t_h_s t_h_s t_h_s
ths ths



The President's Corner | Notes from a Decent University in the Midst of Program Review
Challenging the Irish American Consensus

January 2001 

Volume II, Number 2

by Eugene D. Genovese

00000As I indicated in my Presidential Address to our first national conference, unlike the great Willie Mays and a few other worthies, I know when it is time to go. I shall not deny having some twinges over giving up the vast power, prestige, and patronage of the presidency, which, unfortunately, never did include the draconian proconsular powers denied me by a squeamish Board of Governors. All in all, however, I welcome the reduced responsibilities and the chance to finish the book Betsey and I have been working on for more than twenty years.
00000My warmest congratulations to the Society on the choice of George Huppert as our new president. I had met George only in passing when he joined the Society, but I had read his learned and penetrating work with admiration. Never mind that he applauds historical figures I am not enamored with, and censures some of my favorites. His occasional lapse in judgment proves that, unlike his predecessor, he is not perfect. My admiration for the scholar turned into admiration for the man and leader as he demonstrated exceptional imagination, independence, good judgment, and efficiency as our Regional Coordinator in Chicago. I doubt that we could have picked a better colleague to lead us through the coming years of expansion and increasing influence. 
00000My eternal gratitude for the very many friends and colleagues who provided the support needed to get us launched. Apart from other considerations, I am grateful for the good humor with which they put up with my foibles, outrageous demands, and general irascibility. Here I must particularly mention Lou Ferleger, whom God, working through a tenacious search committee, gave us as Executive Director. I assume that he is a special blessing from God since I cannot think of any other explanation for the Society’s great good fortune. Protocol and propriety prevent my congratulating my wife for the Journal, which has proven a spectacular success, but I do congratulate Laura Crawley and the Editorial Committee for a job we can all be proud of.
00000I especially wish to thank those who joined our Board of Governors at the Society’s inception. Since we do not dissemble and have no spin-doctors on our small staff, it was lost on no one that the construction of the Board was, first and foremost, an advertisement of our professional, political, and ideological breadth. Some joined the Board despite commitments that made more than perfunctory participation impossible, others had limited time to offer; and only a few were in a position to devote a good deal of time. The willingness of all to help to promote the truly diverse quality of the Society may well have been the single most important ingredient in getting us launched. We owe all them all an enormous debt.
00000From what I know of the work that is being done by William Freehling and Robert Herzstein on the program for our third national conference in 2002, about which you will be reading in this issue of Historically Speaking, our profession is in for a treat. May I, however, take this opportunity to do some grumbling? Ever since we launched the Society we have received queries and complaints about our attitude toward independent scholars, public historians, secondary school teachers, and others outside the college-university loop. Repeatedly, we have declared our determination to include all of these groups in our work; repeatedly, we have invited the individuals and groups into question to make their wishes clear; repeatedly, we have received enthusiastic responses that have passed into foot-dragging. One more time: We welcome—indeed, need—the participation of all those interested in history, with or without a PhD or formal academic credentials of any kind. But we cannot include people who do not present themselves, and we do not have the resources to seek out people who hide their light under the proverbial bushel. May I ask that all who can contribute to our national program answer our Call for Papers and also get in touch with our regional coordinators to discuss participation in regional and local programs?
00000I have always hated long goodbyes. Besides, the only thing I am saying goodbye to is the presidency of the Society it has been my honor and privilege to serve. George Huppert has asked me to chair a committee on special projects, and to help with fund-raising. These tasks will keep me sufficiently active in the work of the Society—indeed, so active that I shall have little opportunity to do what ex-presidents too often do—meddle in the affairs of their successors and thereby ruin anything they themselves may have accomplished.
00000This, then, stands as my version of a short goodbye. I defy anyone to propose a shorter one and thereby create a hostile atmosphere and undermine my self-esteem. Be warned: The Historical Society does not tolerate bigotry, especially ageism, and properly defines such bigoted dissidence as a form of mental illness. Hence, every guilty party will be made to confess his/her/its mental ability and report to an assigned therapist for brain washing. I meant to say “sensitivity training.” 

