Publication Date

September 1, 1996

Editor's Note: This article, which first appeared in the May 1996 issue of the OAH Newsletter, is reprinted with permission from the Organization of American Historians. If there is sufficient interest in replicating the advocacy activities described in this article, the AHA may be willing to assist. Please contact Executive Office, AHA, 400 A St., SE, Washington, DC 20003, (202) 544-2422, to express interest.

Most members of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and the AHA are all too familiar with recent assaults on academic and public history programs. The Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum was essentially destroyed. A Library of Congress exhibit on plantation slavery was canceled while another on Freud was “postponed.” Six of Ohio’s eight history doctoral programs have been denied state funding and their futures jeopardized. State historical commissions have fallen under attack. The national history standards debate left us scarred. Perhaps most significant, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)-the major funding agency for historical research, publication, teaching, and exhibition-has been cut drastically and continues to be threatened with extinction. In the current culture wars, history has become a primary target, quite unlike the McCarthy period.

Other academic disciplines, with more federal dollars on the line, have organized. They have funded sophisticated lobbying efforts and have often been able to protect their interests in the current "budget balancing" climate. History has to depend only upon the piecemeal defensive actions of the OAH, the AHA, the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, and a few other poorly funded bodies. Few historians seem willing to pay the substantial dues increases that might support more far-reaching lobbying efforts. Our profession has not waged "the good fight" or even much of a fight at all.

There is a way to do more for professional advocacy with current and even somewhat diminished financial resources. We can allow the focus of actions to be within our own individual history departments, where the financial costs of advocacy are considerably less and where voluntary labor is relatively plentiful. In the difficult recent period, some history departments have taken stands on specific issues, and a few individuals have been quite active. For the most part, however, departments have focused on the traditional issues of course scheduling, teaching, promotion, hiring, and tenure but have done little to fight for the interests of our profession as a whole. Our proposal is to establish standing history advocacy committees in every department in the United States (and abroad wherever feasible) that are connected electronically through "e-mail" and "home pages" and similar vehicles. These standing committees can become the primary grassroots agencies to advance our professional interests. They can work to arrest the rapidly deteriorating state of the profession within the broader national political culture. Electoral changes in November might help us, to be sure, but probably not decidedly. Precious few politicians from either party in Congress or the White House have emerged as firm and understanding friends of history. In the long run, we will have to rely most on our own resources, which center in our departments.

During the summer of 1995 a few members of the history department at Indiana University at Bloomington began to think along these lines. At the start of the fall semester, our chair, James H. Madison, appointed an ad hoc advocacy committee consisting of five members (John Bodnar, Ann Carmichael, Ellen Dwyer, Lawrence Friedman [chair], and OAH executive director Arnita Jones). Our graduate student association selected a member (Daphne Cunningham) and alternates. Madison has become an ad hoc member. We have met for roughly an hour a month but have conducted "meetings" on electronic mail considerably more often. In November the history department voted unanimously to make us a permanent standing committee entitled to draw on department financial and other resources.

We have not felt overburdened by our activities during the 1995-96 academic year. We have not been taken away from our normal rounds of teaching, research, and service. Yet we have still achieved some notable goals. Early in the fall semester, when the future of the NEH seemed most in doubt, we circulated a memorandum to all Indiana University faculty urging them to write to their senators and representatives on behalf of NEH reauthorization legislation plus a decent funding level for that agency. We also wrote letters individually, placed telephone calls to Indiana congressional officials, and monitored crucial turns in Washington politics pertinent to the survival of the NEH. A few of us traveled to Washington at key times. The struggle to help the NEH survive and regain past funding levels shall obviously continue to command our attention in the year ahead.

We also have worked with the Indiana Association of Historians, the main professional association for historians statewide. Our department hosted its very exciting annual meeting this past winter, "The Politics of History," at which professional advocacy efforts came up in session after session. We have encouraged the Indiana Association to augment its advocacy efforts at the state and national levels, and we a participating in the broadening effort. The association's membership recently voted overwhelmingly for a modest dues increase—primarily for profession-wide advocacy.

