Within a span of 24 hours, four articles appeared in my Twitter feed that featured historians in major media outlets.
The New York Times ran a story about biographer David McCullough and documentarian Ken Burns. The two have asked distinguished historians to state their case on why Donald Trump is, perhaps, the most troubling presidential candidate ever. The videos on Facebook have been viewed tens of thousands of times.
Politico asked several historians to comment on whether the recent Republican convention was the worst in history. (Answer: it may have been. It was certainly on par with the worst. )
USA Todayasked the president of the American Historical Association if 2016 has been an unusual year for violence -- to which he wrote that violence begets violence and as such it tends to ebb and flow.
And Slate, in a piece by history writer Rebecca Onion, asked several historians to comment on whether 2016 is simply the worst year ever. (Answer: it has nothing on 1347.)
Donald Trump’s ascendance to being the Republican Party's nominee for president has served as a particular boon for historians. Not only McCullough and Burns, but historians at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, such as Barbara Perry, co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program, and Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor in presidential studies, have contributed pieces on Trump and conservative politics to USA Today, U.S. News & World Report and The Atlantic. The Facebook group Historians Against Trump has spurred a petition with several hundred historian signatories. Historians are helping to answer how we got to where we are, and they are being heard.
History is hot right now. In the midst of a traumatic and turmoil-filled year -- weekly violence, racial tensions, political upheaval, a shifting world order and wars with no ends in sight -- we are crying out for historical perspective. Publications from The Wall Street Journal to Foreign Affairs are asking historians to tell their readers if (a) yes, it’s really as bad as it seems or if (b) it has, at times, been worse and humanity has survived. Historians are the dispassionate voice amid the din that gets us to calmly sit down in our chairs and reflect.
A recent piece in Patheos asks what exactly historians think we contribute in these trying times. Do we have special insights? Do we know lessons from the past that others don’t? Are we the true conscience of the nation? After all, self-examination about the role of the historian is a time-honored custom in our profession.
The author, a historian, was unsure. Yet even if we ourselves are unsure of what we contribute, the news media seems to think we offer much. They are not looking to sociologists, anthropologists or linguistic scholars for perspective -- although a few philosophers have also chimed in. They’re turning to historians. Enthusiastic viewer comments on the Historians Against Trump Facebook page seem to agree that historians’ voices contribute something meaningful. This is our time in the spotlight, whether we know exactly why or not.
What makes this interesting is that it occurs during a time of deep anxiety and concern about the future of history. According to the American Historical Association, the number of undergraduate students earning degrees in history is dropping sharply, even as the number of students earning degrees in all fields continues to rise. History degrees now account for less than 2 percent of all undergraduate degrees earned.
History majors are not as diverse as they could be either: African-Americans were just 5 percent of those completing history degrees in 2014. Latinos made up 9.7 percent and Asians and Pacific Islanders were 3 percent. In a country projected to be minority majority by the middle of this century, history remains relatively homogenous.
Such statistics and anecdotes prompted James Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, to write an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that history is not a “useless” major. Whether students and parents will listen is yet to be known. USA Today has reported that student decisions regarding majors most often come down to money: the ability to find employment and the earning power once employed. History has yet to convincingly make the case that its students will find employment, earn high salaries and be able to pay back student loans in a reasonable amount of time.
Thus we come to a fork in the road. On the one hand, historians are in high demand for the perspective they offer in our moments of deep societal anxiety and rupture. On the other, there are very real questions about who will serve as that voice in future crises. Can this period of spotlight do anything to help save the profession?
One obvious way is the rise in visibility. Many young Americans may, for the first time, be hearing from historians and be seeing them on a regular basis in major news media outlets. Historians certainly appear in the press all the time, but the difference now is the stage. During a presidential election, nearly all of America is paying attention to media, and particularly in such a divisive and unusual election as this one. It is an especially good time to be visible.
