Publication Date

November 1, 1993

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities, From the Professional Division

In the past decade, the AHA has assumed a responsibility it had not customarily exercised during the first century of its existence. Although it was chartered by Congress in 1889 to act "in the interest of American history, and of history in America," this charge was not interpreted to include the consideration of professional ethics and obligations until the Association published its first "Statement of Professional Standards" in 1974. The work of a committee chaired by Sheldon Hackney, then provost at Princeton and now chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), this document focused more on rights than on duties, but did include a brief statement underlining the necessity for integrity in research. The "Hackney Report," however, advised against any AHA effort to enforce the articulated standards, noting simply that dishonesty "should stand to the professional discredit of a historian." The committee warned of "the expense, … the difficulties of securing evidence, and the uncertainty of achieving significant results."

A rise in concern about proliferating instances of plagiarism over the next decade convinced the AHA to ignore the Hackney Report's warnings and to begin in the mid-1980s to take an increasingly active role in the definition and identification of dishonesty in research as well as of other unethical professional conduct. In 1984, in consultation with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and other organizations in the humanities and social sciences, the Professional Division of the Association began to develop a new statement on plagiarism which resulted by 1987 in the adoption of the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct with its “Addendum on Policies and Procedures.” Under the provisions of these documents, the Professional Division has since that time reviewed thirty-two cases of alleged unprofessional conduct incorporating a wide range of behaviors in addition to plagiarism, such as sexual harassment, age discrimination, unfair hiring and promotion practices, and falsification of credentials. The division has found evidence of misconduct in only seventeen of the thirty-two cases.

When I became AHA Vice President for the Professional Division in December 1992, it quickly became clear to me that a crisis was at hand. At first I was bewildered when I was greeted by AHA insiders with heartfelt condolences instead of congratulations on my election. But it took only a few months to understand why. The current operations of the Professional Division seem to please almost no one. With incomplete understanding of our intentions, our resources, and our constraints, critics accuse us of doing either too little or too much—and usually both at the same time.

I would like to try to outline the logic of the existing system, then explore some of the problems with such arrangements. I hope that this discussion will serve as a means of generating wider debate within the Association about its role in defining and upholding professional standards. Only such a comprehensive consideration can provide the foundation for what I have in less than a year come to see as a rather urgent need for reform of the Association's procedures in this realm. I have been almost convinced by the critics that the Association does indeed have to decide that it will do a great deal more—and provide the resources to make that possible—or, conversely, do less. Questions of scholarly ethics, of course, reach well beyond the historical profession, and part of the resolution of our dilemmas may rest outside the AHA, in cooperation with other humanities and social science organizations, with the AAUP, or perhaps with federal agencies like NEH, fortuitously headed now by the author of the AHA's first statement on these issues. But first we must better understand the problems with our existing arrangements.

When a complaint is submitted to the AHA, it is processed without prior judgement of probable merit. Processing involves communicating the entire complaint, including all evidence, to the other side along with a request for written response within ninety days. Once that response is received or after the lapse of ninety days without response, the case file is forwarded to the Professional Division for review. The division is an elected body, comprised of the vice president (chair), a Council representative, and three members. Neither the division nor the staff meets with the parties involved, submits questions to them, or investigates in any way. At either its fall or spring meeting, the division simply reviews the accumulated documentation (often voluminous—sixteen boxes in one recent case) given to it by both sides, discusses the case, and agrees upon a finding, which it directs staff to send to both parties in a letter. The Professional Division has the right to request that the AHA Council make public its finding, but, to this point, no such disclosure has occurred. No sanctions or punishments are ever imposed by the division; its job is to evaluate actions and situations described in submitted materials in order to determine if in its judgement, they violate the standards articulated in the AHA's published guidelines.

