disapprove of. It is thus perfectly possible to be too nice to students, and too enthusiastic about sharing ideas, and be denounced as “uncollegial” – thus raising in the minds of all those unfamiliar with the specifics of the case the assumption that one’s behaviour was exactly the opposite.
8. The (tacitly authoritarian) insistence on acting as if institutions could not possibly behave the way the anthropology department at Yale did in fact behave leads almost necessary to victim-blaming. As a result, bullying—which I have elsewhere defined as unprovoked attacks designed to produce a reaction which can be held out as retrospective justification for the attacks themselves—tends to be an effective strategy in academic contexts.
9. The truth or falsity of accusations is often treated as irrelevant. There seems a tacit rule not just of the academy but almost all aspects of professional-managerial life that if a superior plots to destroy an underling’s career, this is considered disagreeable behavior, certainly, but consequences are unlikely to follow. If the victim publicly states this happened, however, this is considered unforgivable and there will be severe consequences—whether or not the accusations are correct. Similarly if accusations are directed against an underling, even if they are proven false, the underling is usually assumed to have done something else to have earned the rancor of the accuser. So in a way the veracity of the accusations is again beside the point and making too much of a fuss about it is considered bizarre.
10. Prejudice in favor of institutional authority also allows authorities to easily get away with indirect forms of dishonesty aimed at falsifying the facts. To this day, most academics who have heard of my case appear convinced I was simply denied tenure, which of course makes my protests of political bias seem bizarre and self-serving, since most junior faculty are denied tenure at Yale. Almost no one knows that in fact it was a highly unusual non-tenure procedure where rules were changed for my case and my case only. Why? One reason is because Yale authorities kept making statements that implied, but did not quite state, that it was a tenure case.. appear to have decided it was more likely that an activist scholar had unreasonably politicized a routine academic decision, than that a notoriously conservative department could possibly have changed the rules to get rid of radical who was actively engaged in organising direct actions to disrupt trade summits and discomfiting the powerful in other actual, practical, ways.
In the end, I was not silenced. I made a new career in the UK, published widely, and continued to make interventions in public life. What the Yale brass did ensure was that all this came at enormous personal cost. My two remaining close family members (brother and mother) both, as it happened, faced prolonged terminal illness while the drama at Yale was unfolding—I found myself dashing back between being care-giver to first one then the other in New York and dealing with the latest machinations of the senior faculty back at Yale—which meant I had to indefinitely postpone my own plans to start a family. My own marriage ultimately buckled under the strains of exile, leaving me, for a while profoundly isolated. As one might imagine all this took no small emotional toll. Throwing myself into work I accomplished a good deal; but to this day the reaction of American anthropology continues to hurt me. I felt I had made important contributions not just to the discipline, but to political causes almost all my fellow anthropologists claimed to share—indeed, in many cases, built academic careers claiming to interpret and represent. Yet the main response seems to have been an eagerness to give credit to even the most transparent attempts at character assassination.
To end with a sociological reflection on silencing, then, I would invite the reader to consider the following. I agreed to write this because I have no intention to apply for an academic position in America in the foreseeable future. There is probably not a single paragraph in this essay that I would not have self-censored had that not been the case.
nobel peace prize ness