Trial by FBI Investigation

Beginning in the early 1990s, I spent about a dozen years slowly collecting, analyzing and compiling tens of thousands of FBI files detailing how dozens of American anthropologists were investigated and harassed by the FBI and various loyalty boards during the late-1940s and 50s. In most of the cases I encountered, the scholars under investigation were targeted because they were involved in unpopular (legal) political causes—the most common of which involved activist campaigns fighting for racial equality, in others they challenged gender roles, economic stratification, the unbridled militarism or other conventions of their era. Many of those investigated already stood out amongst their colleagues as individuals unwilling to go along with the polite social conventions that supported the world they were challenging.

In most of these instances, non-relevant facets of individuals’ lives were collected and analyzed by the FBI, employers or local law enforcement agents, and unsubstantiated accusations were collected and used to informally blackball and persecute individual anthropologists who were engaged in political activities. The range of these collected details was bizarre and often prurient (in one case, a well known anthropologist’s reported, private, onanistic habits were collected and reported by the FBI). In the several dozens of cases I analyzed in my book Threatening Anthropology, none of the FBI’s exhaustive inquiries into the private affairs of anthropologists provided any proof of illegal activity directly related to these investigations; but many of the anthropologists who were the subjects of these investigations wound up losing jobs, marginalized within their discipline, or leaving the field entirely, simply because they were investigated by the FBI. In the McCarthy years, the mere investigation by the FBI as a suspected communist was enough to ruin one’s career, and the FBI’s practice of keeping their files and findings private lent a twisted sense of legitimacy to shadowy accusations and rumors of wrong doing—yet, when I had over a dozen linear feet of these files released under the Freedom of Information Act, I found that the FBI actually had nothing of substance.

As it was in other academic fields, anthropology’s weak disciplinary defensive response allowed the FBI and wider-facets of McCarthyism to flourish and wreck havoc on many of the field’s best and brightest. There was an emerging silence that took over the American Anthropological Association’s leadership and spread throughout the membership. Everyone got scared when the FBI investigated anthropologists in the late-1940s and 1950s, and, as the fear spread, everyone went silent. Sometimes the psychological anguish and reactions of those being persecuted made it easy for colleagues to rationalize abandoning friends. Just being investigated was enough to ruin careers and alienate individuals from other scholars—and, more generally, to teach the discipline not to study or engage in advocacy relating to controversial topics like racial inequality, poverty, segregation, and economic inequality. At a time when they were most needed, the professional associations went silent.

The relevance of this mid-century history takes on new meanings as Janice Harper, formerly of the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s (UTK) Department of Anthropology has found herself subjected to a bizarre and Kafkaesque investigation of the sort which cannot hope to produce anything resembling a positive outcome for the subject, regardless of the findings of the investigation: indeed, this investigation’s impact on Dr. Harper’s reputation seems to be an outcome structurally connecting these events with investigations of the McCarthy period. As it was during the McCarthy period, just being investigated is enough to undermine one’s career, and as reported by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week, Dr. Harper has now been fired by the University of Tennessee.

The Chronicle piece skirts the details of this very complicated story (a story made all the more complicated by UTK declining to provide their version of events because of a pending lawsuit), characterized with baroque twists and turns, betrayals, ruptures in internal university procedures and safeguards, that, along the way, obscure the story’s main thread. But, the basic facts of the case are these: Dr. Janice Harper was an untenured assistant professor in the University of Tennessee’s Department of Anthropology, with an established research career as a medical anthropologist and a research interest in the nuclear legacy of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She was hired in 2004, and her initial performance reviewers were extremely positive. According to Dr. Harper, her 2004 evaluation said she was “off to an excellent start” and her following reviews were unanimously positive, with the exception of a 2006 review indicating that she might not be tenured due to issues of non-collegiality. In a department that Harper says now has no tenured women and has only tenured two women since 1947, it remains unclear what such an evaluation means.

