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Retirement by fiat

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, anthropology professor | September 28, 2017

“Farewell Angelina, the sky is on fire and I must be gone.”

Now that my fete/festschrift is over, my colleagues here and abroad have posed the obvious question: Why in the world did you retire? But I had threatened to do so for many years. Once in the late 1980s I filed papers for early retirement but the then MSO of the Anthropology Department took my application and surreptitiously dropped it back in my faculty mailbox with an X on the envelope. She knew the tempestuous temperaments of our wooly and wild anthropology faculty. So, given my ambivalence how did it happen? Quite simply, it was done for me.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, teaching her first course at Southern Methodist University in 1976.

How does it feel? Not so good: a bit like dying.

So, here’s how it happened. In the fall of 2013 an external interim chair, who was sent in to “tame” our seemingly unmanageable, unpredictable, but always intellectually stimulating anthropology faculty, prematurely announced my retirement at a department meeting, without my knowledge or consent. I wasn’t even there! I was teaching that semester at our UCDC Washington Center and I could not defend myself. The interim chair had sent me an email about hosting a festschrift the following spring — ah catnip, to be sure! — with the hope of opening a discussion on my retirement. But I had had not yet been in touch with my UCOP retirement counselor or looked into the complex process. I was busy teaching an exciting new curriculum at UCDC and I was using every free moment to write a book and the essays that often get me into hot water.

The chair’s “official” announcement at a faculty meeting was accompanied by an email circulated to the faculty and to our graduate students without my knowledge or consent. The message went viral and global, and I first learned of my “retirement” from a colleague from UCSF who was working down the hall at the UC Washington Center. She knocked on my door with a copy of the email saying, “Is this true, Nancy, are you really retiring?” I was flabbergasted and immediately wrote to the interim chair asking her to retract the announcement immediately. She refused to do so, even though some of my departmental colleagues said they doubted the announcement. Indeed, it was fake news.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes

The Berkeley professor, leaving after a class in Kroeber Hall.

But no matter, my fate was sealed and the email followed me wherever I went that year and the next, giving lectures in Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Brazil. No matter how present I was in the halls and classrooms of Berkeley, no matter how productive I was in teaching new classes, hosting student and international conferences, publishing and pursuing new field research projects, my so called “retirement” was a fete/fate accompli. Finally, in the fall of 2015, I gave up and signed a so-called “pathway to retirement,” and I taught my last class in the fall of 2016. I didn’t let myself shed a tear at that moment, making sure I could run quickly from the classroom, choked up, and swept into my office filled with my dearest colleagues there to raise a toast at midday. The party was cut short as I had a meeting with our new Berkeley chief of police and his staff about a police incident concerning a street person in trouble that I had accidentally observed. I didn’t want to think about my love of teaching and what this would mean.  

My retirement was was accompanied by an ambiguous honor: I would retire as “Professor of the Graduate School,” a one-sided contract that would require my residence at UCB for one semester a year and a commitment to teaching and working (without compensation), as I found out. The title was presented as a gift, but who was the recipient of the gift?

Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Nancy Scheper-Hughes with her Brazilian student and research assistant, Patricio Antonio da Silva, in May 2017

My request to teach a course this fall (2017) on “Free Speech, Hate Speech and Censorship” was initially rejected as “unaffordable” by the chair, but as a POG, Professor of the Graduate School, I was not expecting a normal salary, though no salary at all  was something else. Luckily, I am teaching the free speech course as a freshman-sophomore seminar, a program I had founded in 1985 when I was dean of what was then called “Freshman-Sophomore Studies.”

So, before you retire make sure you have a project, a really big project in mind. Like my first mentor, Hortense Powdermaker I wear many hats as an intellectual, a scholar, a writer, a critical thinker and an engaged barefoot anthropologist, human rights worker and perennial gadfly and pain in the derriere of institutional power. I can take what I have learned from my 34 amazing years as a professor, scholar and activist at Berkeley, teaching some of the smartest and courageous students in the country and bringing it “back home” into the streets, byways, hospitals, shantytowns and shack cities where I continue to conduct my grounded fieldwork. I’ll likely teach in other universities in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, where I will carry on the UC Berkeley legacy that is now under fire in the homeland.

All that one can say  about “retirement” UC Berkeley-style is “caveat emptor” — let the buyer beware! You don’t know what you are getting into given the closed-door private negotiating process. You’d best hire a lawyer. I wish I had done so. But my style is more akin to holding your nose and jumping, which has shaped my accidental, exciting and  generally satisfying public and private life. Retirement from teaching is a classic rite de passage which — along with love, pregnancy, birth, marriage and death — is perhaps far too important to give or to expect one’s full and informed consent.

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