Inquisition in Knoxville: The Case of Dr. Janice Harper

Events over the last two years in Knoxville, Tennessee, confirm that the world of academics in the contemporary United States is as cut-throat as anywhere on earth, from the Canadian arctic to the rain forest of Madagascar.  That, in fact, is where one of my dearest friends, an anthropologist named Janice Harper, did her doctoral research in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when she examined the sources of marginality of the indigenous inhabitants of the Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park Project (PNPP).   Today, as a result of a pernicious tale of academic intrigue and deceit, she has recently lost a job at the University of Tennessee for which she is, in fact, highly qualified.

Janice received her PhD from Michigan State in 1999 and, three years later, published Endangered Species: Health, Illness and Death Among Madagascar’s People of the Forest.  When Lesley Sharp of Barnard College reviewed it in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, she called it “an extraordinary study of the underbelly of conservation work and its relevance to health and well-being (or, more appropriately, illness and death)… Harper’s study is at once deeply ethnographic, theoretically rigorous, and carefully historicized… In the end, this is a must read for anyone wishing to become involved in conservation work.”

More importantly, Sharp very clearly alluded to Harper’s intellectual and professional courage, and the potential costs of such commitment.  “Harper,” she wrote, “pulls no punches: always true to her goal, she does her utmost to grant a voice to villagers whose suffering would otherwise remain obscure and unknown even to those most responsible for their demise.”  That, of course, is what most anthropologists profess to want to do, but few ever manage.  Sharp continues: “Such work bears a heavy price, however, for her project is constantly scrutinized by RNPP staff. In the epilogue, she offers a chilling account of formal meetings with Malagasy and U.S. officials who warn her to cease her work. Harper must be commended for her courage in conducting this project and, later, for writing about it, because it is clear that such actions mean sacrificing future research clearance.”

What is amazing is that, far from shirking what Chomsky called “the responsibility of intellectuals,” Janice went further.  Back from the field, after writing Endangered Species, she moved on to address issues even closer to home, even more fraught with potential risks to her future well-being.  I don’t think the risks ever crossed her mind.

When I first met her, she was researching two subjects in particular.  She had moved, in 2004, to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and began examining one of the most interesting places in the continental United States: the city of Oak Ridge, 25 miles west of Knoxville, which had been a pivotal part of the Manhattan Project.  Once swaddled in secrecy, it has now emerged as part of the mythic legacy of the Cold War.   In 2005, Janice published a paper, “Another Roadside Attraction: the Cultural Heritage of Oak Ridge, Tennessee,” in a special issue of Anthropology in Action that I co-edited, and, in 2007, she had a paper published in Anthropological Quarterly called “Secrets Revealed, Revelations Concealed: A Secret City Confronts Its Environmental Legacy of Weapons Production.”  In the meanwhile, she was also conducting research on a different, but related subject, the controversial use of depleted uranium in munitions and the world-wide social movement emerging in opposition to it.   A book was projected, entitled Weapons of Dust:  The Cultural and Scientific Battlefields of Depleted Uranium.  It will probably never see the light of day.

When I first met Janice, her research did not seem to present a problem.  From what I knew, she was well on her way to promotion and tenure.  But, as the time came for that process to begin in earnest, strange events began to occur that, in time, became so bizarre and byzantine that it is difficult to unravel them in any sensible or systematic way.  But, here’s something to bear in mind that provides an important and necessary context for those events.  The University of Tennessee’s Commission for Women (CFW), appointed by the Chancellor “to advise on planning, implementation, and evaluation of University programs, policies, and services designed to improve the status of women on the Knoxville Campus,” issued a report (on behalf of the Association of Women Faculty, the Commission for Women, the Women’s Studies Program, and the Knoxville chapter of the American Association of University Professors) in 2001 which noted:

“Women are underrepresented at almost all ranks and in almost all academic units. Women comprise only 29% of all UT faculty, and only about 20% of these are tenured. There are approximately 358 women and 857 men. The gap is greatest at the full professor level where on the UTK campus women hold only 66 of the 476 full professor positions. While there are slightly more women associate professors (n=98), any trend toward increased representation seems questionable given there are currently only 77 women assistant professors.  In a stepwise progression, it is these 77 women assistant professors who will, hopefully, become the full professors of the university a decade hence. This constitutes barely a replacement rate. Given the pervasive imbalance in numbers, almost every major career milestone for women is largely defined and evaluated by men.”