While being visible, we also can demonstrate the core values of our profession. We can continue to showcase the dispassionate wisdom and clarity of thought that is treasured by those of us in the discipline and sought by those outside it. In a climate of constant shouting and bickering, contemplative thought may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it can offer a refreshing alternative and inspire younger folks that they, too, can be an impactful voice of reason when America needs it most.
The AHA, History Relevance Campaign and others have put forth many ideas on how to address declining enrollments. I won’t recite those here. But I will offer a few more suggestions for our current moment that may help contribute to the discussion:
In moments when we have greater exposure, let’s put forth as diverse a set of faces and voices as we can. Let’s ensure that minorities see historians not solely of one race, one gender, one religion and one socioeconomic background, but many.
In these moments, let’s also put forth a diversity of ages. Millennials tend to want to see immediate results in their work and seek speedy advancement in their fields. History, in contrast, has an entrenched hierarchy that slowly promotes its own, often does not offer immediate results and often privileges those most senior in their careers. Let’s ensure young people see young historians succeeding, being heard and contributing meaningfully.
Let’s find new ways to communicate, even as we’re holding true to our values. To draw on historical facts and speak from a place of deep knowledge does not limit us to prepared remarks or formal prose. Let’s use this opportunity to evolve how we communicate -- colloquially, vividly, through images as well as words and across all platforms available to us -- both for the good of our audiences and for the enthusiasm of new entrants into the field.
Some of these things are already happening, and I hope they continue with even greater intentionality. Historians have an opportunity this year to showcase the best and brightest aspects of our profession. Recognizing that we do so against an uncertain backdrop of our own field, we can use this moment to help inspire the next generation of historians. After all, when calamity strikes, it is we as historians that society turns to.
Jason Steinhauer is a public historian in Washington, D.C., and creator of the field of history communication. On Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer.
Wayne State University is trying to shed medical faculty members it views as “underproductive or unproductive,” The Detroit News reported. In a letter to faculty members that followed an earlier announcement about faculty productivity, Jack Sobel, dean of the School of Medicine, said 37 faculty appointments may be terminated or lost to retirement. Some 18 professors already have agreed to retire, accept phased retirement or received notice of nonrenewal of their contracts, Sobel wrote, while eight additional professors have agreed to separate from the institution. Another 11 faculty members will be recommended for dismissal. Sobel assured due process for tenured faculty members.
Charles Parrish, president of Wayne State’s faculty union affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, said all of those affected are researchers in the basic sciences and clinical departments. He said decreased grant funding by the National Institutes of Health has affected some faculty members’ ability to do their work. “This will have an impact on what the medical school is able to do in terms of moving forward in research and teaching,” Parrish told The Detroit News.
A university spokesperson declined comment. Wayne State’s medical school reportedly said last year that it was dealing with a serious budget gap that would take three years to close. Sobel said in his letter that the cuts are a “critical and necessary step toward allowing our many productive faculty members to thrive, and will result in our emerging stronger as one of the nation’s most robust urban medical colleges and centers of research.”
Oklahoma Wesleyan University on Monday joined a former University of Virginia student's lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, becoming the first institution to legally challenge the department's mandate that colleges use the preponderance-of-evidence standard of proof when adjudicating cases of sexual assault.
The department's Office for Civil Rights instructed colleges to use this standard in a 2011 Dear Colleague letter. Department officials maintain that the letter merely clarified existing regulations. But critics, including law professors and Republican lawmakers, say the letter actually enacted sweeping regulatory changes -- including requiring that colleges use preponderance of evidence instead of a higher burden of proof -- without first going through the notice-and-comment procedures required by the Administrative Procedure Act.
Last month, more than 80 organizations representing sexual-assault victims, women and minority groups released an open letter saying such arguments "are without merit." In a paper published last week, 90 law professors also defended the department's rules.
The lawsuit is sponsored by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The former University of Virginia student was found responsible of sexual assault last year when the university used the preponderance-of-evidence standard to decide his case, in which he was accused of assaulting an intoxicated woman. He was able to graduate but must complete four months of counseling before he is allowed to work as an attorney, and he is banned from returning to campus. According to the lawsuit, the retired judge who decided the case noted that it was a "very close" and "very difficult" decision, and that her ruling was based on the OCR's requirement that she use "the weakest standard of proof." Until 2011, UVA used a higher standard known as clear and convincing.