Almost every aspect of these procedures has been subject to attack in my nine short months as vice president. One accused party protested that we should have thrown out his case before reviewing it; another argued he was not a member of the AHA and therefore not subject to our oversight; one individual threatened to retaliate by bringing plagiarism charges against the AHA Council and all the members of the Professional Division if we did not abandon a particular case. Yet another respondent threatened to sue the AHA for defamation of character, and a fully exonerated defendant complained we had made unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of his university. Several individuals have attacked us for not undertaking extensive independent investigations of allegations; numerous others have chastised us for not having the courage to go public with our findings and thus make a powerful statement about scholarly integrity. What are we to make of these criticisms?

We must remember at the outset that the Professional Division is made up of five individuals elected for overlapping three-year terms. They have no legal training; they are not AHA employees but committee members who travel from points all over the country twice a year for a two-day meeting in Washington. They read more than a thousand pages of documentation in preparation for each of these meetings, but they have neither the time nor the expertise to undertake full investigations of each case. Nor, of course, is that their charge. The membership of the AHA needs to consider whether, as critics have alleged, due process is violated by the sorts of procedures now in force. If so, if fuller engagement by the AHA's evaluating body is necessary, we need to restructure our handling of these cases. Perhaps we need a jury system, with AHA members selected from a pool to serve on no more than one case every decade or so. Or perhaps we need to take advantage of those of our members who also have legal degrees to serve in this capacity.

What of the constraints upon public disclosure that have been so resoundingly attacked by many of our most distinguished colleagues? My personal sympathies are very much with these individuals, but I also understand—more clearly now than I did in December—why the AHA has not taken this step. If we define our role as coming to a "finding" rather than imposing sanctions, we are disingenuous if we do not recognize that public disclosure is a serious sanction. Do we wish to reconsider our commitment and move towards imposing sanctions of this or other sorts? If so, we must certainly be convinced fully that our procedures guarantee due process and every possibility for fairness in our deliberations. Does this again suggest the need for more legal involvement in our efforts? The AHA must decide what is the right thing to do, but it must for reasons of institutional survival necessarily consider the cost of such a path. If we establish procedures that require extensive legal consultation and expertise, or if we open the AHA or its leadership to the possibility of lawsuits, we must consider how the funds for such efforts and contingencies will be provided. Would we be willing to raise dues or forego other initiatives in order to be more active in enforcing professional standards?

Nearly as loud as the voices who accuse us of cowardice in failing to publicize our findings are those who insist the AHA should not be in this business at all. The Modern Language Association, they point out, has a statement of professional conduct but does nothing to enforce it. This would be a wise choice for the AHA, they argue; let other bodies—the courts, individual universities, the AAUP—resolve these conflicts. Are there other adequate avenues of redress? Are we simply superfluous? I don't think so. Plagiarism as we understand it is not legally actionable, except when it involves violation of copyright; it is a professional rather than a legal matter; the courts would not enforce what we would agree upon as our shared standards. What about individual universities? Many of the cases we see come to us because they transcend the walls—and jurisdictions—of a single institution. A recent sexual harassment case, for example, involved individuals from different institutions. AAUP has a broader institutional jurisdiction, but it is extremely selective in the cases that it will review and tends to focus only on those that address issues of academic freedom, rather than the broader ethical concerns covered in the AHA's statement. But even if we determine that others are not enforcing adequate standards, does that mean we should or must do it? I am eager to hear the views and the debate of our membership, but at this point, I believe that if we cannot do more—put what I see as adequate resources into this increasingly demanding task or somehow share it with other organizations—we should indeed do less. It is too important a commitment not to be undertaken with the utmost care and attention, and it is an effort that requires the fullest support and understanding of the membership—a situation that clearly does not describe our current circumstances.

The Professional Division, and I as vice president, are the elected servants of the membership. We cannot fulfill our obligations to you and to the profession when our charge from you is so unclear. The issues we seek to address are among the most important for all historians, involving our fundamental values and affecting individual reputations and lives. I hope that the membership will join the division and the Council in a reconsideration of the role and the objectives of the AHA in the definition and enforcement of professional standards. Please write to me at the AHA headquarters and tell me what you think about the questions I have raised. We are eager to hear from you.

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