Eugene Genovese was president of THS from 1998–2000.

by Deborah Symonds

00000Program review is to universities what downsizing is to corporations: a dark cloud of doom and foreboding called up by a sizeable deficit, that passes only when enough people have been fired to ensure black ink in a year or two. But there is one enormous difference. Corporate employees don’t have tenure; we do. That means that while corporate managers can do their cutting with laser-sharp precision, provosts and presidents of universities have to cut programs, which in many cases are identical with departments. 
00000In our university, the wise will suffer with the foolish, the underpaid with the overpaid, and so forth, as entire programs are identified for “further evaluation.” This matters to me, not because the history department is in any danger—it has come through quite well—but because I have to sit on two committees that have, and will, advise the administration on the direction the cuts should take. I don’t have to fire the gun, but I get to yell to the firing squad and point in various general directions—every day, for the next two weeks.
00000As time goes by, and this is a long, hot summer for me, the particulars of various programs—number of majors, hours of service teaching, cost effectiveness—matter less and less to me. Ultimately, the president will have to decide, and he gets paid to do things that I don’t want to do. The real question, it seems to me, is whether tenure has any future. Tenure supposedly protects us, and it has saved many a professor, I know. But right now, two miles away from me as I write this, tenure is costing people I care about, and people I don’t like at all, their jobs. The only way to eliminate tenured faculty is to discontinue the program in which they teach.
00000I know that our first criterion in reaching these decisions about programs is supposed to be essentiality. And I have thought long and hard about what may or may not be essential to a university, and to a student. I have tried thinking about this when I was a student. The only two things I come up with as absolutely essential are pizza and beer. I tend to believe that I was doomed to learn certain things, and I would have learned them in chemistry and French, if not in literary history, history, and graphic art. 
00000So, my job is to aid in the firing of my colleagues, although I am not supposed to think of it in those terms. I am saving the university, improving the quality of education, designing an educational experience fit for the twenty-first century student. But essentiality is of no use to me as a guide—we have lots of pizza and beer across the street. As for “quality of program,” and “quality of faculty,” I made up my mind about those years before the touching, trying, and flamboyant reviews were written up and sent to me a few months ago. That leaves me at cost effectiveness, which is probably precisely where corporate downsizers begin.
00000Cost effectiveness—to be read as financial survival—and tenure are at loggerheads, and tenure cannot hold out very much longer. I believe that I am in the last generation of scholars to have it, as well as to have expected to have it. And I don’t expect to have it very much longer. This isn’t based on any substantive discussion here, or even on rumors, but on my own speculation. Universities, which have to cut entire programs when faced with budget shortfalls, will often, I suspect, be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The innocent will suffer with the guilty; the excellent with the incompetent. The purpose of tenure will be defeated by the unintended effects of tenure mixed with economic necessity.
00000There are no alternatives for me or anyone else here, not right now. Tenure is in place, programs will have to go, and unless the administrators of the upper ether lose their nerve, the budget will balance again. I am increasingly interested in what comes after this fitful bloodbath, because the more I look into this, the clearer it is to me that some force bigger than an unforeseen deficit is at work here. 
00000First came the part-timers, the contract people who taught course by course for a few thousand and no benefits; then interdisciplinarity hit town, riding the wave of the various “studies” of the sixties and seventies. Let me note that this is pure reflection on my part. I have no statistics to back up these comments, just hours of gossip with other academics. Nonetheless, I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that in these new facets of academic life, administrators glimpsed the promised land, and it is called a flexible workforce. Five-year contracts, with interdisciplinary competence in case the five years proves too long for the interests of the student market, must look very tempting to administrators who have wrestled with budgets for years, knowing that their faculty will be with them until death.
00000But now I’m getting to the oddest part of my story: I don’t think I’ll miss tenure when it goes. While every tank has its dead fish, and tenure has always had its abuses, I’m getting very tired of watching the floaters I know best, across the country. Tenure has ceased to mean much to me because I have trouble connecting it to skill, or work, or accomplishment. It is, like so much in education these days, a political tool seized upon by the wary, if not the bright. From where I sit, facing my fiftieth birthday (just so you know which generation is complaining), I could gladly see tenure destroyed by the vicious, vibrant, capitalist corporate culture that is breathing down its neck as I type. And bear in mind that I’m a Marxist, longing for a little justice, and yes, efficiency.

Deborah Symonds is a professor of history at Drake University.

