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Bias in the History Profession

Following is the statement of Mr. Johnson before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee. The committee, chaired by Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, is holding hearings on Intellectual Diversity. The statement was delivered on October 29, 2003.

Mr. Chairman, and Members of the Committee:

My name is Robert David Johnson. I am a professor of history at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where I teach courses in U.S. political, diplomatic, and constitutional history.

As a historian of the Senate, I am particularly honored to appear before the committee. I have written books on the interwar Senate and on former Alaska senator Ernest Gruening, both published by Harvard University Press. I am now completing a study of Congress and the Cold War, which Cambridge University Press will publish.

I survived an attempt by Brooklyn College of the City University of New York to deny me tenure on the basis of my ideas and academic values, an attempt amounting to an attack on the principle of intellectual diversity on campus, and as such, perhaps, of interest to this body. Though conceding that my accomplishments as a scholar and a teacher were first-rate, the college based its case on a handful of senior colleagues’ secret letters, which came to be labeled the "Shadow File." CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein ultimately overturned Brooklyn’s decision.

The "Shadow File" letters, which attacked not only me but also several other untenured professors, condemned me for three violations of prevailing campus orthodoxy. First, I was deemed uncollegial for having objected, along with other, but tenured, professors that a college post-9/11 forum was unbalanced because none of its speakers supported either U.S. or Israeli foreign policy. The provost had termed the forum an educational event and allowed professors to dismiss their classes to attend it; I argued only that the college should not label a one-sided event educational.

Second, I drew criticism for the standards that I employed in a search for a new professor in European history, when I joined several colleagues in urging the department to base its choice on the candidates’ demonstrated records as researchers and teachers. My critics instead advocated granting a disproportionate role to subjective comments on the candidates’ personalities and to gender considerations, despite the college affirmative action officer’s having cautioned that the department’s existing gender diversity would make such an approach violative of federal law.

Third, the significance of my scholarship and teaching was downgraded because of the kind of history that I teach. Scholars perceived as politically conservative, or even those who taught fields perceived as conservative—such as political, diplomatic, or constitutional history—were to face a huge disadvantage in personnel decisions at Brooklyn College.

In some ways, my case represented an anomaly in the academic world. Those who want to fire someone because of his beliefs or academic specialty rarely put their opinions in writing, as did the "Shadow File" professors. Because of my credentials, I attracted support from dozens of national political and diplomatic historians, of varying ideological persuasions. I benefited from all but perfect legal representation. Finally, CUNY, rather than Brooklyn, possessed the final say on my tenure. I can only wonder what happens to job applicants or untenured faculty from my fields who are rejected for reasons similar to those offered by Brooklyn, but who lack the advantages that I possessed.

These events attracted unusually widespread media attention because they illustrated troubling patterns within the academy as a whole, such as how considerations relating to departmental or campus politics can arbitrarily override merit in the tenure process; or how some professors impose ideological litmus tests as preconditions for hiring and promotion.

Within the historical community, some also saw Brooklyn’s action as part of a broader assault on the fields of political and diplomatic history. Jonathan Zasloff, a professor at UCLA Law School who also holds a Ph.D. in diplomatic history from Harvard, noted that the controversy highlighted "the decline of the history of American foreign policy as a subject of academic study—not because it isn’t still critically important, but rather because it is simplistically dismissed as studying dead white men. The ‘new social history’ that focuses on studying the working class, unemployed people, minorities, women and gays is critically important as well-but the academy, in its quest for novelty, has really thrown the baby out with the bathwater." Ironically, this dismissal has come at a time when the study of diplomatic history has never been more intellectually diverse, ranging from the multitude of recent studies that have considered factors like race and gender in the history of American foreign relations to the exemplary Cold War International History Project, a truly multicultural intellectual enterprise if ever there was one.

The contents of the "Shadow File" confirmed Zasloff’s observations. One of the file’s contributors, a specialist in women’s history, denigrated my teaching and scholarship on the grounds that I taught courses dealing with "political history, focused on figures in power." Such an "old-fashioned approach to our field," this professor mused, attracted only "a certain type of student, almost always a young white male," whose interest in such "narrow" topics implied limited intellectual abilities. The former department chairman, who has since been reassigned, termed this document the "reasoned consideration" of a senior colleague.

