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Sit in My Chair

Sit in My Chair

December 4, 2006

Six weeks ago, President Ronald D. Liebowitz of Middlebury College announced the establishment of a William H. Rehnquist Chair in American History and Culture. The announcement stirred considerable controversy on the campus. Some students and faculty members claimed that honoring the late Chief Justice Rehnquist by naming an endowed chair for him was an act of "symbolic violence" that betrayed the college's commitment to diversity.

Endowed chairs have a long tradition in Anglo-American higher education. In England, they go back to 1502, when Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, established the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. In America, they predate the Revolution, going back to 1721, when the Hollis Professorship of Divinity was established at Harvard University. But this has been an unusually troubled year for endowed chairs in American higher education.

The collapse of Enron several years ago, followed by the conviction on conspiracy and securities fraud charges, and the death in July of Enron's chief executive officer, Kenneth L. Lay, set four institutions to reviewing named chairs. At the University of   Nebraska, Omaha, Mark Wohar was the "Distinguished Enron Professor of Economics" until July, when he became the "Distinguished UNO CBA Professor of Economics." That's Distinguished University of Nebraska, Omaha, College of Business Administration Professor of Economics. Since it was endowed in 1999, the University of Missouri at Columbia, has tried to fill the Kenneth L. Lay Chair in Economics. During that time, three candidates declined the university's offer of the chair, which is said to pay between $150,000 and $200,000 annually. The university resisted Lay's requests that it redirect his gift of $1 million in Enron stock, which it had sold before the corporate collapse, either to Katrina relief or his own legal defense.

Despite calls for a redefinition of the purpose of the endowed fund, indications are that the search to fill the chair continues this fall when several guest lecturers are being considered for offers. What it will be named remains to be seen. At the University of Houston, Bent Sorensen is the Lay Professor of Economics, but Keith T. Poole, who was the Kenneth L. Lay Professor of Political Science, has left for the University of California at San Diego. At neighboring Rice University, Simon Grant holds the Lay Family Chair in Economics, but plans for two Enron chairs in Rice's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management and a Ken Lay Center for the Study of Markets in Transition collapsed when the corporation went into bankruptcy.

The controversy at Middlebury is one of several recent echoes of the culture wars, closely monitored by higher education's critics, left and right. If naming Middlebury's new chair for Rehnquist is controversial, the Enron/Lay chairs and other endowed chairs elsewhere might be more obvious targets of criticism. There has been a "Richard M. Nixon Chair in Public Policy" at his alma mater, California's Whittier College, since the 1970s. According to the college catalogue, it honors a "distinguished public servant." The Nixon chair has never been more than a one year, visiting appointment and, in more recent years, its endowment has subsidized guest lecturers.

At Southern institutions, schools and endowed chairs memorialize many defenders of the old order. The Harry F. Byrd School of Business at Virginia's Shenandoah University is named for the Old Dominion's architect of massive resistance. The name of his distant cousin, Senator Robert C. Byrd, the former Ku Klux Klan member and porkmeister supreme, seems to be on everything in West Virginia. In August, a blogger in Huntington, noted that Senator Byrd was to dedicate the Robert C. Byrd Institute of Biotechnology at Marshall University. It gave him a vision of the future. "In the morning, I would drive along the Robert Byrd Blvd. to work, pass the Robert Byrd bridge, drop off my kids at the Robert Byrd Elementary School, stop by the Robert Byrd Nestle Café for a cup of coffee, then I would head towards the Robert Byrd Center of Instructional Technology," he wrote.

He continued: "I will then schedule a meeting with the Robert Byrd Professor from the Robert Byrd Department of English. After work, I will go to the Robert Byrd Square to watch 'Everybody loves Robert Byrd' with a big basket of Robert Byrd popcorn. If I happen to see someone who asks for directions for a particular institute, I would ask him to close his eyes and walk in any direction. He is sure to see a Robert Byrd Institute when he opens his eyes at the first wall he bumps into."

So, yes, of course, the University of West Virginia has Robert C. Byrd Professors. These are endowed chairs on the cheap, however. Over a period of 16 years, 16 professors will hold four year appointments as Robert C. Byrd Professor and receive $5,000 annual salary supplements.

Further south, Alabama has community colleges named for George Wallace and his first wife, Lurleen, with locations in Andalusia, Dothan, Eufala, Fort Rucker, Greenville, Luverne, MacArthur, and Selma. Apart from the racism, for which he's most commonly remembered elsewhere, Alabama dots the countryside with memorials to his populism. Elsewhere, North Carolina's Wingate University has a Jesse Helms Center, which houses the former senator's papers and sponsors conferences sympathetic to his perspectives. The University of South Carolina has a Strom Thurmond Chair in History or Political Science at its branch campus in Aiken and an underfunded Strom Thurmond Chair of Law at its main campus in Columbia. At the University of Georgia, Edward J. Larson holds chairs named -- not for one -- but for two of the state's most powerful 20th century racists. He is the Richard B. Russell Professor of American History and the Herman Talmadge Professor of Law.

