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?”