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Controversial Character


WHEN THE Afro-American Studies Executive Committee recently decided not to consider Eugene D. Genovese, one of the premier historians in Afro-American studies, for its next appointment, it missed the opportunity of bringing a great scholar to Harvard and further strengthening the department. After months of searching for three historians, the committee as of last week had decided its next appointment should be in Afro-American literature.

The committee seems to have discriminated against Genovese on the basis of his personal reputation and his Marxist perspective. Committee members said they decided against considering Genovese because he is a "controversial character"--they had heard he can be a "difficult colleague." Richard B. Freeman, professor of Economics and a committee member, said the committee wants to build a "stable base in the department," and it feared Genovese's presence might hinder it from recruiting more senior faculty. Freeman admits it never made an effort to check Genovese's reputation.

Genovese's personal reputation or political views should never have been used to judge whether he is qualified for an academic position. President Bok's last open letter to the Harvard community says, "Efforts to impose political, economic, or moral judgements are likely to distort the appointment process." Every candidate for an academic position, according to Bok, should be considered solely on the basis of his scholarship. Given Afro's need for scholars and Genovese's credentials, this hardly seems the place to make exceptions to this University policy.

No one has raised any questions about Genovese's scholarship. Numerous professors have called his work "excellent" and labelled him one of the top historians studying southern history. His book, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, won the Bancroft prize in 1975, and only last year Genovese served as president of the American Historical Association. Even members of the executive committee agree that his work and teaching are excellent.

Having offered three historians positions in April, it is very strange that the committee now does not want a second one. Nathan I. Huggins, the only one who accepted the offer and the newly appointed chairman of Afro-Am, says two historians in the department would be "redundant." Huggins, however, is a generalist. Afro-Am needs specialists in various periods--one of them being slavery. This was one of the committee's original aims. We see no need for a change.

Genovese is available--he wants to leave Rochester and is talking with several colleges. The committee was formed by Dean Rosovsky to build a strong core of senior faculty, and Genovese would help do that. He does not plan to make a final decision until next fall. The executive committee still has time to reconsider its decision and to judge Genovese's candidacy on the proper criteria.

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