The History Department's search to tenure its first senior Americanist since 1980 suffered a setback recently when one of its prime candidates, a Columbia University historian, told Harvard he would prefer to stay at his present school.
Eric Foner, an expert on the history of American Reconstruction, refused to comment yesterday on whether Harvard had offered him a post, but he said, "I have decided to remain at Columbia. I'm happy where I am."
Earlier this fall, Foner delivered a lecture sponsored by the History Department on "Writing Reconstruction History", which signaled that the department was considering making him an offer.
But the longtime New York resident informed the department recently that he was not interested in leaving for Cambridge, according to a Harvard professor who asked to remain anonymous. The senior faculty member said Foner has turned down offers from a variety of prestigious history departments in the past.
"The department was prepared to give [Foner] an offer. But Columbia met all of his needs or interests, and he decided that getting involved in negotiations would not be fruitful," the professor said. "It's a disappointment. He was one of the most desirable names."
In mid-November, Columbia History Department Chairman John Garraty saidin an interview that he was aware Harvard wasinterested in luring Foner away from the New Yorkcampus, but that they would be successful "over mydead body."
Historians here and elsewhere say that theAmerican wing of the history department has beenwracked by internal divisions which have preventedthe department from hiring any senior levelAmericanists since Du Bois Professor of Historyand of Afro-American Studies Nathan I. Huggins wasbrought from Columbia seven years ago.
The stalled appointments process has left thedepartment without senior-level coverage of 20thcentury political history. Both President Bok andDean of the Faculty Michael Spence last springsaid that the department needed to make seniorappointments soon since several of the tenuredAmericanists are approaching retirement.
Department members say that one of the chiefobstacles to making key appointments has been areluctance on the part of some professors totenure anyone. Part of Foner's appeal in thedepartment may have been that he was not likely toaccept an offer.
"It's ironic. Foner's most difficult to get,and he's most appealing to everyone," thedepartment member said.
"It'll be hard to make an appointment for nextyear because it'll be hard to come up withagreement on a name and a field," the seniordepartment member said. "What's needed are 20thcentury political history and people to replacepeople who are going to reitre."
The author of the widely acclaimed "Free Soil,Free Labor, Free Men," Foner will soon publish amajor reinterpretation of Reconstruction. Hisfield of expertise closely parallels that ofWarren Professor of American History David H.Donald, who is nearing retirement age.
"The real problem now is a kind of anxiety tomake an appointment that they would come up withsomeone who might not be serving the department'sneeds well," the professor added.
Feeling pressure to make an appointment, thedepartment could tenure someone in a field that isalready covered by a relatively young seniorAmericanist, and then take the attitude that "nowwe've got someone so we'll wait around for Godot,"the department member said