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History Scandals: What Historians Think of the AHA's Policy

In May 2003 the American Historical Association decided to abandon the investigation of "professional misconduct in the practice of history." "Instead of adjudicating a small number of confidential cases," the association announced, "the AHA will mount a sustained effort to educate historians, their students, and the public about appropriate standards for research and writing as well as employment practices." Critics chided the association for abandoning the investigation of professional misconduct at the very moment that several egregious cases had come to light involving luminaries such as Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis and others.

In the year and a half since the AHA changed its policy three books have been published about the controversies that recently scandalized the profession. Each of the books comments on the AHA's policy shift.

Jon Wiener, author of Historians in Trouble

After noting that "some of the most serious cases of misconduct have not received the most serious sanctions" because the historians caught violating the canons of history had been protected by outside groups, and that other historians were forced out of the profession by outside groups, Wiener suggests that the "academy, and the history profession, needs an alternative":

A strong and independent profession might be able to stand up to the pressure of organized political groups with their own agendas--might be able to provide some counterweight for administrators facing pressure from outside.

Can the American Historical Association be that kind of strong and independent force? The AHA announced in May 2003 that, after fifteen years of investigations and reports aimed at enforcing the profession's "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct," it was giving up the effort. It would no longer investigate and adjudicate complaints. ...

The decision to abandon AHA enforcement of the "Statement on Standards" had been pushed by William J. Cronon, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who at the time served as head of the Professional Division. At that point, he said, the division had been receiving "50 to 100 inquiries annually," and conducting formal investigations of misconduct in about ten cases a year. The key problem that led to the AHA's decision was the requirement of confidentiality in both investigating complaints and announcing decisions. As a result, Cronon explained, AHA investigations "had virtually no public impact on the profession." "For the most part, only those who complained or were complained against" knew the outcome of complaints. Adjudication has not promoted a wide public and professional understanding of what historians mean by scholarly integrity," he explained. Instead of maintaining confidentiality, Cronon wrote, the best response to charges of misconduct" would be to replace the AHA procedures with "public debate."

But of course Cronon and the AHA Professional Division could have contributed to that public debate -- not by abandoning the adjudication of charges of misconduct, but instead by making their findings public.

The second reason the AHA abandoned adjudication of complaints stemmed from the fact that the AHA had no power to impose sanctions. As a result, Cronon said, its rulings seemed meaningless. "We would send two letters, one to the person who was accused and the other to the person who made the accusation," Cronon told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "That's it. How can you run a court that doesn't have any power to punish?" The power to punish lay with the colleges and universities that employed the offenders, Cronon argued, and it was their responsibility to act. He pointed to Emory's actions in the Bellesiles case as a good example.

Wiener goes on to ask, "But who else has the standing and expertise to resist organized pressure groups?" He concludes that no one does and argues that the AHA should accept the responsibility. In the following paragraphs he notes that while the AHA "threw in the towel, the editors of the American Historical Review moved in the opposite direction, taking on more responsibility for policing misconduct" by expressly encouraging book reviewers to raise questions of plagiarism. "Why are the editors of the AHR willing to face libel litigation?" The editor of the journal, Michael Grossberg "answered that question with wonderful clarity: 'We cannot let such fears prevent us from meeting our obligations; instead, we must devise reasonable, defensible, and effective policies that allow us to do so."

Charles Peter Hoffer, author of Past Imperfect

... if academic historians are to shoulder the burden of providing a truly serviceable history to the public, they must be willing to take strong and pointed action against individuals guilty of scholarly misconduct. They cannot allow misconduct to hide itself behind the veil of popularity. The profession has precedent for this kind of courage. In 1995, after the city of Cincinnati rescinded an ordinance guaranteeing equal rights to people regardless of their sexual orientation, the AHA withdrew its convention from Cincinnati and moved it to Chicago. In 2000, when the OAH was informed that a hotel chain might have discriminated against people of color, it shifted its convention headquarters from one of the chain's hotels to a different location. Those bold (and expensive) public acts demonstrated that the two associations would not tolerate sexual or racial discrimination. It is long past time for all of us who teach and write history to take the same kind of stand against professional malfeasance.

Ron Robin, author of Scandals and Scoundrels

Unlike the other two authors, Robin, optimistically, sees the recent scandals that have struck the history profession as a necessary development in the creation of standards of conduct. He disdains talk that the profession is in crisis and argues that there is no evidence egregious conduct is more prevalent now than a generation or two ago. But he notes that the main historical institutions--the OAH and the AHA--no longer command the authority to deal with scandals in the ways they formerly did. In a word, they have lost the ability to render authoritative judgments as a result of historians' own doubts about truth in history.

Over the years, the movers and shakers of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) have periodically expressed epistemological self-doubt. The criticism of disciplinary standards as politically repressive devices eventually induced a crisis in 1991, when the OAH newsletter published a call for papers from a pseudoprofessional organization dedicated to Holocaust denial. Despite OAH president Joyce Appleby's plea to reject a request that contradicted the most basic "values that bring us together as members of the OAH," the executive board voted to accept the advertisement, apparently unwilling to prescribe professional standards for separating history from pseudohistory. In seeking to accommodate historical perspectives "representing all points of view"-- not only those of professional historians -- the board proceeded to commit an act of professional self-immolation. A public uproar eventually led the executive board to rescind its decision and publicly condemn Holocaust denial. Nevertheless, the board continued to disclaim its prerogative to set professional standards. Decisions on the legitimacy of controversial scholarship were, according to the board, matters to be decided by the general public and not a handful of executives.

Across the street, self-doubt hit the American Historical Association (AHA) as well. In May 2003, the AHA acknowledged that -- willingly or otherwise -- it too had lost much of its authority and was therefore terminating its procedures for investigating professional wrongdoing, because they had "proven to be ineffective for responding to misconduct in the historical profession." Citing a lack of sanctions as well a fear of lawsuits, the association decided instead to mount an educational campaign aimed at sharpening public awareness of plagiarism, falsification, and other types of violations.