Last week’s entry on Drew Erdmann ’88 and the History Department at Williams drew some interesting commentary, some of it quite ill-informed. Jeff Zeeman claimed that:

It’s interesting you mention KC Johnson, because he is an example of how Williams does it right: despite being a white male in a cannon field, he WAS (deservedly, based on what I heard of both teaching and scholarship) offered tenure, which he turned down to go to a research university in an urban environment — CUNY.

I knew enough about the history of the History Department at Williams to know that this was delusional, and not just because few if any serious academics would put “CUNY” and “research university” into the same sentence. But rather than pass on my usual mishmash of hearsay and rumors, I asked Professor KC Johnson for the real story. He wrote:

As you probably know, untenured faculty at Williams are reviewed in their third year for reappointment and then in their sixth year for tenure. I was reappointed, but my reappointment report faulted my scholarship for stressing the “politics of procedure” rather than the “politics of meaning.” At that point, my second book, a biography of former Alaska senator Ernest Gruening, was just about to be published, and I was beginning research for a book that will be published in a couple of weeks on Congress and the Cold War.

The “politics of procedure” comment essentially dismissed my scholarly accomplishments. I’m a historian of Congress, and all of my books have argued to some extent that understanding institutional and procedural history is critical to comprehending how the federal government approached foreign affairs in the 20th century. I could not have addressed the reappointment report’s criticism without fundamentally changing both my approach to history and the types of topics that I studied.

After I decided to leave Williams, I learned that the report had been primarily written by a department member who’s no longer at Williams, who was hostile to political and diplomatic history as subfields; and that the dean of faculty had in vain encouraged her to rewrite the report. In retropsect, there are a number of things I would have done differently had I known this at the time, but that’s water under the bridge.

As it was, after receiving the report I decided to go on the market and soon obtained an offer from Brooklyn. The BC department and administration expressed strong support for including political, diplomatic, and constitutional history–my three subfields–as part of an intellectually balanced History Department. I accepted the offer on the spot, even though the teaching load at BC is two courses heavier than Williams and the financial support for research is non-existent. (Within a year of my arrival, alas, the college had a new president and provost, and the former dept. chair who had strongly supported my hire had retired, creating a wholly new, and unwelcome, intellectual environment on campus.) When I informed the then-Williams chair (Dennis Dickerson) and dean of faculty (David Smith) of my decision, they were distressed; both said they would personally support my tenure if I remained. But I had already accepted the BC offer, and could not go back on my word. There was no firm offer of tenure from Williams–nor could there have been, procedurally — but I was given a much more positive message than in the reappointment report (unfortunately, too late).

I admit that I was naive about the state of the academy when I left Williams; I now recognize that the dismissal of American political and diplomatic history contained in the reappointment report reflected a broad national trend to exclude from History Departments pedagogical approaches (incorrectly) perceived as “traditional” or as focusing on “dead white men.” To give a typical example: The 21 scholars of U.S. history at UCLA include no historians of foreign relations, no legal historians, and no military historians. The history department’s two professors who describe their interests as political history confine their research to questions of class and gender. This fall, UCLA advertised for a tenure-track position in modern American history. The department made no pretense of seeking curricular balance, and instead asked for more of the same: a specialist in cultural, environmental, or labor history. I understand that at Williams, the History Department replaced me not with another historian of US political institutions or foreign relations but with a specialist on the American West. The college is fortunate that it has James McAllister on staff in polisci, who is first-rate in international relations; but, of course, political science and history are not the same discipline, and courses in the two fields provide students with differing experiences.

For what is quite possibly the finest liberal arts college in the country, such a staffing strategy is deeply unfortunate. Pedagogical and methodological diversity should represent the default setting of the discipline of History. Instead, there seems to have been a narrowing of the discipline’s scope. More important, I like to think of a basic Williams institutional mission as educating the next generation of the nation’s leaders — both in the professions and in public service. But how can a college claim to train a future democratic citizenry if its students don’t even have the opportunity to take courses from a specialist in the history of our political institutions and our interaction with the wider world?

How, indeed?

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