Saturday, October 20, 2007

When you want a university president... apparently hire a historian. And not just any historian, but a historian of the American South. Everyone knows that Drew Gilpin Faust was just inaugurated as president of Harvard University; what you may not know is that she was a former president of the Southern Historical Association (she won the Parkman Prize for her Mothers of Invention and has a new book on death and the Civil War coming out next year). Her Fleming Lectures, published as The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South, were hugely important to my own thinking, especially issues related to cultural systems, ideology, and identity-formation.

What I did not know until I was surfing around the Internet was that University of Richmond has just hired Ed Ayers as their new president, effective July 1, 2007. Ayers is a very influential historian: his two most important books are The Promise of the New South and In the Presence of Mine Enemies. And of course, Nathan Hatch--prominent religious historian--became the president of Wake Forest University in 2005.

When you think about it, there does seem to be an unusual preponderance of historians in academic administration. While it is fairly unusual for someone from the hard sciences or engineering to lead a university (Lee Todd as president of the University of Kentucky being an notable exception), historians get placed into these spots frequently. I've often wondered why that is: do trustees think that historians do not have enough to do?

I think part of the reason must be that historians, by the very nature of the task, are conservators of traditions (even revisionist historians care for the past, albeit for the value it has for the present). As a result, they tend to value institutions (which are tradition-bounded organisms), desire to care for them, and long for them to be healthy and successful. Such passions often mean that they are led into academic administration, which can have the ironic effect of curtailing historical scholarship (Nathan Hatch, for example, has not published a major book since 1989, which was about the time he became provost at Notre Dame). And yet, these passions also mean that these men and women care enough to participate in conserving institutions and play an important function of public leadership.

Perhaps some day when a later historian (perhaps my great-great grandchild) chronicles the history of Harvard, he or she will make a note that the president of the school while their great-great grandfather was alive was also a historian of the American South and was willing to participate in academic administration--just like him.


Bobby's blog said...

It seems you are saying that historians are "safe" picks for University the position. I know from the recent selection of Mike Garrison as President of WVU, many were not comfortable with the prospect of a successful, young (under 40) attorney at the helm of a large University. I suspect your post would make for an interesting piece in the Chronicle.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Lucas,

I remember reading Faust's book on Confederate Nationalism two years ago and ALMOST jumping ship from the lonely Europeanists at U. South Carolina over into the Americanists' boat to do Southern religious history.

But now, instead, I've jumped ship toward theology. I'm sure that eliminates my chances of being at the helm of a major university someday!

Andy Stager
U.S.C., Columbia,SC

Anonymous said...


you're a historian, you work for an institution of higher learning

why would you be looking into this connection?