In addition, our committee monitored the crisis at the Library of Congress concerning the decision to cancel an exhibit on slavery and to defer another on Sigmund Freud. When it looked like the "postponement" of the exhibit by the world's largest repository of Freud holdings meant "cancellation," we exchanged thoughts. The repression of material concerning the founder of the concept of psychological repression disturbed us greatly. We composed a letter to Librarian of Congress and historian James Billington on the need for openness and above-politics professionalism in all library exhibits. It received considerable attention in library governing councils. In February the associate librarian, Winston Tabb, wrote, thanking us for our letter and assuring us that the exhibit has been rescheduled for the fall of 1998 so that additional funds for “an outstanding exhibition” could be raised. Obviously, many other letters and telephone calls contributed to this result. Moreover, the decision-making process at the library requires continual monitoring. But even a temporary victory is gratifying these days.

Ann Carmichael has produced a wonderfully informative newsletter, History Tomorrow, on behalf of our committee draws heavily from Page Miller’s rich “Washington Update” electronic newsletter sponsored by the National Coordinating Committee, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, from other electronic and paper sources, and from news items prepared by other historians on campus. The intent is to keep Bloomington campus and the wider Indiana historical community aware of major threats and successes in our work to advance the interests of the profession

Our committee has also discussed history's interests in the wider Indiana University academic community, particularly from the standpoint of undergraduate teaching, enrollments, funding, and graduate student concerns. Efforts on the campus have been only preliminary, and a great deal of work remains to be done. Given the damage to Ohio when the state board of regents decided (with minimal warning) to halt funding to six history doctoral programs that it had financially "fattened" through its Academic Challenge Grant program, we opened conversations with historians across the border. We offered our assistance and good wishes. If this represented "benevolence," it was also a gesture for self-interest; we wanted to head off similar action by the Indiana Commission on Higher Education. Countless other tasks remain. Our committee has met with the executive committee of the OAH and with officials from the AHA to review our actions and to discuss coming battles.

To be sure, a history advocacy committee on the Bloomington campus has certain advantages. One is the presence of the OAH national office and the prodigious efforts of executive director Arnita Jones. From the start, she has supplied us with abundant data and wise advice. The flow of scholarly visitors to the Journal of American History and the American Historical Review has also augmented our efforts; so has strong cooperation from the editors of both journals. But the Bloomington history department, like most elsewhere, hardly has a tradition of advocacy, and local administrators have not been overwhelming in their show of support. Nor can the state of Indiana be considered unusually hospitable to historians’ interests. Its low tax-low appropriation traditions are deeply rooted in Hoosier political culture. If our particular history advocacy committee has decided advantages, it also has to contend with important liabilities.

Our committee developed without a dramatic expenditure of energy or money and (so far) without retribution. In retrospect, we could have been more effective. We felt uninformed, for example, about the Library of Congress exhibit on slavery and about the controversies on the Yale campus. We also felt that we knew too little about the proposal of New Jersey's governor to eliminate its very successful state historical commission. We did not feel that we knew very much about efforts at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere to eliminate faculty tenure, or about Stanley Kutler's long struggle to secure Nixon materials for our profession. We did not have good information about the teaching of history and the preparation of social studies teachers in our state's public schools. There were doubtless many other important matters that never even came to our attention, even with the specialized electronic "correspondence" networks in which committee members participated. We could have learned in areas where we were ignorant and taken action if we had established communications with other history departments. In turn, we might have told other departments about our efforts and elicited their support.

Given electronic mail, such an exchange is easy and inexpensive to accomplish, and the offices of both the OAH and the AHA are enthusiastic to facilitate the effort. Standing advocacy committees in history departments probably represent more durable and dependable agencies to institute this communication and cooperation than individual historians. By this time next year, we hope that dozens of these committees will be functioning and actively communicating with each other as our profession learns to fight effectively for its interests. We are willing to serve as an information clearinghouse to help facilitate this effort. Please feel free to contact us in order to share your experiences or to seek suggestions that might facilitate departmentally based efforts. Contact our committee chair, at History Dept., Ballantine Hall 742, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405; (812) 855-7581; fax (812) 855-3378; e-mail: Ijfriedm@Ucs.indiana.edu.

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