Readers Comment on the Joseph Ellis Scandal


Editor's note: After the story broke about Joseph Ellis's misrepresentations, we asked readers for their views. (Click here to read statements made by Mr. Ellis in the past about character.)


I have a unique perspective on Joe Ellis, having chaired a committee that recommended that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hire Ellis for a distinguished professorship. By an overwhelming margin, we voted to make him an offer, which he considered in good faith but then turned us down.

I have never read better teaching evaluations than those he provided us, and not all by any means from the Vietnam course. I was also struck by his loyalty and devotion to a school where he had taught a quarter of a century.. It was hard for him to leave an institution where he had been professor, dean, acting-president, and a very successful fund-raiser.

I hope the school will appropriately censure but Prof. Ellis but retain his services. He deserves that.

Don Higginbotham


I served one complete tour of duty as a fixed wing pilot in the 1st Air Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in Vietnam, as well as a second abbreviated tour, and I resent anyone who did not serve there claiming such service. It is not in any way excusable. For an historian to make such a false claim seems a compunded wrong. He has lost all credibility, in my opinion.

Shelby P. Horn, Pittsburg, Kansas


For Ellis to have claimed he served in Vietnam-- in the paratroops, at that-- would have required not dishonesty, but some sort of psychiatric disability. To publicly claim an identity that could easily be disproven by skeptical student listeners would be irrational, not dishonest. Someone--most likely a student, not the Boston Globe-- is pulling the Globe's leg, and it bit.

So Adviser Morgan does not recall the student Ellis being an anti-war activist. Is that lack of recall after so many years and so many student advisees enough to discredit a claim, if made, that Ellis was an anti-war activisit? Hardly.

Only perplexing thing for me about a figure of Ellis' stature is that he would subject himself to being interviewed on a network of uncertain credibility (Fox) by an interviewer (Tony Snow) of shallow standards.

George Beres


What I find disturbing and deeply puzzling at this point about Professor Ellis' claims is why did he make them at all. Surely anyone with sense enough to come in out of the rain and possessing such a highly visible profile would know that the truth about these lies and gross exaggerations would eventually be found out. Why doesn't he believe that he is entitled to the success he has earned and why would he choose to self-destruct in such a publicly humiliatingly shameful way?

Darryl Cox


I shy from the word"scandal." Still, this is a stain on Ellis's character, one that will tarnish him forever. (I will leave the"why" question to the small number of first rank psychohistorians.)

An added note: I am appalled by the statement in the NYT by Joanne Creighton, president of Mount Holyoke. In her misguided defense of one of the College's most esteemed (up to now) faculty members, she shoots the messenger (The Globe). She should know better, and she should, particularly under the circumstances, demonstrate courage under fire.

Barbara Kellerman


Before we all rush to judgment in the case of Joseph Ellis, each of us should step back, take a deep breath and look within ourselves. Not many of us, I suspect, would survive the withering light of absolute public acknowledgment of our every thought, word and deed; or the comparing of what we have said at one point in our lives with what we have done at another point in our lives.

I do not know Professor Ellis personally. I do know that he is a remarkably productive and talented historian. Must we further damage a brilliant career simply because we have found a flaw in it? I am reminded of the plea of an attorney before Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings:"Have you at long last no sense of decency?"

Probably no one but Professor Ellis knows why he first allowed this deception to stand or why, with the passing years, he added to it. As a former activist in and, now, a historian of the civil rights movement, I know many people who claim to have been active in it who were actually nowhere to have been found around it at the time. In retrospect, some things seem to have been so right that one feels obligated to have played a role in things that one didn't.

I also know that the finest teacher I ever had was a man who felt that in order to teach it was necessary to fabricate a history of academic degrees awarded to him. The truth was that he had never received _any_ academic degrees. And, yet, his record for scholarship and teaching was so outstanding that no one even thought to question his claim of earned degrees until after his death. Then, we learned that he had none. Were there no tolerance for ambiguity, we might been denied access to his great learning.