"FIRE has spoken with numerous campus administrators nationwide who express frustration that the DCL has impeded their ability to afford accused students due process," FIRE said in a statement. "OKWU, however, has distinguished itself by being the only university in the nation willing to stand up in defense of institutional autonomy and the principles of fundamental fairness and due process."
In 2005, a court barred Vanderbilt from removing "Confederate" from the facade of a building, citing the terms of a gift. The university is returning the gift at today's value -- and will now remove the word.
Donald Trump held a rally Saturday at Sacred Heart University, in Connecticut (photo at right) -- and many faculty members and alumni criticized the institution for permitting the event, saying that Trump's campaign is inconsistent with the university's Roman Catholic values. Similar complaints have been made at public universities that have been the sites of Trump events, but officials there have noted their First Amendment obligations not to discriminate against political events on the basis of their content. Private universities are not similarly covered.
In a blog post, John J. Petillo, president of Sacred Heart, defended the university's decision to allow the event. He noted that the event was not sponsored or endorsed by the university, but also acknowledged complaints the university has received.
"Some also have questioned whether -- as a Catholic university -- we should allow [Trump] access to our facilities, as some of his stances and proclamations appear contrary to our religious beliefs and values. We understand that reaction. We also know that any political candidate -- and particularly the two main candidates running for president -- would elicit similar responses," he wrote. "Should we use that criteria, we would eliminate candidates from both parties and would be absent from the discussion and the democratic process. Mr. Trump would not be the first controversial person -- nor will he be the last -- to speak at our university, whether by design or circumstance. As a liberal arts institution, these opportunities provide our students and many diverse audiences the opportunity to assess the facts, observe the actions and measure a speaker’s words. Tolerance of and exposure to one another’s opinions and concerns is a foundation of the liberal arts and the Catholic intellectual tradition."
Harrison Spencer (right), president of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, was murdered last week, and authorities have charged Peter Michael Spencer, his son, with stabbing him to death, The Washington Post reported. Legal papers quoted the son as telling the police, “I just stabbed to death my father …. I heard voices that I should kill him and I killed him.”
Prior to leading the association, Spencer had been dean of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
A tribute to Spencer by the association he led detailed an extensive career of working all over the world to promote public health.
“In recent years, Dr. Spencer was frequently called upon to speak to students, both prospective students in public health and those already active in the field he came to love and champion,” the tribute says. “A reserved man, he dug deep into the many lessons he learned traveling the globe and through his professional and personal experiences, to prepare remarks that could inspire the next generation of public health professionals. He often spoke about the enormous potential of individuals working purposefully, through barriers and across cultures, for the health of the public and the value of each and every person’s potential to make a difference.”
The tribute then included a quote from one of Spencer's recent speeches and said that it “rings true to all of us who knew Dr. Spencer and who wake up every day excited to continue our work to improve the public’s health: ‘Public health is filled with heroes, both well-known and unknown. They are visible on the national or international stage or they work quietly in communities with families and individuals. When they do their job, they often become invisible.’”
U.S. News & World Report, that heavyweight of the college rankings game, recently hosted a conference focused partially on diversity in higher education. I did an interview for the publication prior to the forum and spoke on a panel at the event.
I was happy to do it. As dean of one of the country’s most diverse engineering schools, I am particularly invested in these issues. My panel focused on how to help women and underrepresented minority students succeed in STEM fields, and I’m grateful to U.S. News for leading the discussion.
But the publication, for all its noble intentions, could do more to follow through where it counts. Diversity is currently given no weight in the magazine's primary university and disciplinary rankings, and it’s time for that to change. As U.S. News goes, so goes higher education.