It gets worse: “Not only is the overall number of women incredibly small, the opportunity for career development and advancement for women is problematic because women tend not to be hired into tenure-track positions… Nationally, the 10-yr average percent of faculty in tenure-track positions who are women is approximately 36%…Data from the UTK Office of Institutional Research (Feb. 1998) indicate that the percentage of faculty with tenure who are women is only 20%. The increasing utilization of women in instructor and non-tenure track positions presents an even bleaker picture…Nearly 48% of all women faculty at UTK are non-tenure track, in comparison to 27% of men.”  This was the general situation not long before Janice arrived at Knoxville.  But, some departments have been worse than others.  As one graduate student in Anthropology wrote to Janice: “Since I’ve been here at UTK, it seems that every professor that has provided me the most guidance (all females and all critical thinkers…) have been run off in one way or another.  The underlying patriarchy of the department is becoming more and more evident.”

Given that, one might have anticipated a crisis point.   Janice Harper was clearly an exceptional academic.  She was, by all accounts, an excellent, inspiring teacher.  It was, therefore, no surprise that she was reassured that she would be granted tenure in due course.  But, as the time came for the tenure process to begin, a largely male department began to display an increasingly adverse and judgmental attitude toward her.  The real troubles began when she reported sexual harassment by a male colleague.   The colleague in question allegedly had a history of such misconduct and, as the report by the CFW noted, “Sexual harassment is an insidious problem of campus life for women faculty, staff and students alike.”  But, despite this (or because of it), the anthropology department managed, insidiously, to turn Harper into the problem.   This has been the way of misogyny since the days of Eve.  Despite the fact that a junior colleague could write of her, in December, 2006, “I’ve enjoyed working with you this semester and really appreciate the many ways you made me feel welcome in the department – stopping by my office, inviting me for tea, and inviting [us] for dinner,” despite the fact that a senior male colleague could say to the Provost as recently as April, 2008, that “Dr. Harper has established and distinguished herself as a competent researcher, teacher//mentor and public servant representing the University of Tennessee with honor and distinction and . . . with a broad spectrum of colleagues/associates,” Janice found herself being characterized as “uncollegial.”  That is not an uncommon charge brought against women by their male associates.  But, in Janice’s case, it was the first indication that, whatever positive things had been said about her in the past, when the “moment of truth” came in the tenure/promotion process, some excuse would have to be fabricated.  It was clear that asserting the interests of women in a male preserve, that arguing, moreover, for an increasing role for cultural anthropologists in a department traditionally dominated by biological and archaeological interests, had made too many people uncomfortable, and academics like their creature comforts.  The sexual harassment issue was regarded as a paradigmatic example of how she could rock a boat in which most (male) members of the department were otherwise having a very pleasant ride.

Within a short space of time, the dean of the college opposed her bid for tenure.  Her departmental colleagues, including junior faculty whom she had recruited, began to spread rumors about her mental instability.   This is another way that many professional women, who don’t seem to play by certain unstated “rules,” are stereotyped.  In fact, Janice is actually one of the sanest people I know.  But, in uncertain times, for insecure people, that’s an obvious symptom of irrationality.   Not for nothing did the Church in the 17th century try to forestall the age of reason with charges of witchcraft. And in those days, as now, protesting one’s innocence was taken as a sign of being too clever.  That’s always a sure-sign of guilt.

It also turned out that the Bush years provided extraordinary ammunition with which to destroy someone’s career, and it was comparatively easy when the target was someone who was studying Oak Ridge and depleted uranium and about whom a largely male faculty was mobilizing all the usual suspicions about an outspoken, independent-minded female colleague. 

