John C. Darnell was a romantic figure on campus looked upon as Yale’s own answer to Indiana Jones, as this admiring profile from 2007 attests:
Professor John Darnell, the chair of Yale’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, has almost as much legend surrounding him as Indiana Jones, and infinitely more credibility. For years, he has brought Egypt to students and, in many cases, students to Egypt. His charisma and quirky teaching style have made him such a Yale character that he has inspired the Facebook group “John C. Darnell: Man, Myth, or Legend?” Given his experiences in Northern Africa, he just might deserve it.
When I first opened the door to Darnell’s office, I was greeted by strains of choral music and the strong scent of sherry. He beckoned me in and shook my hand as a handful of NELC professors left the room. “We were having a faculty meeting,” he said, gesturing towards the wine glasses scattered around the room. With his three-piece-suit, pocket watch, monocle, and supremely erudite sense of academic zeal, Darnell appeared to be exactly what one would expect of a stuffy Ivy League academic chair. Although he looks as though he were plucked from Victorian London, Darnell actually hails from Prattville, Alabama, and is anything but stodgy. …
When Darnell is not moonlighting as a professor, he spends his time wandering the Egyptian desert with his students and colleagues, hunting for archeological clues and combating heat, scorpions, and antiquities thieves along the way. “Let me think of some good stories for you,” he said, then paused for a few moments. “Actually… I’m going to ask Colleen. She’ll be able to think of some.” He banged on the wall of his office to summon Assistant Professor Colleen Manassa, the department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, into the room. “Some people say I take the ‘assistant’ part of ‘assistant professor’ a little literally,” he said with a smile. Manassa, a sharp young woman with Cleopatra bangs, soon arrived. For the next hour, she provided prompts and offered helpful translations of Darnell’s occasionally labyrinthine digressions. …
[S]tories of baby snakes and broken cars were only the warm-up to the real adventures. Though Darnell is no tomb raider, it turns out that he still has to race against thieves to make it to sites before they do. Often, local tomb raiders will dig right through valuable ancient inscriptions, hoping to find gold hidden in the rocks. “Every time you find a site, you have to act as though it is probably the last time that you will see that site intact,” Darnell said.
Perhaps the most incredible tale Darnell told involved chasing after a cadre of thieves that he, with his team and a group of soldiers, had frightened away from a site. As they drove back from the site, they noticed a large object the size of the house on the horizon. As they neared it, they realized that it was a quarry dump truck, a tall vehicle that requires a ladder to make it up to the driver’s seat. It clearly had no business out on the desert road, and when the vehicles finally neared each other, both stopped.
“At first,” said Darnell, “everyone was frightened, and then we realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got all these AK-47s and other sorts of arms.’” …
[H]is originality shows in the classroom. Ashley Young ’10, a student of his and the creator of the “Man, Myth, or Legend” Facebook group, couldn’t say enough in praise of Darnell’s unusual tactics and striking charisma. “He has such a command of historical knowledge that students can’t help but be in awe of him… He made ancient Egypt come alive in my eyes,” she said. She has particularly fond memories of quirky moments in class, such as when Darnell accidentally took a chunk out of a classroom chair with an ancient sword, or when he taught his students how to send Roman smoke signals to each other.
By the time I left Darnell’s office, I was tempted to join the Facebook group myself. As I walked out, he asked Manassa to bring me a Yale Egyptology T-shirt, and he was as enthusiastic about its hieroglyphic lux et veritas as he was about AK-47s and undiscovered alphabets. Watching him range from his wild adventures to his love of mundane minutiae, I found him about as fascinating and inscrutable as the hieroglyphics he studies. Here is a man who deserves his myth.
Thursday, January 10, the curse that strikes down those who violate the pharoah’s tomb arrived in full force:
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Chair John Darnell resigned as chair and agreed to a one-year suspension from the Yale faculty after engaging in several violations of University policy, including maintaining an intimate relationship with a student under his direct supervision, Darnell said in an email sent to the department Tuesday afternoon.
Darnell’s other violations consisted of participating in the review of a faculty member with whom he had an intimate relationship and using his leadership role in Egyptology to cover up his illicit behavior, he wrote in his Tuesday email. Such actions are prohibited by the Yale University Faculty Handbook, which states that professors must avoid sexual relationships with students over whom they have “direct pedagogical or supervisory responsibilities.”
“[I] have violated Yale policies and the trust placed in me as a Yale faculty member,” Darnell wrote. “I have failed the University, my colleagues, and my students, and I am deeply sorry.”
[His assistant Colleen] Manassa declined to comment on allegations concerning her relationship with Darnell, and declined to comment on whether she is facing disciplinary action in connection with Darnell’s suspension.
Two sources with close ties to the NELC Department said Manassa and Darnell met when Manassa took a class taught by Darnell as a freshman in 1998 — the year Darnell joined the Yale faculty as an assistant professor. Manassa told the News she completed the requisite 36 course credits to finish her undergraduate degree in three years.
Manassa went on to enroll as a graduate student in the department in 2001, and was appointed an assistant professor in 2006. Three sources close to the department confirmed that John Darnell was head of the search committee that appointed Manassa to an assistant professorship in the department.
Darnell and his wife — Deborah Darnell, an administrator at the Yale Egyptological Institute — have collaborated on several scholarly works, including journal articles published by the Oriental Institute in 1993 and the Journal of Near Eastern Studies in 1997. According to New Haven court records, the Darnells filed for divorce in 2012.
Two sources close to the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department said they approached administrators about a “hostile work environment” in the department as early as 2010, two years before John Darnell resigned as chair of the department and was suspended from the faculty on Jan. 8.
Four sources said Darnell and Colleen Manassa ’01 GRD ’05, a former graduate student and current associate professor who is alleged to have maintained an intimate relationship with Darnell since at least 2000, exhibited psychologically damaging behavior toward students and professors in the department in recent years, such as threatening to revoke funding for individual academic projects. Two individuals with close ties to the department said that when they approached senior University administrators with their concerns beginning in 2010, they were told the University could only launch an investigation if the individuals filed formal complaints before the administration.
The sources said they decided not to pursue a formal complaint — which cannot be filed anonymously — because they feared retaliation from Manassa or Darnell, who held administrative leadership positions in the NELC Department and its Egyptology subdivision. One source said the complaint system engenders “a common culture of fear among the grad students.”
And who’s left standing?
When John Darnell agreed to a one-year suspension from the Yale faculty following numerous University policy violations, he left the Egyptology division of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department without a chair and with just one full-time faculty member — associate professor Colleen Manassa ’01 GRD ’05, with whom he allegedly had the intimate relationship that led to his suspension.
Hat tip to John Brewer.