Harper maintains that perceptions of her lack of “collegiality” stemmed from a meeting in 2005, where after problems with a failed job search, Dr. Harper says she raised questions about the department’s problems in hiring and retaining women. Dr. Harper contacted the campus Office of Equity and Diversity (OED) to discuss her concerns, and Dr. Harper believes that it was her decision to go outside the department to raise these issues that led some in the department to see her as not being a “team player” and raising issues of “collegiality.”

Professor Harper says that her teaching and research continued to be productive and highly rated. What sets Dr. Harper’s case apart from the usual tenure struggles was the series of events that spilled over from the personal and professional battles academics often have to endure, as the National Security State’s intervention superseded all other issues. With time, her research interests increasingly focused on controversial issues that included collecting oral histories of individuals recounting the past lax disposal of nuclear waste at Oak Ridge National Labs and legacies of disease among workers, while her department came to increasingly build up its institutional affiliations with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Department of Energy.

Dr. Harper says that in October 2007 as she was under consideration for tenure, she approached her department chair raising concerns about an employee’s behavior. She says that the college called for a sexual harassment investigation, and that she was told she was compelled to cooperate and when she did, she says, “I was told that my tenure would not have been an issue without this report, but because I did make a report, my tenure should be denied.”

In February, 2008, the University of Tennessee’s College Tenure and Promotions Committee voted to grant her tenure with a 9-0 vote, noting that she had an “outstanding” record of graduate advising. But the following month, her Associate Dean rejected letters submitted by colleagues from other universities, citing concerns that these letters went beyond evaluation of Dr. Harper and her work into the realm of “advocacy.” Having written and read dozens of letters supporting promotion and tenure efforts, I must add that rejecting such letters from outside colleagues (who had apparently been pre-approved as appropriate references) for this reason, so late in the process, is highly unusual. But, this was apparently just the beginning of a seemingly inexplicable descent into the surreal. When Dr. Harper called a UTK colleague and friend to privately express her deep frustrations, her call reportedly triggered a police visit to her home, ostensibly to evaluate whether her upset state suggested that she might harm to herself or others. Harper says that the local police soon realized that this was not the case, but soon after this, University of Tennessee “police officers came to my home with notice banning me from the university for allegedly threatening the lives of my university employees and mandating I obtain a mental health evaluation.” Soon afterwards, the University Police informed her that two individuals had made these reports, but, after a police investigation, the case was closed and she was allowed to return to campus and officially declared not to be a threat.

But, like a textbook discussion of collective mobbing behavior, the act of investigation brought more accusations. As soon as this investigation was closed, Dr. Harper says she was informed by an Associate Dean that there had been more reports made against her, this time from students. Dr. Harper says that the Associate Dean would not tell her what the allegations were other than they related to a “bombing” and that she was being investigated by Homeland Security. In late April, 2008, Professor Harper says that she “received a letter from the Provost informing me that new information has come to light that could have a bearing on my tenure application.” But, the specifics of what was going on remained obscure. Dr. Harper says “I had no idea what I was accused of, other than it had been reported to Homeland Security.” Later, claims were made that Dr. Harper had tried to coerce a graduate student to provide classified data to help her own research; a claim Dr. Harper continues to deny and that the Faculty Senate Appeals Committee Report later suggested that even the Provost’s Office “did not find [these] charges credible,” yet these damaging claims remained as supplemental information in Dr. Harper’s file.

On May 9, 2008, Dr. Harper was suddenly approached by FBI agents. She says that:

“Special Agents with the FBI-Joint Terrorism Task Force appeared at my door. 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.’”

Meanwhile, Dr. Harper says that the university began its own investigation, talking with students in her classes, even though the university was unable to identify a single student who could confirm that she had made any threat or acted inappropriately. The lack of evidence, however, only seemed to fuel the university’s compulsion to investigate.

The agents’ questions about “plans for building a hydrogen bomb” demonstrate how absurd the accusations had become, and how a climate of gossip had made even teaching a risk to Dr. Harper’s personal security. Dr. Harper was teaching courses on the history and impact of the nuclear weapons industry and a course on anthropology and warfare. Her class had been assigned to read anthropologist Joseph Masco’s brilliant book, Nuclear Borderlands, and had discussed Howard Morland’s landmark 1979 article in The Progressive disclosing “The H –Bomb Secret,” and these investigations suggested sinister undertones for such readings—as if it were any of Homeland Security or the FBI’s business what professors choose to read in the classroom.

