NEW HAVEN, Conn. – By all accounts, Yale (search) 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 a lecture reserved for the most promising young anthropologists. But he's about to be unemployed.
Yale's anthropology department recently voted behind closed doors not to renew Graeber's contract. University officials won't give the reasons, but Graeber's supporters point to politics.
Graeber is an anarchist whose counterculture writings are nearly as popular as his academic work. He carries an Industrial Workers of the World (search) union card and has been arrested during anti-globalization protests. He also objected when some at Yale wanted to kick out a student who tried to unionize graduate students.
When Yale told Graeber not to return next year, it touched off a letter-writing campaign from professors worldwide, some suggesting the Ivy League (search) university was letting politics influence its hiring. More than 4,000 people have signed a general online petition supporting him.
"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 who wrote to Yale.
Graeber, who has taught at Yale since 1998, 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 come up for renewal each year, Conroy said, and it is not unusual for them to leave for other universities or for personal reasons. Some are just not renewed.
Graeber, 44, grew up in a working-class family 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. 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 colleagues at first and passed a three-year review before leaving for sabbatical in 2001. While on leave, he joined groups such as the Direct Action Network and Ya Basta and appeared at anti-war and anti-globalization protests and in newspaper articles.
When he returned to Yale, he said, things changed. During a six-year review, he was given a short-term renewal after colleagues expressed concerns about his turning in grades late and coming late to class, he said. He believes he made more enemies when he objected to colleagues who wanted to kick out a student trying to unionize graduate students and prepare a strike.
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."
Andrew Hill, chairman of anthropology at Yale, did not return a call seeking comment, but he told the student-run Yale Daily News that professors should not assume they will be rehired.
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 not to get political on campus.
Though he wants to stay at Yale, Graeber is polishing his resume just in case. But he worries 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," he said. "You're going to cut it either way depending on how you feel about anarchists and how you feel about Yale."