It's almost enough to make you wonder if the name of any chair would cause a self-respecting person to refuse to sit in it. Discussions of the Lay Chair at Missouri led a wagging lawblogger to ask "which endowed Chairs (if any) would law professors refuse? The Martha Stewart Chair in Business Ethics? The Fred Phelps Chair in Family Law? The Roger Taney Chair in Law and History? Would [someone] take the Michael Hayden Chair in Privacy Law? What if it came with a fat salary, no teaching requirements, and a guarantee to increase blogger readership ten fold?"

Jesting aside, however, distinguished work can bring honor to dubiously named chairs. Larson's is an example of that. In 1998, his Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion won the Pulitzer Prize in History. That recognition came after two prior books, Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution and Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South; and it has been followed by a half dozen additional books, on subjects ranging from a narrative history of the constitutional convention based on the notes of James Madison to a casebook in property law. His many dozens of articles and reviews have appeared in important newspapers and historical, legal, and scientific journals, both in the United States and Britain. By any measure Larson's professional work has been exemplary.

In September, John J. Miller's article, "Sounding Taps," for National Review launched a widespread discussion. Ten years ago, Miller pointed out, the historian Stephen Ambrose donated $250,000 to endow a chair at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. The chair in American military history was to be named for his mentor, William B. Hesseltine. Subsequently, Ambrose urged others to contribute to the chair's endowment and, before his death in 2002, he contributed another $250,000. Ultimately, the chair was renamed the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair and it is endowed at over $1 million. Yet, charged Miller, the University of Wisconsin's history department has dragged its feet in conducting a search to fill it. That story, he said, demonstrated the hostility of historians, generally, to the field of military history and contributes to its general decline in American colleges and universities.

Ohio State's Mark Grimsley charged Miller with crying "Crocodile Tears" over military history's grave. Miller was primarily interested in scoring points in the culture wars, said Grimsley, and the field is more robustly healthy than Miller allowed. His own department, for example, will fill two newly endowed chairs in military history in the next five years. Grimsley's reply to Miller touched off further discussions in the blogosphere, with theaters   at Grimsley's Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, the historians' group blog, Cliopatria, National Review's  Phi Beta Cons, Eric Alterman's Altercation, and The New Republic's Open University. Those discussions of military history and the academy extended beyond Miller and Grimsley to include many others. The fate of the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair at the University of Wisconsin was largely lost in the broader discussion of military history in academe, but the discussion may have prompted its fate. In response to Miller's questions, a spokesman for Wisconsin's history department admitted that some of his colleagues were still less than enthusiastic about filling the chair, but denied that there was any hesitation about filling it because of the charges of plagiarism in Stephen Ambrose's work. The department, he said, was committed to filling the chair in the future.

Missouri's experience with the Lay Chair and Wisconsin's with the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair are comparable. They are comparably endowed; and the names of both chairs carry some stigma. While Missouri had aggressively sought to fill the Lay Chair, however, Wisconsin had been slow to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair. Miller's article and the subsequent widespread discussion of military history and academe may have prompted the issue in Madison. Last month, Wisconsin's history department began advertising its search to fill its endowed chair in American military history.

As for Middlebury, it announced that the first person to hold the William H. Rehnquist Chair in American History and Culture would be James R. Ralph Jr. Already a member of the history department at the college, Ralph is an expert in the history of the American civil rights movement. He is the author of Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement, a well-received monograph on the subject. We've come a long way since 1964, when William Rehnquist began his   career in public life by challenging the rights of ethnic minorities to vote in Arizona.

It's unlikely that any American institution will ever have to decide whether to create the Adolph Hitler Chair in Holocaust Studies and even more unlikely that it ever would. Far short of that, institutions ought to hesitate about creating endowed chairs or institutes with money that has too many strings attached. Having said that, few institutions have the luxury of choosing their benefactors or their benefactors' wishes. Endowed chairs can create the conditions for the University of Georgia to keep an Edward J. Larson or Middlebury to retain a James R. Ralph Jr., on their faculties. If their chairs are named for William Rehnquist, Richard B. Russell, or Herman Talmadge, it seems a small price to pay for that institutional capacity. I wouldn't say, "Take the money and run." I would say, "Take the money and put it to good work."

 

Bio

Ralph E. Luker is an Atlanta historian and a blogger at Cliopatria.

 

 

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