Campus Scenes

A Yale Murder

The railroading of a "black sheep" professor.

By 6.19.06

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Yale alum and AEI scholar Michael Rubin recently took to task Richard Brodhead, former dean of Yale College and current president of Duke, over a couple of bad calls. Rubin thinks Brodhead rushed to judgment in condemning the Duke lacrosse team after allegations of rape surfaced after a wild party. The other bad call put an end to a good teacher's academic career:

When [Yale student Suzanne] Jovin was murdered, justice took a backseat to damage control. Within days New Haven police and Yale officials publicly fingered political scientist James Van de Velde, Jovin's senior essay adviser. He was a star lecturer and had been a residential college dean. He was also a former White House appointee under George H. W. Bush and a member of the U.S. Naval Intelligence Reserves. Most Yale professors lean to the left of the student body; few in the political-science and international-relations departments have real-world experience. Van de Velde was the subject of personal jealousy and political animosity. Many faculty members -- including Brodhead -- looked askance at his desire to emphasize practical policymaking over theory. Some questioned, for example, his willingness to help Jovin write -- in 1998 -- about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden to the U.S. to be unscholarly. From an academic point-of-view, Van de Velde was a black sheep.

Yale administrators did not care that there was neither evidence nor motive linking Van de Velde to Jovin. Her body had been found a half-mile from his house. Just as at Duke, Brodhead spoke eloquently about the principles of due process, but moved to subvert it.


Jim Van de Velde was an excellent professor. I had him for two classes, one on international diplomacy and one on international drug trafficking. The fact that I am writing a Ph.D. dissertation on drug trafficking suggests that his was one of the more influential, memorable, and valuable classes I took.

He was an unapologetically tough grader and a stickler for brevity and clarity. Where most professors didn't care much about the format of your papers, I remember he assigned a research paper in the form of an official memo advising the President. It was to be "no more than two pages, in twelve-point Courier font, single spaced, with a line space between paragraphs, and one-inch margins." (Actually, there were even more requirements than that.) We realized with horror that we needed not only to research something meaningful, but we then had to compress it into two tiny pages, footnotes included (those were in ten-point Courier). As I recall, a third of our course grade depended on this exercise in brevity.

Everyone who uses words for a living ought to have to do that.

VAN DE VELDE WAS CERTAINLY an anomaly: if you are familiar with the TV series Alias, I would suspect that Victor Garber's all-business, no-BS Jack Bristow character was a caricature of Van de Velde, though Bristow lacked Van de Velde's dry humor. VdV's military bearing (he was a lieutenant commander in Naval Intelligence) and pragmatic focus set him apart, and as Rubin suggests, probably generated some friction among his colleagues.

Students loved him, though. He was one of few faculty members we talked about in any depth, because here was a guy with a Mysterious Past who did who knows what for The Government in exotic places like Panama. We speculated on whether he was the CIA's talent scout, the guy who could put you in touch with Langley if that appealed to you. (Though I'm sure he knew folks in that line of work, I'm told the scout was actually another professor.) I've got a few great anecdotes about Van de Velde, which I will spare you, but suffice to say he was a quietly subversive force, a very adult presence in a frequently childish institution.

I'm not drawing this comparison to perpetuate stereotypes of academics; scholarship is an honorable profession with its own culture. But I do wish to point out that for an institution with such an all-fired lust for diversity that they welcome even Mullah Omar's personal adviser as a special student, Yale's tolerance for someone who was so genuinely different as Van de Velde was awfully brittle. When the chips were down, Yale didn't treat him as a colleague, but as a PR problem.

If Yale approves of you, Yale will close ranks to defend you. That's why almost all of the discussion on campus of the Taliban Man, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, was a defense of one of their own against a threat from "outsiders" -- like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. And that was why, when it emerged that a Comparative Literature professor named Paul de Man, a prime mover behind the postmodern, nihilistic technique of "deconstruction," had been a Nazi collaborator and propagandist during World War II, his colleagues closed ranks to defend him and keep his past a secret.

But rather than giving him the benefit of the doubt, Yale cut James Van de Velde loose.

I WAS SHOCKED TO HEAR he was a suspect in a murder, but I never felt it was possible that he did it. I've been wrong about that sort of thing before, though; two people I knew from high school turned out to be murderers. I learned back then that what I feel is irrelevant to how things actually are. But here's what I think:

DNA evidence under Jovin's fingernails in 2000 was found not to match Van de Velde's. But physical evidence aside, there was no credible motive offered for James Van de Velde to murder Jovin. There was some talk that the two had had an affair, but that was never substantiated and appears to be nothing but speculation. Even if that were the case, a student's consensual relationship with a professor is only an embarrassment, not the sort of thing that justifies a rational man taking the extreme measures Van de Velde (then single; family concerns were not at issue) was accused of. After all, feminist author Naomi Wolf recently accused Yale Professor Harold Bloom of groping her during an undergraduate tutoring session, and the result was...nothing.

Furthermore, the sloppiness of the murder itself tends to exonerate Van de Velde. Jovin was stabbed several times, and found screaming by an eyewitness who saw a van at the scene (not Van de Velde's Jeep). But VdV is, as I said, a man of a precise and military mind. He was also in good shape and knew martial arts -- one of those anecdotes I alluded to above involves a quite impressive nunchuk demonstration. If he seriously wanted someone dead, she would not have been found alive.

Van de Velde once offered a bit of advice in one class that stuck with me: "Never put anything in writing you wouldn't want to see someday on the front page of the New York Times." This was a careful man. If he had planned and carried out a murder, I doubt suspicion would ever have fallen on him. But of course, there is absolutely no reason to think he would commit a murder in the first place.

CONTRAST THAT WITH THE CONDITION of New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1990s -- it was a crime-ridden, dangerous city. Christian Prince, a Yale student, was robbed and shot in 1991, left bleeding to death on the steps of St. Mary's Catholic Church. Assaults and thefts were commonplace; one night a couple of drunken bikers chased a friend of mine into his dorm, where they broke a window with his face just for the hell of it. There were places you didn't go after dark, and East Rock Park -- near where Suzanne Jovin died -- was one of them. Occam's Razor suggests that the simplest and best explanation for Jovin's fate was that she was killed by someone she didn't know as she walked alone through a bad area at night. But Occam's Razor couldn't save James Van de Velde's academic career.

Until recently, I thought that Van de Velde's dismissal made for an extremely depressing story. Here's someone who followed the rules, and watched the margins, and did his job well, and life just came up and kicked him right in the undercarriage in spite of it all. But one of the unexpected pleasures of my campaign to send Yale's Taliban student packing has been to hear from him again. He's married and restarted his career elsewhere, and his considerable talents are being used in the pursuit of America's enemies. His discipline and hard work have allowed him to recover even from this nightmare.

America's gain is Yale's loss. I wonder whether anyone like him is there now, offering such an example of self-discipline and resilience to America's future leaders.

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