Since the early 1960s, the academy has witnessed an explosion of interest in race, class, and gender in U.S. history. These developments have produced more nuanced views of American history as a whole. They have, however, come with a cost. Marc Trachtenberg, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has lamented how many adherents of this "new social history" have seemed "interested in pushing fields like diplomatic history—and to a certain extent even political history as a whole, not to mention a whole series of other fields—to the margins of the profession." As a result, vast areas of U.S. history addressing our core values—democracy, foreign policy, the law—have been deemed unworthy of instruction.

That my colleague was willing to commit to paper her comment that a professor teaching about "figures in power" constituted grounds for condemnation testifies to just how certain she and others have become of support for these views among the professoriate. In the academy as reflected by Brooklyn College, someone like me, whose first two books studied left-wing congressional dissenters and who wore a Hillary Clinton button during the 2000 Senate campaign, was deemed holding views too "conservative" to be tolerated. We now have a culture to which many academics conform without giving much thought to the absurdity of some of the culture’s central tenets. Indeed, of the current Members of Congress, perhaps only Maxine Waters would not fall under the definition of "conservative" as offered by academics who see the study of "figures in power" as somehow catering to sexism or racism.

These patterns certainly are not confined to Brooklyn College. Again to quote Trachtenberg, advocates of the new social history "talked a lot about ‘diversity,’ but in practice they certainly did not embrace a live-and-let-live philosophy." An outside observer might have expected that departments would add faculty positions in social history fields as a complement to pre-existing positions in political, diplomatic, or constitutional history. Instead, these newer topics too frequently have taken the place of more "traditional" approaches, as a representative sample of history departments—from 30 large state universities around the country—suggests. If anything, such a sample would seem likely to reveal a disproportionately high percentage of political and diplomatic historians, both because of the size of these departments and because these schools get much of their funding from the government, and thus would seem less likely to avoid entirely topics that most in the country consider crucial for students to learn. Instead, a majority of full-time U.S. history professors in only three of the sampled departments (Ohio State, Virginia, and Alabama) have research interests that deal with politics, foreign policy, the law, or the military in any way. At 20 of these schools, less than a quarter of the Americanists address such topics in any aspect of their scholarly work. The University of Michigan has 25 full-time department members teaching U.S. history: only one publishes on political history, as opposed to 11 professors examining race in America and seven specialists in U.S. women’s history. Of the 11 Americanists in the University of Washington’s history department, only one studies politics, the law, or foreign policy—and he specializes in American socialism and communism.

The situation can be even more depressing at lower-profile public institutions, since some administrations tolerate students receiving U.S. political history only through a distorted lens. This is particularly true at schools promoting the agenda of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). Though a national organization to which dozens of colleges belong, the AAC&U’s curricular program is dominated by a handful of members committed to using banal rhetoric of diversity and inclusion to defend curricula that present one-sided viewpoints on controversial political issues.

Washington’s Evergreen College, for example, features two courses on 20th century U.S. political history: "Dissent, Injustice, and the Making of America," and "Inherently Unequal." The latter course, which addresses U.S. history since 1950, holds as an indisputable premise that in the 1990s, "racist opposition to African American progress and the resurgence of conservatism in all branches of government barricaded the road to desegregation." California State University-Monterey Bay, another AAC&U-oriented school, likewise presents students with only two, clearly biased, courses examining the history of American government institutions. Those wanting more U.S. political history are invited to take such classes as "History According to the Movies," "California at the Crossroads," and "Multicultural History in the New Media Classroom."

The historical profession needs balance, not intolerance. No one denies that students should have the opportunity to sample such offerings from the new social history as "History According to the Movies." But courses in American political, diplomatic, and legal history are at least as important. Groups such as The Historical Society, which has brought together historians of all viewpoints to champion a return to a discipline based on reasoned appeals to evidence rather than promotion of an ideological agenda, have resisted the exclusion of whole fields from college history departments. In addition, the Miller Center for Public Affairs, housed at the University of Virginia, has launched an ambitious project to promote and fund innovative new scholarship in the history of American political development. Still, historians seem unlikely to create an intellectually diverse profession on their own. As recently noted by University of Pennsylvania professor Erin O’Connor, publisher of the weblog Critical Mass, since "scholarship—centered on questions of identity, oppression, and power relations—is in turn a sign of a particular political commitment," faculty diversity will "only be pursued insofar as it ensures and perpetuates ideological uniformity."

