The right to be fired

by Henry Farrell on May 18, 2005

“Savage Minds”: posts on the decision of Yale’s Department of Anthropology not to renew David Graeber’s contract, and suggests that the “real tipping point was his involvement with campus politics” and more specifically his support for “one of the organizers of a graduate student unionizing drive.” The source for this appears to be “Graeber himself”: Now I’ve no way of knowing whether Graeber’s own account tells the whole story, and the other side don’t seem to be talking. But either which way, the decision to let Graeber go is illustrative of a wider problem; as Jennet Kirkpatrick and Ian Robinson “put it”:, non-tenure track faculty are fighting for the right “to be fired, but only with just cause.” It’s demonstrably risky for non-tenure track faculty to make waves, even when there’s strong justification for so doing; their reappointment (or lack of same) is at the pleasure of the Department, and they’ve no recourse (or right to know why) if they’re let go.

Update: See also this story at “Inside Higher Ed”: where Marshall Sahlins says that Graeber’s “scholarship was at the level he would have had tenure at any normal university.” See also this “petition”: in support of Graeber.



Brian 05.18.05 at 1:08 pm

There is also a story about this at “Inside Higher Ed”: (Link via “Brian Leiter”:


RSL 05.18.05 at 1:58 pm

Everyone working outside academia–now’s your chance. All together, pianissimo sing “tweedle, needle, weedle” . . .

Seriously, though, I have great sympathy for the two groups Graeber defends: graduate students and non-tenured faculty. In most cases, I think the tenured faculties at most universities actually do hold to high standards in deciding who advances and who doesn’t in academia. However, politics and favoritism does at times play a role that really shouldn’t be tolerated. So why can’t the tenured faculty be made to state their reasons for advancing or not advancing either students or non-tenured faculty? They still have the freedom to decide what reasons are valid in their Departments–they just simply have to be open about those reasons and be consistent in their application of their own standards. If the standards are clear and the reasons for advancement or non-advancement are justifiable, what’s the problem with being open? It’s almost the same argument I’d use about Dick Cheney’s energy task force. If the people on that task force are afraid to state publically their opinions, aren’t we all justified in being a bit suspicious whether those opinions are really not self-serving in some way?

Unfortunately, some people who survive the abuse turn into abusers. It’s not unlike medical residents who are forced to work absurdly long hours just because the attending physicians had to do it when they were young . . .


RSL 05.18.05 at 2:09 pm

Oh . . . and for some good examples of the abused becoming the abusers, just read “Savage Minds” below . . .

Funny how fondly we remember are own humiliations isn’t it?


resd 05.18.05 at 3:14 pm

What senior faculty of Yale are we talking about here? From the articles on the net, counterpunch etc, it appears it was really in the hands of two or three individuals. Which ones?


Sam 05.18.05 at 3:36 pm

Some one please put a call into D. Horowitz immediately. I’m sure he’ll want to jump on this example of politics influencing academia….


Dirk 05.18.05 at 3:37 pm

I don’t know much (anything?) about the climate in Anthropology, but in most fields anyone with outstanding scholarship who was dismissed for political reasons would be picked up by a competing university in a second. So let’s see what happens to Mr. Graeber.


Jack Lake 05.18.05 at 3:41 pm

David Graeber’s firing is par for the course in academic departments dealing with non-tenured faculty. Industry wouldn’t do anything different and this is where something should be done.

Companies may have shareholders or be owned privately. In the first case, there is a theoretical avenue to address less than justified paybacks. Private universities, such as Yale, don’t have formal shareholders nor are they owned by persons. Such universities are dictatorships run by Presidents, VPs, strong Deans and even obnoxious chairs.

It is time this relic of the past be shown the door and a more inspired, e.g. employee owned private university, system of governance be adopted.

Royalty, i.e. President, VPs, etc., move around from one institution to another while faculty, staff and the student body are the stakeholder and therefore should be the shareholders as well. They should own the place and govern democratically.

This may help the David Graebers.


platyus 05.18.05 at 3:58 pm

As a former member of the Yale faculty who has gone on to better pastures, I would point out a two things I learned while I was in New Haven.

1) The untenured faculty that I knew understood that you could do and say what you wanted to about national and international politics but you didn’t rock the boat regarding internal departmental and University politics.