In due course, University of Tennessee police officers would visit her home; Janice would be banned from the university for alleged threatening behavior; and she would be required to undergo a mental health evaluation.  She was cleared and allowed to go back on to campus.  But, having endured vague charges that she was uncollegial and unbalanced, Janice was now informed by an Associate Dean of the college that she was under a Homeland Security investigation.  It was only a month, after her office was searched and the FBI had interrogated her at home, that Janice gained access to a police report and learned that some students had apparently accused her of planning to build a hydrogen bomb.  Bear in mind that Janice is an anthropologist, not a physicist or a chemist.  Accuse her of planning to cook a chocolate bombe, perhaps.  But, such charges, however ludicrous, were enough to be reported to Homeland Security, at a crucial stage in her tenure review.  By May of last year, it was no longer the university police, but the FBI who were knocking at her door.

As Janice says: “They asked about my interest in bombs, if I would ever attend an anti-war rally, if I had plans for building a hydrogen bomb, if I had a list of human and building targets, if I planned to kill people, if I ever sought classified nuclear secrets, why I was researching uranium, what I would do if someone offered me classified information, would I ever attend anti-war rallies, what my politics are, if I keep in touch with my family, if I made a habit of talking about bombs. I had no idea what they were investigating me for, they were surprised I had not been told the nature of the accusations, but would not tell me themselves other than a student claimed I attempted to obtain classified information on nuclear transport and storage and reports of threatening students in class that I was building a hydrogen bomb. They soon realize that I am not at all a threat; I give them a copy of my course syllabus, and they leave, telling me they are closing the case, cannot tell me the extent of the searches and surveillance, but advise me to ‘hang in there.’”

By the time the FBI investigation had cleared her, the requisite damage had been done.  The University of Tennessee’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) revoked her research clearance, a critical requirement for doing work with human subjects, because, although the FBI would eventually clear her, their investigations were said to have exposed her informants to risks.  As a result, Janice’s on-going work, work that should have ensured her getting tenure and promotion (as if she didn’t already have enough publications of sufficient merit), was made impossible.   Referring to the whole litany of baseless allegations, which were reiterated by the dean and the provost, her department voted to deny her tenure.  So, her position with the University ended in late July.  All this despite the fact that no investigative agency ever found any evidence of wrong-doing on her part; that Janice was never allowed to speak on her own behalf or to see any of the so-called evidence  against her; and that a report by the University’s Faculty Senate Appeals Committee in June fully exonerated her and noted that university procedures were violated and that she had been denied a fair tenure evaluation.

Writing recently in Harpers magazine about the trial of Galileo, one of the supreme examples of the rational human mind, Scott Horton noted:

“Galileo is given only vague and general information about the charges against him. He is not supplied with all the names of the witnesses who appeared before the Inquisition and testified against him, nor of their accusations. He therefore is unable to properly and credibly refute their charges. The Inquisition therefore takes as true a number of false statements. Secret evidence is the hallmark of the proceedings, including specifically the charge on which Galileo ultimately was convicted—of having failed to abide by an injunction that was imposed upon him following the first proceeding. However, the evidence that this injunction was imposed is at least very doubtful, and possibly even a forgery.”

Horton properly notes that this sounds much like the regime that the U.S. imposed at Guantanamo.  But, one should go further.  This was the general pattern that prevailed during the dark days of McCarthyism.  And it is what happened to Janice, who has now lost her job, her health insurance, her career prospects.  She and her 12-year old daughter will soon be leaving a home they love in Knoxville.

Why Janice Harper?  Largely, I think, because she was a woman who happened to believe in real gender equality in an especially backward university setting.  But, Lesley Sharp also implicitly predicted what would happen when she wrote, in her review that “Harper pulls no punches.”  The critical research that Janice has done on unpopular subjects is the hallmark of her intellectual integrity, of what we need most from academics.  Yet, precisely because of that, she has been denied a future at the University of Tennessee by people who would have asked Galileo to recant.

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