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One of the world’s foremost scholars of American and British imperial history is about to join Harvard’s empire on the Charles.
Niall Ferguson, the widely regarded economic historian, abandoned England last year for the country he believes to be the world’s top empire today, and is now leaving New York University (NYU) for Cambridge.
After just three semesters as professor of economics and Herzog family chair in financial history at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Ferguson will begin teaching at Harvard Business School (HBS) in spring 2005 and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Department of History the following year.
Ferguson, a 40-year-old Scotland native has written six books since 1998—starting with his highly regarded The Pity of War and two volumes about the Rothschild banking dynasty. His hiring fits in with University President Lawrence H. Summers’s oft-stated goal of attracting young professors who will be able to spend most of their academic careers at Harvard. Summers himself played a key part in luring Ferguson from NYU with what Ferguson deemed “a very long and very important conversation.”
Ferguson says that his unconventional joint appointment between FAS and HBS is intended to help bridge the divide between different groups studying global financial history.
“I quite like the idea of building an institutional corridor between economics and history,” Ferguson says. “We really are just saying, ‘let’s...see if we can get any traffic across the river in terms of contact between the faculty.’”
But when Ferguson made his first prominent move, leaving Oxford for NYU last year, he encountered more than just architectural differences across the Atlantic.
“Teaching at a business school in New York was the perfect antidote to...nearly 14 or 15 years of teaching at Oxford or Cambridge, in...16th century quadrangles,” Ferguson says. “The trouble is I’m not really a natural business school professor. I like teaching at business schools, but I think my primary home should be in a history department.”
Last year, Oxford lost its famed imperial historian after years of competition between Harvard, NYU and the University of Pennsylvania.
Fulfilling his role as a highly-visible academic, Ferguson wrote an op-ed in The Times of London when he emigrated critiquing the economics of British higher education and explaining why Oxford could no longer afford to keep him.
In his second much publicized move, Ferguson brings his economic and historical expertise north to join the history department he says he has long admired.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
In his various op-eds, books and television appearances, Ferguson has addressed issues ranging from British to American empires and European international institutions to the U.S. international debt. His controversial arguments in favor of empire, and comparisons between modern American hegemony and the British empire of a century ago, have garnered both publicity and criticism from academia and a popular audience.
The U.S. venture in Iraq, Ferguson contends, is but one instance of modern American imperialism. Ferguson’s most recent work, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, argues that the British spirit of empire has shaped America’s worldview since the nation’s founding and even today, the United States is an “empire in denial.”
“The U.S. exerts the functions of an empire while denying that it is an empire,” Ferguson said at a book signing for Colossus at the Brattle Theatre on May 6. “Why is it that this astonishing empire...is so very unsuccessful in practice as an empire?”
One of Ferguson’s most controversial proposals is his support for American empire.
“If you look at the problem historically, a liberal empire may offer better outcomes—not only to the imperialist but to subject peoples—than the available alternatives,” he said at the signing. “That offends American sensibilities so much that I can not imagine an audience of Americans agreeing with it. It just happens to be true.”
Saltonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier ’60, who studies modern European history, says that while he agrees with Ferguson’s comparison between U.S. expansion and the British Empire, the two scholars disagree on the normative question about American empire.
“It makes sense to call us imperial,” Maier says. “I think Niall is happier with this development than I am. There’s a group of Brits and others out there who think we should take it in hand and be a benevolent and good empire. I’m more doubtful that we can be.”
While Maier and his history department colleagues are well-regarded academics within their various fields, few—if any—have attained Ferguson’s level of public prominence. Last month alone he penned two pieces for The New York Times, both touching on contentious issues—one trying to understand the high level of Muslim immigration into Europe and the other calling for “severity” in dealing with uprisings in Iraq.
Coolidge Professor of History David G. Blackbourn, soon to be Ferguson’s colleague, is pleased that Ferguson will be bringing his reputation for controversial views to Harvard.
“He’s controversial on everything he touches,” Blackbourn says. “It’s essential to have people like Niall Ferguson to test your ideas, to make you think about things.”
History Department Chair Akira Iriye says that Ferguson’s analysis of the modern world is primarily responsible for his reputation as a controversial scholar, but that Ferguson is not strikingly different from all of his colleagues in stirring academic disputes.
“Each [new history professor] in his own way is controversial, in the sense of presenting original interpretations of historical events,” Iriye wrote in an e-mail. “Ferguson may be more ‘controversial’ in the sense that, perhaps more than most of us, he is willing to address contemporary issues and use his historical knowledge as the basis for some policy recommendations.”
Ferguson scoffs at the idea that he is politically controversial and, far from the common characterization of his views as intellectually conservative, insists that he is a traditional liberal.
“A lot of my arguments, whether they be in defense of empire or whether they be critical of certain European institutions are essentially actuated by fairly classical liberalism,” he says.
“In terms of economic thought, it’s not difficult to locate me in the Adam Smith tradition,” he adds.