Dr. Harper says that in early June, the University of Tennessee’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) revoked her standing research clearance on the grounds that the police and FBI investigations and the seizure of her research materials exposed her informants to risks. She was told that she “could not use my data until I had assurance from the FBI and university that I was no longer under surveillance.” As these investigations continued, however, they found nothing to indicate that she had made threats or was somehow building a hydrogen bomb. Yet, Dr. Harper was caught in a classic double-bind. Although the FBI did not find that she had done anything wrong, she could not complete her work simply because this investigation had opened her private research records up to FBI scrutiny. This, of course, seriously imperiled her professional activity and development. Last fall, Dr. Harper learned that the faculty in her department voted to deny her tenure application.

In June 2009, the University of Tennessee Faculty Senate Appeals Committee issued a detailed 26 pages report expressing concern over the procedural irregularities in Dr. Harper’s case. The report quotes from an FBI report indicating that even after the FBI undertook “a very aggressive and action oriented” investigation of these claims about Dr. Harper, the FBI closed the investigation after US Attorney “Jeffrey E. Theodore declined prosecution due to lack of criminal activity and no nexus to terrorism.” But a satisfied Justice Department appeared to make no difference to UTK officials.

Her position with the University officially ended a few weeks ago at the end of July, but Dr. Harper has retained legal counsel and reports she is filing suit against the university for gender discrimination, breach of contract, defamation and other tort claims, with additional Title VII Retaliation claims pending. Many academics, learning some of the details of Dr. Harper’s story, are content to let the courts adjudicate the matter, such an approach betrays unusual faith in the judicial system. Such a view overlooks the onerous financial costs facing a single mother waging a protracted legal battle with an entity as well endowed, financially and politically, as the University of Tennessee, while missing the important role that might be played by professional associations in investigating such threats to academic freedom.

Dr. Harper’s story appears to be one in which the usual politics of academic advancement became tainted by the “nuclear option” of an FBI investigation. This is an option that anthropologists and others who choose to critically (or perhaps even not so critically, in the case of fired Human Terrain Team member, Zenia Helbig, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Virginia, who was removed from her position after she joked over beers about defecting to Iran if the US declared war on Iran) study or work with the military or military-related sectors will increasingly risk such actions. With the military and intelligence and security agencies of the US government increasingly seeking to hire anthropologists and other social scientists, Dr. Harper’s experiences raise the probability that any scholars working in, with, or even around such sectors can easily become targets of investigation.

The way in which accusations of “non collegiality” morphed into an FBI witch-hunt is one measure of the chilling impact of the post-9/11 national security state on American campuses. The silence surrounding these issues adds to the chill and risks nurturing environments that invite rogue inquests to spread to other campuses. Professional associations such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Society for Applied Anthropology (SFAA) have been approached and asked to take a stand in support of Dr. Harper, to ensure that she is given the protections of procedures and investigations due to all scholars, but, so far, they have done nothing. Beyond last week’s brief article in The Chronicle, a vacant silence surrounds her termination. Certainly, the loss of a scholar’s IRB clearance because of an FBI investigation that found no wrong doing ought to be an issue of central importance to such professional organizations, and I would hope that the AAUP, AAA and SFAA would recognize the need for them to weigh-in on this and other procedural aspects of her case. This is a case that impacts us all.