Universities love to bemoan rankings, but we can’t ignore them. Our public images are shaped in part by top 10 lists and glossy magazine features. At my university and others, we encourage prospective students to consider how well colleges fit their goals, yet we never hesitate to brag about our standings in the rankings.
Prospective freshmen, transfer students and graduate students examine them, of course, but so do parents, alumni, professors and members of the news media. At least one or two other organizations have tried to rank some universities along these lines. But U.S. News, perhaps the most influential among ranking entities, has not included diversity in its overall quality rankings, and it is missing an opportunity to use its powers for good.
Enhancing diversity is not about political correctness. Studies show diversity enriches students’ experiences and is an indicator of quality. A 2013 report from Princeton University cited research on the benefits of diverse environments, such as greater civic engagement. A diverse environment is consistent with the core mission of a university.
U.S. News rankings at the undergraduate level consider factors such as faculty compensation, class sizes and even alumni giving rates. Graduate rankings look at research expenditures, GRE scores and faculty quality. Diversity is not given any weight, which implies that a top-tier education doesn’t require it. If U.S. News and similar organizations started paying attention to diversity, universities would start paying attention, because -- rightly or wrongly -- these rankings drive behavior.
Almost a year ago, about 100 of my fellow engineering deans and I signed a letter pledging to enhance our commitments to diversity. Many of us signed because we believe diversity is important, enhances the quality of our programs, and is part of our educational missions.
Plenty of less-heralded colleges already boast racially diverse student bodies. Community colleges in particular are unsung heroes. Nearly two-thirds of California’s community college students are members of minorities, while about half of Texas’ and Florida’s are.
One U.S. News list, which earns less attention than others, grades institutions only on diversity, and it looks very different from the publication’s more famous rankings. Yet a separate diversity ranking is not sufficient. It must be part of the overall quality evaluation.
Some institutions might argue that the demographics that comprise their typical applicant pool would make this unfair. But diversity has many dimensions -- race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and more. Adding diversity to rankings criteria is an essential component to showing how well we value inclusive excellence in higher education.
No region has any particular advantage with regard to gender diversity, for example, and that is just as important as ethnic diversity, particularly in STEM. Already existing ratings criteria are filled with biases that benefit colleges and universities regionally (such as Silicon Valley institutions having advantages with research expenditures and private colleges with resources having advantages over publics). Why should we have to bend over backward to level the playing field with respect to diversity? If diversity is a national imperative (and it is), colleges and universities should just have to adjust, or they can focus their efforts on more achievable non-diversity-related ratings criteria.
The diversity metrics currently used by U.S. News offer a helpful start. Instead of focusing on which universities enroll the most minority students, they examine how likely students are to encounter members of different racial or ethnic groups. What U.S. News might do next is create more comprehensive composite scores that consider female and minority enrollment, retention and graduation rates, or even faculty diversity.
There are many ways to approach the issue, and organizations that rank programs should develop criteria to ensure fairness. Whatever rubric is used, though, factoring diversity into rankings will establish an imperative: attract and retain students from diverse backgrounds or risk university reputations.
If universities wish to remain relevant -- if they want to be more than job mills for the next class of white-collar workers -- they need to tackle the problems facing the wider world. We have to acknowledge the value of diversity and stake our reputations on it.
Some institutions already do this. But if U.S. News and others that rank us change the equation, plenty of other universities will start paying attention as well.
Gary S. May is dean of the college of engineering and the Southern Company Chair at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
In legal papers filed this week, the University of Texas and the state attorney general said that professors in the university system who bar guns from classrooms face discipline, The Dallas Morning News reported. The legal papers respond to a lawsuit by three professors at the University of Texas at Austin that says the requirement that guns be allowed in classrooms is vague and inconsistent with the First and Second Amendments. The Morning News article said that the legal papers from the university and the state are "a clear message" to those professors and others to follow the campus carry law, which took effect this month.
"Faculty members are aware that state law provides that guns can be carried on campus, and that the president has not made a rule excluding them from classrooms," said the brief filed this week. "As a result, any individual professor who attempts to establish such prohibition is subject to discipline."