Professor talks teaching suspension


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Photo by Courtesy of Robert Trivers |

The University suspended Robert Trivers after a controversy arose surrounding the class, “Human Aggression.” Trivers claimed he was not prepared to teach the course.


University administration assigned Professor Robert Trivers on Oct. 10 to teach a course entitled “Human Aggression,” yet Trivers said he knew nothing about the course other than how to spell the words “human” and “aggression.”

Rutgers suspended the anthropological and biological sciences professor with pay last Saturday, Trivers said, and he is currently in danger of being suspended without pay.

Trivers said the Department of Anthropology assigned him to instruct a course that was inappropriate, and when he addressed the situation to his class, acting Executive Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Richard Falk would not meet with him.

“You would think the University would show a little respect for my teaching abilities on subjects that I know about and not force me to teach a course on a subject that I do not at all master,” he said.

Both Falk and Douglas Blair, the chair of the Department of Anthropology, declined to comment.

“I’m sorry, this is a personnel matter, and I am unable to comment about it,” Blair said. “No, I think that I’m not able to discuss that — it’s a confidential matter.”

According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Trivers is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Although Trivers had three breakdowns since Rutgers hired him in 1994, the article states that other professors claimed that his condition is well managed.

His latest breakdown made headlines last year regarding other issues involving the Department of Anthropology. According to a Sept. 9 article in The Daily Targum, he was banned from campus in April 2012 for a “violent confrontation” with Professor Lee Cronk.

Trivers’ suspension prohibits him from teaching another course, “Introduction to Social Evolution.” According to an email Blair sent to students enrolled in the class, Cronk has assumed the position of course instructor.

“Highly rated by his students, Professor Cronk regularly teaches 204 and did so during the fall 2013 semester, so he is ready to step in without missing a beat,” Blair said in the email.

Trivers he said he has been teaching the course in social evolution since 1973.

“This is painful to me to have that course yanked from me, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the matter under dispute,” he said.

Before his suspension, Trivers asked students in class to purchase his self-authored textbook, “Social Evolution,” for $40. Now in Cronk’s course syllabus, he requires students to purchase Pearson’s “Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind.”

Cronk told the class the department is currently in the process of figuring out how to compensate those students who purchased Trivers’ textbook.

Trivers stressed his experience and accomplishments in the field of social theory.

“I don’t want to sound immodest, but I am one of the greatest social theorists in evolutionary biology alive, period,” Trivers said. “I won the Crafoord Prize, which is considered the Nobel Prize for evolution, [worth] half a million dollars. I’m not an underperformer.”

Despite his expertise, Trivers said he had never taught a course on human aggression before, and Amy Jacobson, a part-time lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, had designed and taught the course prior to the University assigning it to Trivers.

“I complained right away and repeatedly that I know very little about the subject,” he said. “I am 70 years old. I’m a scientist of social theory and social evolution. I just published a book on deceit and self-deception that’s been translated into four languages and it’s being translated into five more.”

Putting his frustration aside, Trivers said he decided to teach the course on human aggression with an angle on deceit and self-deception, topics more familiar to him.

“Now I decided for the sake of the undergraduates, and also, I’ve got to protect myself, to teach a version of the course,” he said. “They encouraged me to use Dr. Jacobson’s materials, which I did not feel was right.”

Trivers said 30 students registered for the course, and together, they were ready to find their way through the subject and “kind of learn.”

Trivers made reference in the class to the strange way the administration was handling the situation and said he told the students they were not getting the best instruction in this course.

“The department chairman was present at that meeting,” he said. “That was Thursday. Two days later, I get this letter suspending me with pay, pending suspending me without pay and taking away both my courses.”

Trivers’ job has not technically been taken away yet, and he said the worst that could happen is being suspended without pay beginning March 1.

As a father and grandfather, Trivers said much of his paycheck is spent every month supporting his family before he can even have money to pay his housing costs.

“For them to attack my livelihood is attacking not just me, but my children and my grandchildren,” he said. “It’s an attack on my whole life, you know, my livelihood.”

At the moment, Trivers said the University has to go through a certain process before they make any more decisions regarding his job security.

He said the administration must meet with him and allow him to explain why what they are doing is incorrect, and then eventually after those meetings, they should come to a decision.

Trivers said he has never been suspended in any capacity, and said he is very disappointed. He hopes the University will rectify their unfortunate activity so that he can return to teaching.

Alex Meier contributed to this story.

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