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Journalists Are Rushing to Judgment About Michael Bellesiles

Recent criticism of our academic institutions in the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard miss the boat in the Michael Bellesiles affair and they miss it by concurrently reaching it too early and getting there too late.

Kimberley Strassel in the Journal and David Skinner in the Weekly Standard are critical of Columbia University's Bancroft Prize Committee, the American Historical Association, Chicago's Newberry Library and Bellesiles's Emory University for not leaping aboard the mounting waves of criticism which have dogged the historian's scholarship for the last six months. Their criticism fails crucially, on the one hand, to understand how scholarship works and, on the other, how it is brought to judgment.

Take, for example, their criticism of the Bancroft Prize Committee for its refusal to reconsider its award to Bellesiles's Arming America. May I offer Strassel and Skinner a hypothetical situation? Imagine that I discovered and could prove beyond any reasonable doubt that a Bancroft Prize winning book of 30 years ago included major fraud -- not mere inaccuracies, minor plagiarism or wrongheaded interpretation -- but deliberate misconstruction of hard evidence. I suspect that, if I took my case to Ms. Strassel and Mr. Skinner, I would get from each of them a major yawn. I cannot imagine that the Bancroft Prize Committee would feel obliged to" correct" a 30 year old error of judgment. At best, after a painstaking process of peer review, an article outlining the result of my findings might be accepted in some professional journal. Its editors and readers would take note of my discovery, file it away for future reference and pass on to other matters. This is the leisurely pace of academic learning and it rightly resists journalism's demand for instant gratification. Journalism demands instant judgment; scholarship insists that a process of discussion and debate be allowed to proceed.

Strassel criticizes the American Historical Association for failing to reach a conclusion about Bellesiles's work and for passing a resolution defending his right not to be harassed. Shall we assume that Strassel believes Bellesiles and his family should be harassed by anonymous threats? Both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians have appropriate venues where critics of Bellesiles's work can take their complaints and ask for a judgment. Like the secular courts in the United States, those agencies do not initiate claims which may come before them.

Strassel and Skinner are critical of Chicago's Newberry Library and praise the National Endowment for the Humanities for demanding that Newberry withdraw the Endowment's name from a fellowship Bellesiles received. Strassel praises amateur historian Clayton Cramer for his dogged criticism of Bellesiles's work as if Cramer were a disinterested scholar and Skinner fiercely attacks Bellesiles's"rear-guard defenders." Cramer is no disinterested scholar. He would assure both journalists, if they cared to inquire, that his scholarship is at the service of American citizens' constitutional right to bear arms.

Journalists are often folk of short memory; historians are not. Historians recall that leaders of the gun lobby told its constituents that if the Republicans won the White House, its lobbyists would sit in the executive office. Bruce Cole and Lynne Munson of NEH may simply be prudent"rear-guard defenders" of the Endowment's budget. In any case, officers at Newberry were certainly correct in claiming that scholarly criticism of Arming America was in its earliest stage when it awarded a fellowship to Michael Bellesiles.

The journalists are, finally, most wrong-headed in their criticism of Emory University. Its academic authorities have rightly insisted that as a tenured member of its faculty Michael Bellesiles is entitled to freedom of research and inquiry and that, if charges are brought against his scholarship, they must be adjudicated by some due processes which set no precedent which threatens the right of all faculty members to freely research, reach their conclusions and promulgate their findings. Rather than criticize authorities at Emory, Strassel and Skinner ought to pay tribute to their determination that charges against Bellesiles be weighed and considered in deliberative processes which resist pressure for instant findings.

In short, Strassel and Skinner miss the boat because their rush to judgment arrives too early.

Having said all of that, if it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that Michael Bellesiles has committed academic fraud, responsibility for it is his, but the embarrassment about it ranges far beyond the individuals and institutions Strassel and Skinner haul to the bar of judgment. Bellesiles's work on this subject reaches back over a decade. His research attracted important sources of financial support. His tentative conclusions passed peer review processes to win publication in major professional journals as long as seven years ago. His book was published by one of our most prestigious commercial presses and won praise from major authorities in the most prominent newspapers and professional journals in the land. If Bellesiles has committed academic fraud, these journalists have missed the boat because their judgment comes too late to have saved both journalism's and academia's principalities and powers a considerable embarrassment.