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From the AHA Activities column of the September 2003 Perspectives

A Watershed for the Professional Division

William J. Cronon, September 2003

The past year has marked a major turning point for the AHA Professional Division. Created in 1974 with the mandate to oversee all matters pertaining to employment and good practice in the profession of history, the division has long paid special attention to ethical norms and misconduct among historians. This continues to be true, but we are changing our approach to these vital concerns in ways that we hope will enable the AHA to address them more effectively, with greater impact both inside and outside the profession.

One of the division's most important creations is the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, which we regularly revise (subject always to the final approval of the AHA Council) to respond to new concerns about historical practice. Especially during the past two or three years, when public controversy about misconduct among historians has reached unprecedented levels, we've regularly seen how important the Statement on Standards has become as a collective expression of what our profession regards as good and appropriate practice among its members. We have seen the Statement repeatedly cited in discussions of misconduct, and relied upon by institutions seeking guidance about how to address questions of misconduct. Members of the Professional Division believe that the AHA should considerably expand this role of the Statement in helping historians, their employers, other institutions, and members of the public better understand the norms of our profession.

To give just a couple of examples of how the Statement evolves to address new concerns, the division proposed, and the Council approved, 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 publications. 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. Our hope is that the new section on credentials will help protect colleagues who might find themselves in similar situations in the future, by clarifying what should and should not count as a "publication" 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 should have to be adjudicated by the Professional Division before they can appear in print. The effect of such a requirement would be to delay significantly any public discussion of a plagiarized publication, since the division's complaint process has always been confidential (and has invariably taken many months to complete). Members of the division concluded that AHR (and other journals as well) should be free to publish charges of plagiarism if 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 immediate 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 and the AHA Council have discussed since I took office in January 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 last year. AHA staff and the Professional Division also responded to dozens of informal inquiries relating to various forms of professional misconduct. Processing such queries and adjudicating a very small percentage of them as formal complaints has since the early 1990s become the single most time-consuming function of the Professional Division. Although adjudication did not quite crowd out all other activities, it consumed so many hours and staff resources that it discouraged the division from attending to other functions that were arguably at least as important and pressing. Its opportunity cost was very high, especially when considered in light of its minimal public impact.

After a year of reviewing its own past practice, the Professional Division concluded that there was enough doubt about the efficacy of our adjudicative process that we should seek guidance from the AHA Council about whether to continue. 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 the AHA's primary response to professional misconduct. Then, at its May, 2003 meeting, the Council ratified its earlier decision by ending the practice of adjudication as it has been conducted by the Professional Division for the past decade and a half. As a result, the AHA will no longer conduct confidential adjudications of formal complaints about professional misconduct. Instead, we will redirect the efforts of the Professional Division toward activities likely to have greater public impact.

Many colleagues were undoubtedly surprised that the AHA would end adjudication at a time when concern about misconduct among historians both inside and outside the profession has never been greater. It is important for everyone to understand that we took this step not because we believe the AHA should stop addressing problems of professional misconduct. Quite the contrary. We believe that our past efforts in this realm have not had sufficient impact either on the individuals involved in cases of misconduct, or on the profession as a whole, or on the wider public. 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 surprisingly paradoxical consequences that few could have anticipated when adjudication was first adopted in the late 1980s:

  • Because AHA adjudication 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 obvious cases of 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 AHA felt constrained from commenting publicly about professional misconduct that might come before the Professional Division as formal complaints. The AHA's own procedures left it almost silent in criticizing such behavior even when it was so much in the public eye.

  • Because our procedures were so complicated, because they had so few real consequences, and because they required parties to a given complaint to make no public statements while adjudication was proceeding, they were singularly ill-suited to the highly visible cases that have proven so controversial in recent years, thereby rendering the AHA almost irrelevant at precisely the time when its intervention might have been most helpful.

I will have much more to report in future columns 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. As we've noted in a sidebar, we are embarking on an extensive revision of the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, and urge all colleagues to share thoughts and suggestions with us about how that document might be improved. We are developing new resources for the AHA web site and other publications offering guidance about plagiarism and how to deal with it when it arises. We will be developing curricula for use in graduate seminars, undergrad classrooms, and high school history courses on why plagiarism 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.

The Professional Division pursued several other initiatives during 2002. We proposed and the AHA Council approved a new Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award 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 on "The Job Hunt" which proved so successful that we will repeat it at the 2004 meeting.

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 will never know about. Albert Beveridge, 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. We are all immensely in their debt, to a degree that members of the profession will never fully appreciate. 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 Cronon (University of Wisconsin-Madison), is vice president of the AHA's Professional Division, 2002–2004.