Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Alas, poor Emory

Emory, poor Emory. One of the South’s most ambitious private institutions (along with Duke, Rice, and Vanderbilt), Emory has vaunted into the ranks of top-tier universities. It has benefited from the inexplicable cachet of its rather dreary mother city Atlanta (whose police arrested the august don, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, for jaywalking during the 2007 meeting of the American Historical Association). In recent years, Emory has become a magnet for ambitious students from the Northeast, now the dominant presence in the student body, who couldn’t quite make it into Columbia, Penn, and Princeton, but who wouldn’t settle for Rutgers, Stony Brook, or UConn. It is, you could say, the NYU of the South.

But alas poor Emory. A magnet for bright students, it has also attracted scandal-prone historians, like metal-shavings, to it.

Emory’s woes began with the infamous Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, whose familial career of apostasy from the left along with an abiding love of authority in all of its embodiments, most notably the Roman Catholic Church, gave new meaning to the feminist notion of a woman in charge. Perhaps the late Fox-Genovese internalized a little too much of the mind of the master class, leading her to treat her female subordinates as maidservants. In 1996, Emory settled a harassment lawsuit brought against her and the university by Virginia Gould, one of her employees (unconfirmed reports suggest that the undisclosed settlement was nearly one million dollars). Much of the material, including the quite-interesting depositions, can be found in the newly opened EFG Papers at the Southern Historical Collections in Chapel Hill. For her conservative political correctness, Professor Fox-Genovese was honored by none other than President George W. Bush, who gave her the National Humanities Medal for her work as a "defender of reason and servant of faith."

And then Michael Bellesiles, the terminally sloppy historian who shot his career point blank in the temple and, in the process, gave the National Rifle Association a poster child for the supposed mendacity of the vast left-wing conspiracy against Americans' right-to-own as many Uzis as they can cram into their gun closets. In an unprecedented move, Columbia University revoked Bellesiles's Bancroft Prize.

Adding injury to insult, David Garrow, the formidable civil rights historian (then at Emory’s law school), was charged with assaulting a staff member. Garrow was suspended from his position for six months, after which he departed for good. The case dragged on for four years--and was finally settled in the spring of 2006. Though Professor Bierce has often wished that he could come to fisticuffs with certain petty administrators, he possesses that admirable restraint that has thus far protected him from criminal and civil charges of battery.

Emory has worked to redress its past sins, most notably by hiring some rather talented young historians. James Roark brings a gravitas to the department through his carefully researched studies of slavery. Leslie Harris recast the history of slavery and race by turning her attention to antebellum New York. Joseph Crespino revised the history of race and politics by turning his attention to Mississippi, though he made his fame at a most precocious age by bringing down fellow Mississippian Trent Lott, to the Great Happiness of all defenders of Truth and Justice. And overseeing the university's academic affairs is eminent Earl Lewis.

Will any of them join the ranks of evidence fabricators and alleged bureaucrat beaters, and grad student abusers? Professor Bierce believes not, and even more fervently hopes not, but does note that it will be a long time before Emory’s history department will emerge from the shadow of scandal and is able to compete with its many rivals North and South.


JPool said...

OK, I can contain my school pride no longer:

A) Emory's history department is more than just Americanists (I myself am not an Americanist and we have many fine historians, both young and established, of Europe, Africa, Latin American and Asia)

B) Emory's Americanists include eight others beyond those you have mentioned; all of whom were hired, not in response to scandal, but as part of developing a department.

C) Emory is new money, as university departments go, and thus, perhaps more likely to draw controversial figures to itself. But, one would be hard pressed to argue that such figures are more significant at Emory than at other prominent schools.

D) Controversial professors are more than their moments of controversy. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, aside from her later political profile and writings, authored some timeless scholarship and mentored many fine students. Michael Bellesiles, before he authored the sloppily documented Arming America, produced fine work on Ethan Allen and violence in colonial America.

E) Surely an institution's worth is judged, not by the scandals that its faculty take part in, but by how it reacts to those scandals. Do you have any criticisms to make of Emory's behavior in the light of these scandals?

Ambrose Hofstader Bierce III said...

My fine Jpool,
Your comments are well-taken and my bias here was towards Emory's American side. I stand by my contention that Emory is a work-in-progress. Other universities have attracted scandalous faculty whose follies will be the matter of much gossip on broadsheets such as mine in the future. But by providence or design Emory faced a concatenation of woes which continue to shape perceptions of its faculty for better or worse. Yr humble svt, AHB III