I have known Janice Harper as a valued colleague for over a decade (having read her work and appeared on panels with her organized by the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology), and know her to be a strong, independent and respected scholar. Over the last two years, she has periodically kept me apprised of some of these developments, and I am left wondering if being a strong woman in a department that has historically been so male-dominated relates to accusations of non-congeniality, or even how “non-congeniality” was, if at all, related to the ensuing FBI investigation. So convoluted and obscure has the entire story been that, even at this late date, Janice Harper herself isn’t sure if it was the political nature of her research at Oak Ridge National Laboratories that led to this chain of events. As she observes, “maybe my research had nothing to do with it and it was exclusively being the first woman up for tenure in years, in the front lines of feminizing the department, and not being the right kind of woman. I broke the silence about sexualizing women, keeping our mouths shut, being perky and quiet, non-assertive.” Regardless of the role of her Oak Ridge National Laboratory research in the chain of events described here, it is clearly the wider culture of national security paranoia and the broad powers of government investigation that allowed the sort of witch-hunt that has so damaged her professional standing.

Janice Harper wonders if this cascading flow of investigations makes her a sort of “indicator species of the Patriot Act;” as if her experience marks an entry into a new era where those engaged in the usual departmental disputes of academia can now use the specter of security issues to decimate their opposition. Similar dynamics occurred in the 1950s when mere accusations of communism led to firings, bankruptcies, suicides, or worse; in the mid-1980s claims of ritualistic satanic child-abuse soared and spread under conditions of presumed guilt and prosecutions without corroborating physical evidence. Today, the Patriot Act serves as attractive nuisance inviting abuses of process and principles of fundamental fairness, while Homeland Security and FBI agents’ snooping through professors’ course reading lists undermines the basic foundations of academic freedom needed for free and honest inquiry.

Precious few protections are afforded untenured professors, but chief among these hoped protections are expectations of fundamental fairness and protections of due process. Without knowing all the details of what occurred between Dr. Harper, her department and the administration, if her core claims are true that (and these claims have been echoed by the UTK Faculty Senate Appeals Committee Report): after making accusations of sexual harassment, a claimed positive tenure review was overturned at the end of the process by the unusual and sudden rejection of evaluative letter by respected colleagues, then the calm and neutral judgment of some outside body is needed to evaluate what happened here. I understand that UTK’s silence is only that mandated by lawyers demanding no comments on matters likely leading to litigation, but professional associations concerned with the protection of academic freedom and due process need to independently investigate what happened.

I began working on this story a few months ago, and when I contacted the University of Tennessee’s Chair of the Anthropology Department, Dr. Andy Kramer, for comments and to try and verify Harper’s version of events I was referred to the university’s General Counsel, Lela Young; who had no comment but referred me to Margie Nichols, Vice Chancellor for Communications, who also had no comment. No one at UTK would confirm, deny or comment on any aspect of this story beyond confirming Dr. Harper’s then employment at the university. I do not know all of the facts surrounding the University of Tennessee’s termination of Dr. Janice Harper; given the University’s silence, I mostly have Dr. Harper’s account along with records from the Faculty Senate inquiry and other sources substantiating her narrative. I would certainly welcome more information on the University of Tennessee’s version of events, but I have learned enough to support a call for a thorough independent investigation by an outside body of procedural violations of Dr. Harper’s due process, and violations of her academic freedom. The University of Tennessee Faculty Senate Appeals Committee report found that “this case creates the unmistakable impression that the outcome was decided by all parties in the University hierarchy long before the tenure application was ever filed, and the various entities along the way simply tried to find grounds to justify the desired conclusion of denying Dr. Harper’s tenure.” While this Faculty Senate report will likely be a devastating court document in Dr. Harper’s lawsuit, the issues raised by the actions in this case cannot just be left to the courts.

Professional academic associations need to investigate and take a stand on what has happened here. The post-9/11 militarization of our universities has opened the way for the sort of abusive FBI and Homeland Security probes that Dr. Harper had to suffer; and each such incursion on our campuses teaches students, professors and administrators to self-censor, remain silent, and to distance themselves from those who might fall under suspicion. This is exactly how the American social sciences learned to disengage from the sort of research focusing on racial and economic social justice during the McCarthy period, and it is easy to see how these impacts can be replayed slightly differently in the present if academics remain silent.

DAVID PRICE is a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologist.  He is the author of Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, published by Duke University Press, and a contributor to the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ new book Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual published last month by Prickly Paradigm Press. He can be reached at










David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.