With faculty unwilling or unable to create an intellectually diverse campus, administrators and trustees must step forward, as my case suggested. Chancellor Goldstein used my case to affirm his previously stated commitment to improving standards and promoting intellectual diversity. Several trustees likewise used the matter to articulate the basic principles under which CUNY personnel policy would operate. In the contemporary climate, responsible administrators and trustees should require careful accountings of hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions coming from academic departments. These same administrators and trustees should be ready and willing to act when such decisions prove to have been made to satisfy personal ideological wish lists rather than educational and scholarly needs.

Simply paying lip service to the principle of teaching students about American democracy will not suffice. An unfortunate example of this trend comes in a federally funded grant, distributed to 12 colleges through the AAC&U, with an apparently non-controversial name ("The Arts of Democracy") and mission (promoting "a deeper understanding of, debate about, and practice of democracy"). Brooklyn’s "Arts of Democracy" program promises to produce students who will understand the heritage of American civic ideals; be able to resolve moral dilemmas posed by U.S. foreign policy; and comprehend the fundamental premises of U.S. democracy.

Despite these promising claims, the program contains not even one political science, history, economics, or philosophy course exploring American government or international relations. Instead, "Arts of Democracy" students learn that democracy entails support for a multicultural political agenda and what the college terms a "community of diversity," by taking courses such as "Literature and Cultural Diversity," "Introduction to Global Cinema," and "Peoples of the United States."

By underwriting "The Arts of Democracy," the federal government itself is not only undermining the teaching of political and diplomatic history, but providing for a program that views the entire modern liberal democratic project, from its inception in 17th century England and the 18th century European Enlightenment to the present, as a sustained effort to suppress and marginalize one group or another in the interests of maintaining power, privilege, and profits. Even taking the stated goals of the "Arts of Democracy" at face value, one wonders how American students, as citizens of a country that for nearly a century has possessed unprecedented global power, could be expected to resolve the ethical dilemmas associated with that power if the students lack a well-rounded understanding of its past uses as well as abuses.

In the end, restoring intellectual diversity on campus requires support from the outside—from alumni, trustees, and government. As a historian of the U.S. Congress, I know as well as anyone how the lessons of the McCarthy era suggest the dangers of Washington excessively involving itself in college instruction. But Congress possesses an array of powers through which it could encourage intellectual freedom on today’s campuses, without the risk of heavy-handed intervention.

Hearings such as this one can help frame the issue for public discussion and force colleges to adopt transparent standards in personnel and curricular matters. Doing so would indirectly stimulate intellectual diversity. No institution can publicly admit that its promotion and tenure process is weighted against professors who teach about American politics or foreign policy, or that it wants to indoctrinate students through politically one-sided course offerings.

In addition, specifically targeted federal grants to promote the study and teaching of American politics, foreign policy, and the law are very much needed. In this regard, I especially commend Senator Gregg for his sponsorship of SR1515, the Higher Education for Freedom Act, which would create a targeted grant program aimed at reviving postsecondary teaching and research about our political institutions and the philosophical and cultural background out of which they emerged. This legislation will complement the Teaching American History Grant Program authored by Senator Byrd, which focused on the elementary, middle, and high school levels of American education. The emphasis on grants for new program creation is especially well-conceived, since the development of new programs is probably the best way of ensuring that there will be faculty lines in existence, and graduate training available, for future historians and other scholars who wish to make careers studying subjects related to political and constitutional institutions.

Four decades ago, William Fulbright theorized that the Senate’s "primary obligation" to political life came in contributing "to the establishment of a national consensus" through educating the public. This function remains vitally important for the Senate. I commend the committee’s efforts to educate the public on the need for campus intellectual diversity, and I thank you for your consideration.

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