Professor Ellis has been subjected to the withering light of public embarrassment. He has also given us outstanding works of history. Before we rush to judgment, we must ask ourselves if we are prepared to hold ourselves to the same high standard of professional consistency and to subject ourselves to the same harsh judgment and the same harsh penalties.

Ralph E. Luker


The New York Times seldom runs a front-page headline proclaiming"Historian Tells the Truth." When it gives front-page coverage to a historian's lie in verbal remarks that have far less consequence than published scholarship, the Times reminds us of the public esteem which historians normally enjoy. The critics of"historical revisionism," the manipulators of museum exhibits, the holocaust deniers, and the opponents of adequate funding for history education are, sadly, abetted by acts which cast doubts on the integrity of the historical profession. Conscientious historians seek to provide a reasoned and reliable vision of the past grounded in a full consideration of the available evidence, nothing else. Those of us concerned with sustaining the credibility of the historical profession ought to make clear that we reject the practice of"making it up," by those who represent their work as history, whether in the form of an Oliver Stone film, an Edmund Morris biography, or a Joseph Ellis lecture.

David E. Kyvig
Presidential Research Professor and Professor of History
Northern Illinois University


After what I admit is only a cursory look into the Ellis case of what appears to have been a distortion of his military record in classroom lecture/discussions and in media interviews, I tend to think that words such as"scandal" and"tragedy" are out of place here. What he did was wrong and more than what he characterizes as a"mistake". He did it repeatedly and knowingly. It also seems to be a violation of the AHA's ethics code of misrepresentation of ones" credentials". But in this case it doesn't rise to what I consider a serious or substantive violation such as plagiarism. It is in my opinion, and as his statement through his attorney suggests, a personal failure of honesty as a teacher; not a major case of professional dishonesty touching on his scholarship or field of specialization. He mislead his students in classes and made false statement to some media interviewers. That is bad, wrong, but not really what I would call a scandal or tragedy. Whether or not it serves any"public purpose" the Globe certainly was right in publishing a news worthy bit of"gotcha" journalism about a Pulitzer Prize winning author; especially since it was their reporters who had be lied to. We all get some satisfaction from hearing some negative news about an illustrious colleague. Beyond that, I think that the embarrassment rendered by the disclosure is punishment enough and that the Newsletter is making too much of this particular case.

As someone who regularly teaches a course on Vietnam I have been challenged in class by vets who think that unless you were there you can't teach such a course. When they learn I was in grad school at Berkeley during those years things really get interesting.

Robert Messer


I would have to say that any scholar's value rests first and foremost on her or his integrity and honesty about all things, especially those things that are germane to the scholar's expertise, but also, I would think, personal character and morality.

If these reports are true -- and I have seen no evidence that they are, only notices in the press -- I would think that, at the least, Professor Ellis owes the profession and his various constituencies a formal apology. I am a little more astonished at the quoted statement of the president of his college, to the effect that she could see no purpose in the newspapers asking about these statements of Professor Ellis's about his alleged military service in Viet Nam. Academic administrators ought to know better than that. After all, they are the ones who insist that they are our moral, legal, and budgetary leaders. I am also astonished, to say the least, to defenses of Professor Ellis by so-called eminent leaders of our profession, as quoted in the press, (which, admittedly, might be inaccurate) to the effect that, well, this is not so bad, a lot of people of that generation were seared by the politics of the '60s and '70s and if they did not quite tell the truth, no matter. How can we take such comments seriously? Does not the character and truthfulness of a witness mean anything in historical scholarship or to professional historians, especially those who occupy exalted positions and purport to be leaders of our discipline and profession? What if the witnesses to and victims of the Holocaust were all making it up? Et cetera.

I do not know whether one can believe a person's scholarship if there has been a persistent pattern over many years of outright falsehoods, as appears to be the case here, if the media reports are accurate. But I would not think so.

Hamilton Cravens
Professor of History
Iowa State University


I, like Joe Ellis, was in ROTC in college, was commissioned in the early 60s, was deferred for grad school, then went on active duty in the Army just as Vietnam became intense. Also like him, with a PhD in history, I was not sent to the front, but to the extreme rear area. In my case, I served my time in the service as one of the three historians at the US Army European Headquarters, stationed in Heidelberg, Germany.

