Historical Perspective


SOMETHING'S WRONG in Robinson Hall. President Bok knows it, Dean Spence knows it and, most assuredly, American history concentrators know it.

The American wing of the History Department has not made a senior appointment since 1980 and cannot count a scholar of the nation's recent past among its senior ranks. This gap in the coverage of the American history persists even though two of the University's most popular professors--both of them experts in 20th Century American history--came up for tenure review this academic year. Both were rejected.

We do not presume to take positions on particular candidates for tenure, leaving that evaluation to the good judgement of excellent scholars. But when a department rejects everyone, tenures no one, and leaves the brunt of the teaching load on an ever-changing cast of junior professors, students have a right to question the process. While debates about scholarly standards rage in Robinson, undergraduates now will take their instruction from two brand new assistant professors, one fresh out of grad school, who no matter how talented, are just starting out.

But the most distressing problem of all is that some senior Americanists do not seem to believe that anything is awry. They preach "caution," and view the rejection of Associate Professor of History Bradford A. Lee and Dunwalke Associate Professor of History Alan Brinkley as a victory for the wing's scholarly standards. The wing's lack of an expert on modern American history is attributed to a "dearth of talent."

If the senior Americanists mean to suggest that for the last seven years there has not been a single historian worthy tenure, such a defense is unacceptable. In those seven years two full classes of American history concentrators have graduated, none of whom who could receive help on a senior thesis on the 20th Century from a professor "worthy" of tenure. If a "renaissance" of talent in the field does occur, Harvard will have played little part in bringing it about.

A series of talented junior professors have been remarkably interested in introducing undergraduates to the historical method. But given the department's refusal to make a promotion from within, young scholars may soon become wary of coming to Harvard at all. At the same time, the department is falling in influence, and outside historians suggest that the most talented graduate students no longer choose to pursue their doctorates at the University.

This problem can be overcome quickly with the appointment of young and outstanding scholars whose expertise is in fields now not covered. President Bok has expressed a desire to see such appointments made, but he has said that he does not plan to become involved. If this spring passes with his words unheeded, Bok may have no choice but to become involved. As the head of the University he has a responsibility to ensure that Harvard's department's maintain their levels of excellence, and to prevent academic disputes from depriving undergraduates of the kind of first-rate education they both expect and deserve.