Publication Date

February 1, 1996

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

The major accomplishment of the Professional Division in 1995 has been the revision of its policies and procedures for evaluating complaints about standards of professional conduct. When I became vice president three years ago, the division was embroiled in controversy and criticism concerning its processes for handling charges of plagiarism brought for its adjudication. At the same time, the volume of cases concerning all forms of professional misconduct was growing at a pace that threatened to become overwhelming. Accused by some of doing too little and others of attempting too much, the division undertook a reassessment of its responsibilities in regard to the enforcement of professional standards, seeking advice from AHA members at large and exploring in its own deliberations what its appropriate role might be. The new Addendum of Policies and Procedures, adopted by Council in May 1995 and included on pages eight through ten of the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct (available upon request from the AHA office), is the result of that discussion and scrutiny.

The fundamental principle underlying these revisions is the belief that the AHA should play a significant role in establishing and evaluating standards of professional conduct, but that it must be careful not to exceed its resources and capabilities. In practice, this commitment implied certain policies for the Professional Division. First, it became clear to us that the AHA has neither the time nor the money to undertake extensive investigation of charges brought before it. We were not going to be able to send interviewers into the field, to interrogate numbers of witnesses, to duplicate the thoroughness of the adversarial processes of a court of law. This recognition led us to conclude that we were far better suited to handling some sorts of cases than others, and that we must restrict our involvement to those instances where in our judgment we could make a positive contribution. The revised Policies and Procedures thus establish a process of preliminary screening, in which the division evaluates the nature of a case before agreeing to pursue it.

What is the likely outcome of this innovation? What will be its substantive impact? What kinds of cases are going to pass this screening? Which standards of professional conduct is the division likely to enforce most actively? We recognized that we are particularly well equipped to deal with charges of plagiarism, for these involve evaluation of documents—a job suited to our skills as historians and one that can usually be accomplished without the expense of plane fares and per diems to bring individuals together for testimony and cross-examination. We also recognized that plagiarism is often not adequately dealt with by colleges and universities or by courts of law. We thus expect the division to continue to play an especially active role in upholding standards of intellectual integrity. But we also believe its new procedures will yield cases in a number of other areas when the division has the evidentiary basis for evaluating a complaint and where other venues are not available to complainants. Thus, for example, we anticipate that cases involving employment discrimination, professional misconduct, and sexual and racial harassment will continue to appear on the division's agenda. I direct your attention to the summary in the Statement on Standards of the principles that will guide the division's acceptance of a case, "The Professional Division will base its decision on its judgment of the division's capacity to handle the matter in light of its resources and competence; the seriousness of the complaint; the degree to which the complaint alleges specific violations of the AHA Statement on Standards; the likelihood that the AHA will be able to make a positive contribution to resolving the problem; and the availability of a more suitable forum, such as a university grievance procedure or the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)."

Two other matters besides the number and the substance of cases particularly concerned us as we undertook our revisions. One was the vexed question of sanctions. Critics of the AHA's handling of plagiarism complaints believed that the Association was not acting with sufficient harshness once it had reached a decision that misconduct had occurred. The AHA has, in fact, very limited options in this regard. We obviously cannot imprison the guilty, impose fines or assess damages; we are not even a licensing body that can withdraw historians' right to practice by denying them membership in our organization. Our only serious sanction is to make our judgments public. Critics have charged that the Association should be more willing to resort to public disclosure, but we must recognize the costs that accompany such a decision. Public disclosure exposes the Association to dramatically increased risks of legal action by the accused; it thus requires a more elaborate set of evaluative procedures, in particular, a mechanism for appeal. Under the old procedures, Council bore responsibility for considering appeals and based its decisions solely on the written record of the case. We have now established a more extensive—and we think both more just and more legally defensible—appeal process that includes the possibility of a hearing for the accused. We hope that these additions answer the concerns of critics who felt there was no adequate way to challenge errors in the division's findings or misjudgments in its decisions about sanctions. In addition, we believe that these protections for both the AHA and the accused will embolden Council and the Professional Division when they judge that public disclosure is warranted, but we expect these instances to be very rare. It is the fervent hope of those who have been involved in these revisions that they will enable the AHA to uphold standards of professional conduct in a just and efficient manner, ensuring fairness both to accusers and accused and promoting the integrity of the historical profession as a whole.

