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From the Noteworthy column of the November 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Launching an Institute for Historical Studies

H. W. Brands, November 2008

Eighteen months ago the history department at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) confronted a problem most departments in universities across the country would love to have: how to spend a large amount of money committed to the department by the university administration. Our recently installed president, William J. Powers Jr., announced his intention to make the University of Texas the best public university in the United States, and toward that goal he identified our department as the first of a series of new departmental centers of excellence, to be supported by substantial new recurring resources. The history department had lately made a series of very promising faculty appointments at the junior and senior levels; department members had won several important prizes, including David Oshinsky’s Pulitzer Prize for Polio: An American Story; and our long-time home, Garrison Hall, was in the process of renovation. For these reasons and others, President Powers selected history as the spearhead of his initiative in the humanities, and he charged us to build on the successes we had achieved and become even better.

Our initial thought was to do more of what we had been doing, starting with hiring additional faculty. Like all large departments, we conduct faculty searches on a nearly continuous basis, typically looking for assistant professors to replace more senior faculty who have retired or moved on. We have been quite pleased with the results of these searches even as we recognize that they are long-term investments in the quality and reputation of the department, whose value will become apparent only over several years as these young scholars gradually win recognition for their work. But the language of our charge from President Powers suggested that we ought to make investments that would pay off in the shorter term as well. So, while we determined to continue with our regular hiring plans, we set a goal of hiring several senior scholars with established reputations. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, we figured that some high-profile hires would attract the attention of our peer departments around the country and foster the sense that the University of Texas at Austin had a history program that was going places.

We also decided to increase funding for graduate students. For years UT has attracted first-rate graduate applicants, but we have lost a discouraging number of these applicants to programs with better funding. We made a commitment to rectify this situation. Future prospects might choose other programs for academic or personal reasons, but we wouldn’t lose them for financial reasons. We immediately expanded the size and number of graduate student fellowships to make our program financially competitive with some of the best programs in the country.

The last major part of our building program was the creation of an institute for historical studies. This was a less obvious move than hiring new faculty and providing more money for graduate students. Some department members suggested that anything such an institute might do could be done within the existing framework of the department, and that an institute would simply add a layer of bureaucracy. But others countered that a new and separate institute would highlight the research activities of the department in a way the department’s existing structure could not. The mere announcement of the institute would create the sort of positive comment that influences perceptions in academia, and this comment would facilitate faculty hiring and attract even better graduate applications. In our early progress reports to the university administration, we would be able to point to the institute’s establishment as a mark of the good uses to which we were putting our new money.

This was no small issue. While increasing graduate student stipends could be accomplished at once, hiring senior faculty is a slow process, as anyone who has sat on senior search committees knows. The people we would be looking for are successful in their present places of employment. They are valued by their current employers, who won’t lightly let them depart. Previous senior searches had required as long as six years to complete, and although we hoped to accelerate the process, we couldn’t reasonably expect to hire more than one or two top faculty per year. In the meantime we had to do something constructive with the money earmarked for the several senior salaries.

After much investigation of institutes at other universities—Michigan, Ohio State, Rutgers, Southern California, Vanderbilt, to name five—the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas was launched to help solve these problems and to integrate a large and sometimes diffuse department into a more coherent intellectual community. The institute operates three main programs. The first brings external research fellows to UT for one or typically two semesters. The fellows—one senior fellow, one mid-level, and two junior—conduct research oriented around a biennial theme: “Global Borders” in the first iteration. The institute fully replaces the fellows’ home salaries and gives them free rein to pursue their research. Their time is their own, although they are asked to conduct one workshop each and to engage informally with the other fellows and the department faculty and graduate students. The payoff of the program to the fellows is the opportunity to concentrate on their research and to test their ideas on interested audiences. The payoff to the department is the chance to engage some of the best minds in the profession, to help our students begin to make connections that will benefit their careers, and perhaps to identify individuals we might like to hire.

The institute’s second program supports research leaves by our own faculty. Like many other public universities, UT has no regular sabbatical program. Internal research leaves are competitive and only modestly funded. The institute allows history faculty greater opportunities to set teaching aside for a semester or a year and devote full time to research.

The third program is a series of workshops and conferences conducted by the visiting fellows, by the internal fellows, and by invited scholars. These too relate to the biennial theme but in terms somewhat more broadly conceived. The primary conference this academic year, to be held in April 2009, will investigate “The Nation-State and the Transnational Environment.”

As the initial skeptics noted, all the above programs could have been directed through the existing structure of the department. Perhaps a new committee would have had to be formed, one or two faculty partially released from teaching to organize the activities, and some staff time reallocated. But none of this would have been particularly difficult.

A final activity, however, would have been harder to fold into the existing structure. From the beginning we decided that the new funding from the administration, substantial though it was, wouldn’t do all we needed to do if we wished to meet our mandate from President Powers. We would have to go out and raise money on our own. This is the irresistible trend in American higher education, even among public universities long accustomed to legislative appropriations as their primary source of support. State appropriations in Texas have fallen, as they have fallen elsewhere, and there is little reason to think they will revive. Our department hopes that the Institute for Historical Studies will provide a vehicle for raising money. Potential donors might be more inclined to underwrite a large part of a self-contained program than a small part of the work of the department as a whole, which most Texans still think the state is or should be funding. We anticipate soliciting endowments for the various institute programs, with naming rights as warranted (one department member even recommended, only partly in jest, that the institute could initially be dubbed the “Your Name Here Institute for Historical Studies”).

We have just commenced the first full year of the institute’s operation. The response to our efforts thus far gives us cause for great optimism. Jacqueline Jones, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow formerly of Brandeis University, has joined us as our first senior hire. The acceptance rate among our graduate applicants offered admission is the highest ever. The applications for our external fellowships were numerous and impressive. Workshops already conducted have been lively and thought provoking. Planning proceeds swiftly for the conference on nation-states and the international environment.

And the fundraising? We have had some encouraging successes so far and are pursuing promising leads for larger contributions. But we haven’t stopped telling potential contributors that the blank on the masthead has yet to be claimed.

—H. W. Brands is the Raymond Dickson, Alton C. Allen, and Dillon Anderson Centennial Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a member of the steering committee that helped to launch the Institute for Historical Studies.