Letter to the Editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education by the Directors of the Society for Ethnographic Theory

Dear CHE Editors

We were dismayed that the Chronicle decided to publish Jesse Singal’s article on our publication HAU (How One Prominent Journal Went Very Wrong, Oct. 5, 2020) in such an inchoate state – not to mention its unfortunate timing. Given the role of CHE in upholding the importance and integrity of higher education, we would have expected to see greater insistence on situating HAU in the wider context of academic publishing. Instead, the article merely reprised the developments of a turbulent period simply in terms of a conflict between two individuals. It gives the false impression, casually smuggled in towards the end, that HAU remains substantially unchanged. Nothing could be further from the truth.

HAU came into being as a radical departure from established ways of publishing academic journals. Created by a handful of young scholars, most of them graduates and post-docs in precarious situations, it was affiliated neither with an academic institution or university nor with any professional or subject association. Its independence was its strength, enabling the journal to produce high-quality, original scholarship and very productive re-readings of older anthropological accounts. Unfortunately, that very independence also proved a temporary weakness, that sustained an informality beyond when it was healthy for the journal. This was pointed out in the report drawn up by the Executive Council headed by Carole McGranahan. When we took over as the Board of Directors in September 2018, it was clear to us that this informality had to be the first thing that had to be addressed to re-establish trust in the journal and its workings, following the media campaign launched against HAU and its founder Giovanni da Col. The world of HAU described in Singal’s piece bears absolutely no resemblance to the new organisation of the journal or the ethos of its current structure of editorial collectives.

Singal reached out in November last year to individuals working in various capacities with the journal. We read some of his earlier pieces, developed a good impression of his abilities and rigour, and became hopeful that he would produce a fair and more up-to-date account of the vicissitudes and state of HAU. We assumed that he would report on his discovery of new material about the past as well as the new developments at HAU itself. Equally, our confidence also stemmed from knowing where the piece was being published. But rather than situate the events of the past within the broader concerns of contemporary publishing and its fraught relationship with academia, the article dwelled on gossip, email exchanges, and innuendo, shallow in its ethical judgement, and betrayed its informants. Its analytical value as a sociological analysis of academic practices is underwhelming and not up to the standards of CHE.

On all counts, this was a missed opportunity.


Kriti Kapila, Anne-Christine Taylor, John Borneman, and Carlos Londono-Sulkin

Board of Directors, Society for Ethnographic Theory