Professional Division 2004

I can honestly say that when I was elected vice president of the Professional Division, I did not really know what I was about to take on. Although I had served once before on the PD and so thought I had a pretty good sense of its basic responsibilities, my tenure as vice president coincided with far more public discussions of professional misconduct among historians, so I found myself drawn into the resulting controversies that I frankly had not anticipated when I agreed to stand for election. The result was a very challenging three years of service that produced changes and initiatives that I honestly could not have foreseen at the outset.

During my earlier three years serving as a member of the Professional Division in the 1990s, I had been repeatedly struck by the seriousness of purpose and immense hard work that PD members and AHA staff brought to the task of hearing and adjudicating allegations of misconduct brought to the AHA under the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. At the same time, I repeatedly felt frustrated that so much labor seemed to produce so few visible consequences at the end of our deliberations, mainly because the AHA’s adjudication process had so few practical sanctions to offer when the PD issued a finding that misconduct had in fact occurred. I thus asked the PD (and then Council) to discuss whether there were ways the process could be made more effective and its sanctions more telling—for instance, by publicizing our heretofore confidential findings—or whether, in fact, the adjudication process involved greater opportunity costs for our limited institutional resources than its practical benefits merited. At the end of nearly 18 months discussing these questions, Council decided to end the AHA’s decade-and-a-half-long experiment with adjudication.

Although there was inevitably some controversy associated with this decision, and although I would just as happily have led an effort to reform adjudication to make its sanctions and public consequences more effective, I am satisfied that the AHA in general and the Professional Division in particular have been liberated to rethink our most effective interventions to support ethical conduct in the historical profession, not to mention a wide range of other professional concerns that extend far beyond ethical best practices. Although the decision to end adjudication might seem on the surface to be an essentially negative act, its consequences should be to create a series of opportunities for constructive interventions that were simply not possible when so much of the PD’s work was focused on the quasi-judicial function of hearing and deliberating over complaints.

Furthermore, I think we see at least some evidence that other players who possess greater capacity for intervening in cases of misconduct are beginning to step up to the plate to take on more proactive and effective roles now that they can no longer pretend to themselves that the AHA is doing this work for them. I believe we should do everything we can to encourage this broadening of collective responsibility for monitoring and sanctioning misconduct when it occurs.

Two critical agents whose interventions we should endorse and support in whatever ways we can are (1) journal editors whose book reviews and other publications are a critical vehicle for responsible scholarly and public discussion of misconduct like plagiarism; and (2) institutional employers who wield by far the greatest weapons for punishing misconduct when it occurs. We should do what we can to develop institutional guidelines for the work of such bodies so that they can be both more effective and more responsible in addressing misconduct.

At the same time, I think we need more discussion in the profession of what the appropriate punishment for different forms and degrees of misconduct ought to be. I sometimes think we naively act as if plagiarism is transparently a capital offense that should automatically yield the harshest possible sanctions; yet surely we ought to be able to recognize degrees of professional misconduct that merit different degrees of punishment. There has been surprisingly little discussion in our guild of this most basic question, and we might all benefit from engaging it more systematically. I also think that the recent public attention to plagiarism may actually have encouraged an increase in what I would call irresponsible allegations of plagiarism, in which one author asserts intellectual ownership over such broad concepts and ideas in the work of another that to endorse such claims would jeopardize the entire scholarly enterprise of building on each other’s findings as part of the profoundly collective enterprise in which all of us are engaged and to which all of us contribute. There are many important ideas that we all own together and that inhere in the primary sources on which all of us rely, and for any one of us to imagine that these belong uniquely to one of us alone is folly. It is as important for us to recognize what is not plagiarism as it is to recognize what is, and yet this too has received less attention and discussion than it deserves.

I think we made a good beginning during my tenure in imagining alternative roles for the PD. We drafted and Council approved a revised mission statement for the division, which stresses a broad series of PD contributions ranging from professional ethics to public history to the job market to membership recruitment to advocacy for women, minority groups, part-time and adjunct historians, and other groups meriting special attention by the AHA. I believe strongly that the PD should play a key leadership role in the AHA as an advocate for public history, and I believe we made a good start in that direction, immensely aided by the Task Force on Public History and especially its extraordinary chair, Linda Shopes. We produced the most comprehensive revision that the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct has received since its original drafting, making the document more graceful and coherent and, I hope, enabling it to become even more effective as the chief text on which our members and the public rely when faced with ethical dilemmas about the practice of history. We began to develop a series of new “Wise Counsel” documents to offer more informal guidance about a wide range of issues affecting the profession, and published a major statement on plagiarism; an illustrative demonstration of how to use parallel texts to document plagiarism; and a major new curriculum for training students about what plagiarism is and how and why they can and should avoid it.

None of this would have been possible without the hard work of several key people to whom I want to acknowledge a heartfelt debt of gratitude. These include the PD members with whom I was fortunate to serve: Jim Grossman, Peter Hoffer, Mary Lindemann, Maureen Nutting, Susan Stuard, Stefan Tanaka, and Denise Youngblood. I have already mentioned my debt to the Task Force on Public History and its chair, Linda Shopes. Because of the controversial decisions we eventually made to end adjudication, the stalwart support of the AHA Council was precious to me, and especially that of Lynn Hunt and Jim McPherson as the presidents most involved in this challenging decision. Roy Rosenzweig has been an especially important partner among the vice presidents with whom I’ve served. And finally, I cannot express how grateful I am to the AHA’s general counsel, Albert Beveridge III, and to AHA staff members Robert Townsend, Debbie Doyle, Miriam Hauss, and, most especially, Sharon Tune and Arnita Jones.

William J. Cronon (University of Wisconsin-Madison) was vice president of the Professional Division 2002–2005.