THE PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL
Ferguson may reject the idea that he is politically controversial, but he embraces his status as an academic in the public eye. He says that his devotion to writing op-eds and reflecting on the present grows out of his own history, which has taken him from journalism to academia, and from Glasgow to Greenwich Village.
Ferguson went to school at Magdalen College in Oxford, the same college where the famous historian A.J.P. Taylor—whose work Ferguson confessed in The Times of London to having “read too much” of as a teenager—was a fellow for 38 years.
While a graduate student at Magdalen and then a fellow at Oxford’s Jesus College, Ferguson supplemented his study of history—and his meager scholar’s income—with freelance journalism.
Ferguson says that English academia was not receptive to journalistic ventures and he felt compelled to incarnate his journalistic self under the pseudonyms of Alec Campbell and then Campbell Ferguson.
“I can remember coming out—I was outed as Niall Ferguson, not Alec Campbell, which was my alter-ego, at which point I thought, ‘My academic career is over. This is the end,’ because there was still that strong sense that one ought not to do it,” he says.
Ferguson argues, however, that communicating in newsprint is as legitimate an academic venture as is writing articles for peer-reviewed journals.
“I’ve never ever felt there was any incompatibility between writing op-eds and writing scholarly papers or writing books with footnotes...they’re just different modes of operation,” Ferguson says. “I do think there...always has been an element of intellectual snobbery about those people who say, ‘Tut-tut, A.J.P. Taylor used to write for The [Sunday] Express, can’t make him Regis professor.’”
But Ferguson—whose journalism now is presumably limited to his numerous op-ed submissions—insists that writing about the past for academia and for the public are equally valid pursuits for a history professor.
“History is a public discipline,” Ferguson says. “It’s not like math or nuclear physics—it’s intelligible.”
Maier agreed that Ferguson has managed to bridge the traditional divide between popular writing and challenging historical analysis.
“Niall is a very good historian,” Maier says. “I wish I had his gifts for popular communication.”
“He certainly doesn’t purchase that at the expense of scholarly history,” Maier adds.
In addition to educating the next generation, Ferguson says that a professor’s responsibilities include educating today’s leaders about historical precedents for their dilemmas.
“If we don’t argue about Iraq then other people will do it less well or with less knowledge,” he says.
REJECTING THE BULLY PULPIT
When it comes to educating students, as opposed to the general public, Ferguson’s efforts have also been widely recognized.
After his first semester at NYU, he was awarded professor of the year by the Stern School’s Class of 2003.
“I think Niall brings so many things that we always look for,” Blackbourn says. “Outstanding intellect, books that make a difference, intellectual energy.”
“Not least, he’s a fabulous teacher,” Blackbourn adds.
Ferguson says while The New York Times has alleged that he has shirked his teaching duties to take on a public role, his interest in educating the world and his writing obligations have not come at his students’ expense.
“I’ve sometimes felt that [teaching] has been a drain on my energies, but I’ve never felt that I should duck out of it,” he says. “In percentage terms, over the last 15 years, I must have taught a lot more and devoted a lot more of my time to students than the great majority of professors.”
True to the economist in him, Ferguson finds fault with the way Oxford and Cambridge allocate their most precious academic resource—their professors. Ferguson says that undergraduate history students, with their diverse backgrounds and interests, can be taught in a large class instead of in a small, Oxford-style tutorial.
“In many ways, undergraduate teaching can be more rewarding—often was more rewarding for me at Oxford than graduate teaching—because the mix of people you get in an undergraduate class is necessarily different from the mix of people you get once they’ve all selected their graduate options,” he says. “I always felt Oxford had it the wrong way around. We were teaching undergraduates as if they were graduates and graduates as if they were undergraduates.”
At NYU, Ferguson says, he encountered the latter problem—graduate students being taught in a large class when they needed a tutorial system.
“I find myself spending a lot of time at NYU doing what are called ‘office hours,’ but they just do turn into a lot of miniature tutorials, which is difficult when you’ve got...nearly 300 students. I’d far rather have an explicit tutorial relationship than call it office hours,” he says. “You really end up with a situation where you practically have to hide or wear a false beard...once they’ve all had a midterm graded they all want to know why they didn’t get an A.”
Despite being successful wooed from NYU last summer, Ferguson will not arrive in Cambridge until this fall. For his first two years, he says, he will teach only one class so that he can develop new classes and have time to visit his family, which is still in England.
His first Harvard teaching will be an HBS course on “Business, Government and the International Economy” in spring 2005, and he plans to design a history department course on World War II, which could be taught as early as spring 2006. Ferguson says that he also wants to help in the history department’s implementation of the College’s ongoing curricular review, including the development of a world history survey course.
“[Harvard will] be an ideal place to direct...the development of historical minds,” Ferguson says. “That’s, after all, what being a professor is primarily about.”
—Staff writer Joshua D. Gottlieb can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Ella A. Hoffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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