by Joseph Morrison Skelly

00000Historians working in the United States have frequently chronicled the achievements of foreign countries and the significant contributions their respective immigrant communities have made to American society. These books and articles are often well received by the national groups most closely associated with them. Irish Americans epitomize this trend. Their enthusiastic response to Thomas Cahill’s volume How the Irish Saved Civilization vaulted it straight to the top of the bestseller list (1). Conversely, scholars who pursue historical knowledge at odds with the predominant ethos of various ethnic groups may sometimes become their targets. I experienced this phenomenon firsthand last spring when the Irish Voice, one of the leading Irish American newspapers in the United States, tried to derail a paper that I was slated to deliver at an academic conference in New York defending Margaret Thatcher’s robust opposition to terrorism in Northern Ireland. The integrity of various university officials, the posture of judicious members of the academic community, and the equanimity of select Irish Americans, however, successfully counterbalanced the paper’s sustained campaign against me. This salutary outcome reaffirmed principles vital to historians and immigrant communities alike, including the urgency of academic freedom, the gravity of its concomitant responsibilities, and the imperative of American ethnic groups to engage honestly with their past.
00000In late March of last year, I was scheduled to participate in a major conference entitled “The Thatcher Years: The Rebirth of Liberty?” It was being hosted by Hofstra University, which is located just outside of New York City. I had submitted my paper proposal with very significant scholarly objectives in mind. It was essential, I thought, to evaluate Margaret Thatcher’s approach to terrorism with some retrospect, to learn from her successes and failures, especially in the context of persistent political violence in Northern Ireland and international terrorism further afield. Several interrelated themes also merited attention: President Ronald Reagan’s support for Thatcher’s objectives; their joint stand against an extremist Irish American minority who supported the IRA; and the complex relationship between the Irish American majority and Irish paramilitarism. Now, with regard to this last point, most Irish Americans are unquestionably law-abiding citizens unequivocally opposed to all forms of terrorism. It can be argued, nevertheless, that their support for the IRA’s ultimate aim of a united Ireland—vividly expressed at Saint Patrick’s Day parades by banners declaring “Brits Out”— unintentionally fosters a moral ambiguity that fuels its armed campaign. Against this background, I thus entitled my paper “Liberty, Democracy and Terror: Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s Principled Stand Against the Provisional IRA and Irish America.” 
00000Being aware that the name “Margaret Thatcher” is a neuralgic point for many Irish Americans, I expected that there might be some barbed questions from the audience after my lecture. I did not, however, anticipate the media outcry that preceded my presentation. Several weeks before the conference, the New York-based Irish Voice launched a preemptive barrage against the impending symposium and my own address based solely on the latter’s title, which had been gleaned from a conference program. The opening salvo was an issue containing three separate articles excoriating me for my audacity to cast Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to Irish terrorism in a positive light. The main attack was concentrated in an opinion piece written by the paper’s editor, Niall O’Dowd, called “Thatcher Conference an Insult to Irish Americans.” O’Dowd, one of the most visible supporters in the United States of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, opined that “it is hard not to feel utter outrage towards the organizers of the upcoming conference at Hofstra University on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.” He was particularly incensed by the title of my presentation, which he piously claimed was “a profound insult to Irish Americans at every level, as well as being a seriously misguided view of the role of Thatcher and Reagan in those years.” He added that for me to imply that “Thatcher was ‘principled’ in her dealings with Northern Ireland is like saying that Saddam Hussein was a man of principle when dealing with his internal opposition in Iraq (2).” 
00000Not content with this outburst, and too impatient to wait until he had heard all of my arguments, the evidence I had compiled, and the subtle points I wished to make, O’Dowd ratcheted up the pressure by printing the phone number of one of the conference organizers, Dr. Bernard Firestone, the Dean of Arts at Hofstra, along with the suggestion that “our readers call him (3).” For good measure, O’Dowd added my own phone number to the Internet version of his article. Over the next few weeks, several enraged readers of the Irish Voice, did phone Dr. Firestone and me, including one caller from as far away as Canada. Their tone was not pleasant. One irate Irish American sent an e-mail message to my college demanding that I be immediately dismissed. Likewise, in the same issue of the Irish Voice another reporter, Jack Flynn, encouraged his readers to confront me at the conference—anyone who defended “Thatcher’s disgraceful Northern Ireland policies should be vigorously rebuked and challenged for harboring such an opinion”—and predicted that I would receive “quite an earful” from the audience (4).
00000The Irish Voice sounded the same discordant key several weeks later. It advertised another lecture on Irish history that I was set to deliver just before the Thatcher symposium with an intemperate article repeating its claim that I “would most likely be facing a hostile crowd” at Hofstra and informing its readership that they could “get a sneak preview of [what] one can expect from Skelly” by attending this pre-conference talk (5). Elsewhere the article attempted to discredit me further by declaring that “it may be time to nominate Skelly as Unionism’s American rookie of the year”—a derogatory reference to the pro-British political philosophy shared by most Protestants in Northern Ireland.