2) Yale’s desire to crush the unions (both workers and students) goes way, way back. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of another issue, besides taxing the University, that so provokes the full fury of the Yale Corporation. The prevailing attitude amongst university officials, adminstrators and many senior faculty when I was there was that unionization of Yale workers and students was immoral and, in a bettter world, would be illegal. Effective participation in local union activities by a non-tenured faculty member has to be considered high risk behavior.


seth edenbaum 05.18.05 at 4:36 pm

I sent you a note three days ago about my old roomate’s troubles, including a link to the petition, and you wait for an academic blog to mention it before commenting?

What would Sneaky Pete Bourdieu have to say about this?


skippy 05.18.05 at 6:49 pm

What kind of kooky position did this guy have anyway?

It doesn’t sound like any kind of adjunct/non-tenure track position I’ve ever heard of. From the description, it actually IS a tenure track position, albeit with a longer ‘track’ than is typical.

“Graeber passed his first review at Yale, which came at the three-year mark. The review for term associate comes at the end of his sixth year, and normally renews the faculty member for four more years, after which he or she is considered for tenure.”

Sounds to me like the issue at hand here is more of an abuse of the tenure granting process than it is maltreatment of non-tenure track faculty.


Platypus 05.18.05 at 8:01 pm

It may sound like an unusually long road to tenure but it’s a standard Yale tenure track position. First review at three years. Promotion to term associate prof (no tenure) by the end of the sixth year and promotion to associate prof without term (i.e., with tenure) no later than the tenth year. Promotion to full prof comes later and the odds of success are long.


Dustin 05.18.05 at 9:00 pm

non-tenure track faculty are fighting for the right “to be fired, but only with just cause.”

As I said in my response to one of the comments at Savage Minds, the current state of affairs leaves us in “the unenviable position of defending the already-unfavorable lines drawn in the ‘70s” — that is, to defend our right to academic freedom in the classroom as long as we don’t toe the line outside of the classroom. The “right to be fired” follows directly from our defense of what is, ultiamtely, an untenable position — academics struggling to defend a position in which administrative and state power are a little bit less arbitrary and stultifying. “Sneaky Pete” Bourdieu might have a little something to say about that, too…


Jephary 05.18.05 at 9:06 pm

I’m not sure if this has been discussed before, but consider another not so recent firing – Dr. Tom Butler, dumped after voluntarily following safety guidlines.



Henry 05.18.05 at 9:06 pm

bq. What would Sneaky Pete Bourdieu have to say about this?

That I’ve been spending the last few days grading papers and haven’t had time to check it out? Seriously – I’m happy to receive suggestions for posts, but please don’t imagine that I’m under any obligation either to take up the suggestion or to post according to your preferred timetable. Not how it works.


jacob 05.18.05 at 10:12 pm


It’s just the weird Yale process. “Tenure track” doesn’t exist there; rather, people are “ladder faculty.” After three years or so at the assistant level, faculty are reviewed. Then a few years after that, if they’re still around, they get reviewed again, at which most of them become “term associates,” which is to say untenured associates. Then they have to find a new job, because next to no one is ever tenured from the ranks at Yale. (I hear this is getting better in the past two or three years or so, and I see in my old department, history, there have been more promotions to tenure than there used to be.) What happened to Graeber is that he failed the second review to become an untenured associate. This is basically unheard-of, unless there’s a problem with their scholarly productivity–which I gather for Graeber isn’t the case.


skippy 05.18.05 at 10:22 pm

thanks for the clarification jacob.

I guess it makes sense that Yale had to mimic Harvard’s nonsensical junior faculty policies (or maybe it was the other way around?).


Matt 05.19.05 at 7:44 am

When I was at Yale (many years ago) the ‘equal opportunity’ policy was that junior faculty had as equal an opportunity for senior faculty positions as anyone else…


Michael H. 05.19.05 at 7:59 am

We don’t want to be married to people who don’t like us and we don’t want to work for people who don’t like us. If Yale doesn’t like David Graeber, it’s time to move on. Tenure or no tenure, there’s no point in working for people who don’t value you the way you are.


freddie lapides 05.19.05 at 8:59 am

“don’t mourn for me, boys. Organize.”


yusifu 05.19.05 at 10:59 am

The little bits I’ve heard from private sources tend to confirm David G.’s account of what happened. To my mind there’s no question that his scholarship is some of the best coming out of that department, and his collegiality was one of the few saving graces in my own miserable stint (in a different department) some years ago.


Abby 05.19.05 at 11:30 am

That’s really interesting about Yale’s tenure policy. I thought that they were better than Harvard.

Does anyone know why the exceptions to this general rule tend to be economists who are often tenured at an astonishingly young age, e.g. Jeff Sachs, Greg Mankiw.

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