Published Date

March 5, 1974

From the Report of the AHA Committee on the Rights of Historians (1974)

Pursuant to a resolution adopted by the Business Meeting of the American Historical Association on December 29, 1970, the Council on January 23, 1971, authorized its Executive Committee to appoint a committee to investigate problems of academic freedom and “to draw up recommendations as to specific policies and practices the Association can consider for adoption.” Reports of the resolution of the Business Meeting and of the action of the Council are contained in the March 1971 Newsletter. The Executive Committee completed appointments to the Committee on the Rights of Historians in April 1971, and the members of the ad hoc Committee gathered for the first time on June 3, 1971, in Washington, D.C.

Since its initial meeting, the Committee has actively solicited information from historians who believe their rights have been violated. The Committee not only advertised in the Newsletter but wrote directly to a large number of historians who had come to its attention in one of several ways as people involved in situations in which a violation of rights allegedly had occurred. In this way, the Committee eventually received enough information on thirty-eight cases to permit an under-standing of the issues involved.

The Committee also formulated a questionnaire seeking information about existing practices in the profession and the opinions of members of the AHA about what criteria ought to be used in personnel decisions and other professional judgments in colleges and universities. Having sent the questionnaire to a 50 percent sample of the Association’s membership, the Committee received 2,200 responses.

The Committee also held an open session at the annual AHA meeting in 1971 in New York. There, members of a large audience commented upon their understanding of the meaning of academic freedom, their perceptions of the nature of the current threats to it, and their suggestions as to how the Association might take supportive action.

The Committee conducted most of its internal communications by mail, but after its first meeting, it met five times to deliberate: at the annual meeting in New York in December 1971, during the convention of the Organization of American Historians in Washington in April 1972, at the annual meeting in New Orleans in December 1972 when it also conducted a discussion with members of the Review Board, in Princeton in April 1973, and finally in Princeton in January 1974.

On the basis of the information we have gathered we have concluded that the sense of the resolution which called for the creation of the Committee was correct: there is cause for concern about the state of academic freedom in the profession. Despite the fact that there can be no sure knowledge of the absolute level of infringements on the rights of historians nor any firm basis for knowing whether the trend is up or down, there are many allegations of unfair treatment and there is ample evidence that a significant proportion of the profession perceives injustices being done.

The sources of the threats to academic freedom are multifold. Though historians view administrations and boards of governors with more suspicion in this regard than they view faculty groups, history departments them-selves are not immune from criticism. Similarly, the nature of the conflict giving rise to allegations of violations varies considerably, and we think we describe those conflicts in the sections that follow.

Remedies are more difficult to find than problems. The Committee was specifically charged with the task of evaluating “the need for an active program parallel to or supplementing that of the AAUP…before the AHA takes steps that would commit it to a complex and expensive operation that might in the event prove of limited value.” Accordingly, the Committee has tried to determine if there are cases of a type peculiar to historians and cases which are not covered by AAUP procedures; it has also given careful consideration to the problems of cost and of effectiveness. It has concluded that there are no ways in which the academic freedom of historians differs in principle from that of other scholars, though historians may have a more fundamental interest than many other scholars in nondiscriminatory access to archives and research materials. As far as the Committee could determine, there is only one area in which professional judgments are made which is not now covered by AAUP machinery for redress of grievances: initial appointments.

The AHA is already doing several things that have a positive effect on academic freedom. When historians with academic freedom problems con-tact the national office of the AHA they are given informal advice and guided to the AAUP or some other appropriate agency. When institutions or other groups ask the AHA national office to assist in locating appropriate historians to serve as consultants in some capacity, the national office usually tries to be of assistance. These functions are very useful but do not go far enough in trying to meet the need.

The Committee considered and rejected several undertakings which it judged too ambitious for the AHA. These included the appointment of an AHA ombudsman; assessing AHA members or raising donations for a fund to support historians in their attempts to defend themselves against violations of their rights; and the appointment of a standing committee of the AHA to concern itself with problems of academic freedom. Because of the expense, the availability of AAUP services, the difficulties of securing evidence, and the uncertainty of achieving significant results, the Committee decided against recommending the establishment by the AHA of elaborate, permanent machinery.

The Committee strongly believes, however, that the Association should increase its activities in support of academic freedom. Most important, the Committee has become convinced that considerable confusion and lack of understanding exist throughout the profession about the meaning of academic freedom and about the rights and responsibilities of historians as scholars and teachers. The Committee has therefore drafted a statement of standards designed to supplement and complement those of the AAUP. It is included below in the “Statement of Professional Standards” and is recommended for adoption by the AHA in the normal manner.

The Committee believes that such a statement, if adopted, would deter violations of academic freedom by increasing the profession’s level of awareness of the rights and duties of a historian and by clarifying the principles which ought to guide professional conduct. The statement serves also to stress the importance to the achievement of a climate in which academic freedom flourishes of regular and fair procedures of governance. Furthermore, should a dispute arise, the existence of a formal set of principles which are widely accepted should make it easier for the parties to the dispute to discuss and reach agreement on their differences.

In addition, the Committee makes the following six recommendations which it hopes the Council will put into operation as soon as possible.

  1. The executive director should designate a person in the national office, part of whose duties would be to counsel members of the profession who seek advice about their rights, to provide mediating services when such action seems appropriate, to refer complainants to other agencies for assistance, to keep under observation the state of academic freedom in the profession and to report periodically to the Council.
  2. The AHA professional division should be prepared to investigate and recommend action to the Council in cases involving equal access to research materials in the possession of governmental agencies and to scholarly rights, privileges, and opportunities provided by these agencies.
  3. The AHA should provide assistance, upon request, in identifying scholars able to render judgments on the published scholarship of individuals.
  4. The AHA should provide assistance, upon request, in identifying scholars able to visit institutions and render advice on programs, governance, or other problems.
  5. The AHA should encourage departments to provide orientation to their graduate students in the principles of academic freedom and tenure, and professional ethics and responsibilities.
  6. The AHA should at the annual meeting conduct sessions dealing with academic freedom and tenure, and professional ethics and responsibilities and use the AHA Newsletter to inform its membership about these concerns.

Next section: Analysis of the Questionnaire