00000On a much more positive note, the responses of various academic administrators, my colleagues in the historical profession, and other magnanimous Irish Americans did a great deal to counter the anti-intellectualism displayed by the Irish Voice. Hofstra University officials comported themselves in an exemplary fashion. Dean Firestone, quoted in one of the Irish Voice’s first articles, asserted, “we would hope that people would understand that this is an academic conference and that this is the opinion of [Professor Skelly]. We don’t censor the opinions that people may want to present (6).” Dr. Stanislao Pugliese, another conference organizer and a history professor at Hofstra, echoed these principles in the same column: “My philosophy is that, even if a person is controversial, a scholarly conference is the place for the discussion of such things (7).” And in a display of impartiality essential to the success of any academic symposium, Hofstra officials tapped just the right person to reply to my remarks: Congressman Peter King of Long Island, a public figure well known for his support for Sinn Fein. In retrospect, the actions of Dean Firestone, Professor Pugliese, and their colleagues at Hofstra constituted a model of academic integrity. They were neutral regarding the content of my paper, balanced in welcoming an opposing point of view, and unyielding in their defense of my right to present my own interpretation of the past.
00000Other administrators and historians equaled this high standard of professional conduct. Dr. Michael McGovern, the Vice President of Academic Affairs at the College of Mount Saint Vincent (where I teach) unequivocally assured me that my right to academic freedom remained sacrosanct: forces outside of the college did not threaten it. He also evinced concern for my personal safety. Dr. Eli Faber, a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, offered helpful guidance on how to disarm a hostile audience. Dr. John McCarthy, the director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University, provided invaluable support. His own work had set a laudable example: during the 1980s, he consistently challenged Irish Americans to broaden their horizons in a regular column in the Boston Irish News and, later, in a compelling book entitled Dissent From Irish America (8).
00000These counterpunches in defense of academic freedom proved effective, for the Irish Voice’s vaunted protest turned out to be a damp squib. It never materialized; no Irish Americans were waving placards when I arrived on campus. The audience was very respectful. Congressman Peter King rebutted everything I said, of course, while simultaneously defending the policies of Sinn Fein. Ironically, despite the Irish Voice’s claim that I would hear “quite an earful,” only Mr. King’s anti-Thatcherite interpretation of recent Irish history provoked critical questions from those in attendance. The audience actually showed more interest in the other papers on the panel, which discussed the Persian Gulf War and Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with George Bush.
Summing up this episode the following week, Jack Flynn of the Irish Voice grudgingly admitted that the reaction to my address was not what he had encouraged: “No one booed. No one protested. No one other than Peter King seriously challenged [Dr. Skelly’s] theories (9).” He even praised the civility I maintained during a post-conference interview: “Skelly should be given credit for doing his very best to politely answer all of this reporter’s questions.” He could not resist closing with one last parting shot, though: the tone of my address was “unmistakably Unionist, with all the half-truths and blatant distortions that come with the territory.”
00000Half-truths and distortions? Not at all. The parochial thinking behind this throw-a-way comment, and this entire episode, offer valuable lessons to scholars and ethnic groups alike. Historians, it must be said, are obligated neither to praise nor to condemn national communities in the United States. Their first responsibility is to investigate rigorously the available evidence at hand; their second is to follow an idea wherever it may lead, even when doing so challenges the comfortable consensus of American ethnic populations. These groups, for their part, are under no obligation to accept the findings of historians at face value. They must, however, eschew histrionics in favor of a candid debate about their historical experiences. Tension will inevitably arise between scholars and the people they study, but this intellectual force-field generates mutually beneficial consequences: it compels historians to hone their craft; encourages introspection among various ethnic groups; and over time, promotes their full participation in American society.
00000Mr. Flynn, for his part, concluded that this affair “was really much ado about nothing (10).” Hardly. Several weeks earlier Niall O’Dowd had bemoaned “we now have Irish Americans and a leading American university pandering to Thatcher over here (11).” This is not the language of Shakespeare. It is anti-intellectual rhetoric intended to shut down serious scholarly debate about the Irish past. It is anathema to the finest traditions of American civil society. And for those public spokesmen who may be tempted to echo such an ahistorical point of view, Shakespeare himself offers wise counsel: “Be not thy tongue thy own shame’s orator.”

Joseph Morrison Skelly is assistant professor of history and director of the Honors Program at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York. He is the author of Irish Diplomacy at the United Nations and coeditor of Ideas Matter: Essays in Honor of Conor Cruise O’Brien.

1 Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (Anchor, 1996).
2 All three quotations are taken from the Irish Voice, March 1–7, 2000, p. 14.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., p. 20.
5 Ibid., March 15–21, 2000, p. 28.
6 Ibid., March 1–7, 2000, p. 7.
7 Ibid.
8 John McCarthy, Dissent From Irish America (Lanham: University Press of America, 1993).
9 Irish Voice, March 29–April 4, 2000, p. 16.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., March 1–7, 2000, p. 14.

The Historical Society, 656 Beacon Street, Mezzanine, Boston, MA 02215 | Tele: (617) 358-0260, Fax: (617) 358-0250
                                                         © The Historical Society | web design by Randall J. Stephens | v. 10/26/05