The Vietnam era marked me as a person and as a scholar: as person I still bear some guilt for having survived the war so easily while friends were hurt overseas and some have their names on a black wall in Washington, DC; as a scholar I have worked on issues of peace, justice and reconciliation -- an interest partly generated from my experiences in that turbulent time.

Students frequently have asked me to talk about that era, and I am glad to engage them. As much as I can empathize with Joe Ellis' desire to connect with his students in making that era and that war as vivid as possible, I am saddened that he could not find the story compelling enough without insinuating himself into it. If the Boston Globe story is correct --and I say 'if' -- Joe Ellis has dishonored his calling as historian and student mentor. Moreover, he makes this aging academic --still trying to make moral sense of our era -- sad to hear that the scholarly credibility Ellis had widely established apparently did not make it fully into the classroom.

Ronald A. Wells
Professor of History
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Michigan


I am puzzled, but also saddened and a bit upset, about the revelations concerning Joseph Ellis's embellishments of his personal experiences. I am also a bit angry that the President of Mt. Holyoke seems to be interested in becoming a mere shill in defending the school's academic"star," come what may. The _Globe_ story about Ellis did indeed serve a public interest, despite Dr. Creighton's assertions to the contrary. Professor Ellis has impeccable scholarly credentials, to be sure. But we scholars tend to forget that an academic position entails more than scholarship. We are teachers as well, though some in the academy take this role more seriously than others--indeed, I may come across to some more jaded than I as a bit naive in waxing rhapsodic about the responsibilities of teachers. But I firmly believe that teaching is an integral part of scholarship. And I also belive that teaching, at its root, depends largely upon trust. If a teacher does not possess the trust of his or her students, then he or she cannot achieve legitimacy in their eyes, and thus cannot perform the job he or she was asked to do by the school. To put it another, more direct, way: how many of Professor Ellis's students are now seriously reconsidering the nature and accuracy of what they learned in his courses on the Vietnam era (the site, apparently, of Prof. Ellis's embellishments)?

I am not interested in merely attacking or scolding Professor Ellis; I do not know him personally. I see the irony of Ellis's earlier assertions about" character" in light of these recent revelations, but my concern runs along a somewhat different avenue. The simple fact is that Ellis is a teacher, and a highly respected one at that. But now the image has changed, and it should cause the rest of us to reflect on our calling, and how we go about pursuing it. It should worry us, I think, that this element of concern has seemingly not entered the picture as far as the administration of Mt. Holyoke is concerned. Their defense of Ellis as one of their best teachers may be valid, but can that perception of Ellis now be reasonably maintained? Does good teaching justify what are basically lies in the classroom? I don't pretend to have any easy answers, but I think it's a subject worthy of discussion and reflection.

Kevin Gannon
PhD Candidate, University of South Carolina
Adjunct Instructor, Lamar University and the University of Houston

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More Comments:

Michael McCormick - 6/22/2001

Come on, Joe Ellis did not misrepresent himself, he flat out lied. Lembcke shifts blame from Ellis to our culture and that is part of the problem in this country. Nobody is responsible for their actions. Bull, he screwed up. Let him accept the consequences like a man.

Thomas Zoumaras - 6/20/2001

11Professor Ellis has engaged in a seriouis violation of professional
ethics. The community of historical scholars and apprentice historians
(our students) are confronted with the reality that instructors all too
often lie in order to legitimize their persepective on the past. This
seems to be a penchant for members of my generation who came of age during
the sixties. Ellis brings into question the veracity of his entire body of
work if any of the allegations are true. Scholarship is based on trust, in
part. How can I, short of checking every endnote, trust Ellis' work. More
important in a classroom setting, how can students differentiate between
accurate, embellished, and outright erroneous, even deceptive
presentation. The latter point is why the response of the Mt. Holyoke
administration is disconcerting.
Thomas Zoumaras
Associate Professor of History
Division of Social Science
Truman State University
Kirksville, MO 63501