If these changes are truly successful, they will quiet controversy and render the enforcement of professional standards a routine part of the Professional Division's business rather than the almost overwhelming task it seemed in 1992.* This goal is especially important because it has become clear in the past year that the division needs to direct its attention to new sorts of questions, to the challenges historians—and academics more generally—face in the political and economic climate of the last years of the 20th century. Historians' opportunities for employment, their access to research support and materials and to publication, and their rights to free expression have all come under recent assault. Some institutions have begun to eliminate tenure, and almost all colleges and universities are multiplying the numbers of part-time and non-tenure-track instructors. If one part of the job of the Professional Division is to insist upon historians' responsibilities for high standards of professional conduct, a second dimension of the Professional Division's mission is to defend historians' rights and privileges as professionals. I expect that in the months to come, the division will increasingly occupy itself with such questions. We have already undertaken a number of initiatives that reflect these concerns. In conjunction with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the AAUP, the AHA is sponsoring a preliminary planning conference in spring 1996 to discuss strategies for dealing with the explosion in part-time and adjunct appointments. Increasingly we see our concerns as shared with academics more generally, and thus we are seeking new ways of cooperating with other professional and scholarly organizations. The Professional Division's growing involvement in larger public policy issues suggests that it will be working ever more closely with Page Miller and the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History in defense of historians' interests in Washington.

At the 1996 AHA annual meeting in Atlanta, the Professional Division sponsored two sessions. One was our by-now traditional interviewing session for graduate students, which continues to attract scores of eager participants each year and is designed to provide the most practical assistance imaginable to those confronting a difficult job market. A second session addressed family leave policies, an important question for those trying to manage child rearing and demanding professional lives.

It has been a great privilege to serve as vice president for the Professional Division for the past three years, and I must express my gratitude to all those who made the effort so educational—even, I confess, enjoyable. Sharon Tune, who now staffs the division, is a model of good humor, organization, and efficiency; Sandy Freitag has been especially helpful in encouraging us to look at the big questions awaiting the profession in the 21st century; and AHA Presidents Louise Tilly (New School for Social Research), John Coatsworth (Harvard Univ.), Tom Holt (Univ. of Chicago), and Caroline Bynum (Columbia Univ.) have been unfailingly supportive. Claire Moses (Univ. of Maryland) and Betsy Perry (Occidental Coll. and Univ. of California at Los Angeles) are division members who rotate off with me this year; I know they will be sorely missed, and I am glad to have had their company and counsel through this three-year journey. Betsy should get special credit for her unceasing concern about the issues confronting non-tenure-track faculty—part-time faculty, adjuncts, and independent scholars. She is the force behind the conference proposed for the spring. Reid Andrews, who remains to complete his term on the division, has approached issues with extraordinary thoroughness and wisdom; his devotion to the AHA has even included taking a bus rather than an airplane from Pittsburgh to Washington to save the Association money. Thanks too to William Cronon whose valuable insights were evident even in his first Professional Division meeting last fall. I owe my deepest gratitude to two individuals: Jim Gardner, who indoctrinated me into the job and carried a significant share of the burden for most of my term, and Albert Beveridge, who should receive much of the credit for the revisions in the Policies and Procedures. His arrival on the scene as legal counsel of the Association at approximately the same time as my accession to the vice presidency brought a voice of calm and wisdom to the atmosphere of contention and controversy that had surrounded the division. I want to express my particular admiration for his ability to facilitate and educate rather than ever intrude or direct. The Professional Division and the Association as a whole are much in his debt. Finally, I would like to thank the members of the Association who gave me this opportunity for service and who have offered their support in countless ways during these exciting and demanding years.


* It has become customary in these annual reports for the Professional Division to enumerate its cases during the preceding year. The caseload for 1995 reflects the slowdown that was evident in 1994 as well. The rise in the number of informal complaints might be seen as a kind of informal preliminary screening process that has preceded the formal adoption of the new policies. The division dealt with four cases this year: one each of misuse of evidence, plagiarism, scholarly access, and professional misconduct. We also received 11 informal complaints: one each relating to academic freedom, plagiarism, scholarly access, and unfair treatment by a journal; two each related to misuse of sources and tenure and promotion; and three related to unfair employment practices. There are also five cases currently in process, awaiting preliminary screening.

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