Professional Division 2002
The Professional Division pursued several new initiatives during 2002. We proposed and the AHA Council approved a new Theodore Roosevelt–Woodrow Wilson Prize to honor a public official or other civil servant who has made extraordinary contributions to the study, teaching, and public understanding of history. We worked closely with the AHA’s Task Force on Public History to help assure that the needs and concerns of all who practice public history are fully represented in the AHA’s activities. We continued to monitor the job market in history, significantly revised the format of our interview workshop at the annual meeting, and organized a session at the 2003 meeting entitled “The Job Hunt” that proved extremely successful.
But the primary focus of the division during 2002 was inevitably on questions concerning professional ethics, best practices, and misconduct among historians. The AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct continues to play an essential role for everyone who cares about the practice of history. The Statement on Standards is an evolving document, which is frequently revised to respond to new concerns as they arise in the profession. Especially during the past two or three years, when public controversy about professional misconduct among historians has reached unprecedented levels, we’ve seen how important the Statement on Standards has become as a collective expression of what our profession regards as best and appropriate practice. We have seen the Statement repeatedly cited in discussions of misconduct, and members of the division believe that the AHA should considerably expand this function.
Toward that end, the division instituted two revisions in AHA policy during 2002. In the first, we elaborated the section of the Statement on Standards regarding credentials historians include on their c.v.’s relating to publication. We took this step in response to a query from an AHA member who had been sued for his service on a tenure review committee that had found misleading citations on a c.v. The second revision was developed in conjunction with Michael Grossberg, editor of the American Historical Review, and involves a change in the way AHR will handle book reviews that make allegations of plagiarism. The key question was whether such allegations would have to be adjudicated by the Professional Division before they could appear in print. Because the division’s complaint process has always been confidential, the effect of such a requirement would have been to delay significantly any public discussion of a plagiarized publication. Members of the division concluded, therefore, that AHR (and other journals as well) should be free to publish charges of plagiarism if the editors conclude that those charges are responsible and well-founded. We strongly believe that the best response to plagiarism and other misconduct is public debate and criticism. One of our goals is to develop a new “best practices” document offering guidance to journal editors about how best to handle book reviews, letters, and other communications that allege plagiarism, source fabrication, and other forms of professional misconduct.
This brings me to the most important issue that the division discussed during 2002: our own practice of hearing and adjudicating complaints of professional misconduct. As is typical, a half dozen or so cases went through formal adjudication this year. AHA staff and the Professional Division also responded to dozens of informal inquiries relating to various forms of professional misconduct. In fact, processing such queries and adjudicating a very small percentage of them has become the major preoccupation of the Professional Division, not quite to the exclusion of other activities, but certainly to so great a degree that it has prevented the division from devoting significant time to many other matters.
After a year of discussion, the Professional Division concluded that there was enough doubt about the efficacy of our adjudicative process that we should seek guidance from the AHA’s Council. . The Council essentially concluded that the modest benefits to the profession did not justify the time, energy, and effort that have gone into adjudication. Moreover, the AHA’s procedures have had several paradoxical and unanticipated conseqJuly 9, 2007 3:22 PM was confidential, it had virtually no public impact on the profession. For the most part, only those who complained or were complained against knew the outcome of complaints. Adjudication has not promoted a wide public and professional understanding of what historians mean by scholarly integrity.
Because the Professional Division only considered formal complaints, this complicated and time-consuming process failed to address many cases of obvious plagiarism and professional misconduct.
Because the AHA had virtually no sanctions for misconduct, it is difficult to demonstrate that adjudication had serious consequences even for individuals clearly guilty of egregious professional misconduct.
Because of its wholly appropriate effort to maintain neutrality, the Association felt constrained from commenting publicly about professional misconduct that might come before the Professional Division as formal complaints. The procedures of the Association rendered it ineffective—indeed, almost silent—in criticizing such behavior.
At its January 2003 meeting, the Council voted to declare a moratorium on accepting new complaints, and instructed the division to develop a plan for replacing adjudication as AHA’s primary response to professional misconduct.
I will have much more to report next year about the initiatives that the division is now pursuing to become a more aggressive public advocate for high ethical standards in the practice of history. We are embarking on an extensive revision of the Statement on Standards. We are developing new resources to offer guidance about plagiarism and how to deal with it when it arises. We are creating curricula—for use in graduate seminars, undergraduate classrooms, as well as high school history courses—that would include discussions about plagiarism and the reasons why it is so abhorred by historians. And we are exploring ways to increase still further the public scrutiny that has been so salutary in raising awareness of plagiarism and other forms of professional misconduct.
I should close by thanking the colleagues who have worked so hard to develop the AHA’s expertise in matters relating to professional misconduct. These of course include past vice presidents and members of the Professional Division who have given countless hours to cases that most colleagues can never know about. Albert Beveridge III, the AHA’s legal counsel, has made astonishingly generous contributions to the division’s efforts to perfect its own process. And Sharon K. Tune is the AHA staff member most responsible—heroically so—for overseeing this increasingly laborious and time-consuming process. As we now move to a new phase in the AHA’s efforts to promote high professional standards in the practice of history, we will be relying on the invaluable experience and wisdom that we have gained from the past two decades of Professional Division work.
William J. Cronon (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is vice president of the Professional Division.