Blogs > Cliopatria > More on the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair

Oct 31, 2006 1:37 am

More on the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair

Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age

Recently I sent John J. Miller of National Review an email which he published onPhi Beta Cons, a section ofNational Review Online, along with a brief comment of his own. Here's the exchange:

Grimsley Reaps
[John J. Miller10/28 04:12 PM]
From Ohio State prof Mark Grimsley, building on a conversation that started with my article on the travails of military history in the academy, via email:

Hi John,

I've finally gotten the more or less definitive word on the background and status of the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair at Wisconsin. According to the university's development office, quite a few parties have been involved in this fundraising drive since Stephen Ambrose kicked it off in 1997. He was, of course, the main donor to the Chair.

The files contain no formal document outlining an agreement between the other donors and the University of Wisconsin Foundation. But it seems fair to say that, in 1997, there would have been a natural assumption on the part of donors that if the fundraising goal of $1 million was met, the position would be filled. The fund only recently reached that $1 million benchmark, and in the meantime the fiscal situation at Wisconsin has become intractable. The university has absorbed a $190 million budget cut from the state legislature in the past four years. This has led to significant cuts to most colleges in the university. The College of Letters and Science (which contains the Department of History) has had to absorb major budget cuts in the last two budget cycles. An unfortunate consequence is that history and other departments have not been given permission to replace or hire new faculty at the same rate as in the late 1990's.

Meantime, the costs associated with an endowed chair have spiraled. Wisconsin computes the interest on its endowments at four percent and computes benefits at, I think, 36 percent of salary. Assuming a salary of $100,000, which is a probably realistic figure required to land a distinguished military historian, it would therefore require at least $136,000/year to sustain the position without augmenting it with internal funds. To produce that much interest income, the A-H chair endowment would have to be $3.4 million.

From everything I've heard, although there are indeed a few faculty within the Wisconsin history department who are lukewarm about hiring a military historian, the department is committed to seeing an important scholar of military history hired for the A-H Chair, and for that hiring to occur in as timely a manner as possible. The delay is coming almost exclusively from the university administration, and is based on fiscal rather than political objections.

That said, I think it is short-sighted on the part of Wisconsin not to run a search for an endowed chair once the agreed upon funds have been raised, and it seems almost certain that in the case of the A-H Chair, $1 million was indeed the target amount. At Ohio State we have a policy of honoring bequest agreements, even though it regularly obliges us to"top off" endowment revenues to meet the salary/benefits requirements of actually filling a given chair. If I understand correctly, the history department chair at Wisconsin has passed along"Sounding Taps" to his dean in order to underscore the bad publicity that has resulted from the failure to run a search for the A-H Chair now that the endowment has reached $1 million. It seems to me that in addition to bad publicity, the university runs the risk of losing benefactors who might otherwise be inclined to make significant bequests.

None of this supports the thrust of"Sounding Taps" concerning the demise of military history as an academic field, and it confirms the picture as portrayed by Prof. John Cooper and the university's desire to raise"even more money." But I think it is moonshine to suppose that Wisconsin can expect to raise an additional $2.4 million if it won't honor a commitment that appears already to have been made. I doubt it could raise even an additional $500,000.

You can treat this as being on the record, though I doubt any of this is worth pursuing out there in wingnut-land — it doesn't make a meaty wingnut point. But I did think you'd be interested in what I managed to unearth.

All the best,


I'll make a meaty wingnut point [writes John]: Here is yet more evidence that you can raise a million bucks for a university, but the university won't make good on promises about how this money will be used. We've seen this story many times before. Just ask the Robertson family. Some of this is the fault of donors who mistakenly place their trust in an alma mater. Yet colleges and universities can't be allowed to dodge their commitments. If Wisconsin can't reasonably be expected to come up with the amount of money it now claims to need before it will hire a military historian — if it really is"moonshine" — then the school should give the money that's already been collected back to the donors. It's pretty simple.

All this talk about a special chair for a military historian begs another question: Why doesn't Wisconsin just hire a military historian the next time a member of the history faculty retires or leaves? (It's been something like 15 years since the departure of Mac Coffman, the guy who taught popular survey courses that more or less haven't been taught in his absence.) The reason, of course, is because the faculty isn't truly committed to military history. If it were, it would have found a place for a military historian by now.

By way of response:

First, while I don't necessarily agree with it entirely, I think that in general John's is a reasonable, not a wingnut, point. As I said in my email, it's shortsighted of Wisconsin not to honor its commitment to the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair now that the agreed upon $1 million benchmark has been reached. Wisconsin's stated alternative -- to raise additional funds -- is indeed"moonshine." Back in the 1990s, the endowment was not attracting enough small-scale donations to make it viable, which is why Stephen Ambrose dumped in $500,000 of his own money. Thus it beggars credulity to suppose that a strategy based on small-scale donations would work now, particularly if the objective is to create an endowment large enough to pay the chair holder's salary and benefits without"topping off" funding on the part of the university. And based on what I know of university development, it's hard to see another major benefactor donating the necessary funds. Benefactors usually (and quite reasonably) expect some recognition for their generosity, and it is difficult to imagine something like the Ambrose-Hesseltine-Benefactor Chair, particularly when John Q. Benefactor would, presumably, enjoy no role in shaping the parameters of the endowed chair. Given these realities, John has a point:"[C]olleges and universities can't be allowed to dodge their commitments. If Wisconsin can't reasonably be expected to come up with the amount of money it now claims to need before it will hire a military historian — if it really is 'moonshine' — then the school should give the money that's already been collected back to the donors."

Second, I've looked at John's link concerning the Robertson Family and the Robertson Foundation they established at Princeton University. To me, the A-H Chair and Robertson Foundation examples don't really go together. In the former case, the funds for the A-H Chair sit in escrow, simply gathering interest against the day when Wisconsin hires a chair holder. In the latter, the allegation is that Princeton is actively using the funds for purposes the Robertsons did not intend and which are spelled out in the terms of the bequest. The equivalent case would be if Wisconsin used the A-H Chair endowment to hire someone in, say, diplomatic or legal/constitutional rather than military history. This is plainly not the case -- though to give John his due, I have occasionally seen this gambit attempted (unsuccessfully) at other universities.

Third, John avers that the faculty of the Wisconsin history department could decide on their own to"just hire a military historian the next time a member of the history faculty retires or leaves." That's not how things work in academe. Virtually everything the faculty of a given department does is advisory to its chair, and with regard to hiring priorities the dean of the college, not the department chair, is generally the real authority. Thus, were the history faculty at Wisconsin to put a military historian into its hiring plan, the dean could simply point to the existing plan to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair and the attempt would die still-born.

Fourth, even assuming that the faculty did have complete authority with regard to hiring, the history department at Wisconsin already has six faculty positions that have been authorized but are going unfilled for lack of funding -- an extension of the fiscal crisis at Wisconsin I mentioned in my email.

Fifth, assuming that the faculty had both untrammeled authority to hire in whatever field it wished and also the requisite funds, it is far from clear to me that it ought to hire a military historian. Different departments have different strengths, and most departments build strength in certain areas at the expense of others. Wisconsin ought to be able to exercise the same strategy without being pilloried as a bastion of tenured radicals.

Wisconsin's history department has fifty-two tenure-track and tenured faculty, which makes it just slightly smaller than Ohio State. It has no military historians; we have four, with a search underway to hire a fifth. The Duke-UNC program has six full-time military historians. The Society for Military History web site lists twenty-three additional PhD-granting programs in military history, most of them in the United States, the rest in Canada and Great Britain. Hiring one or even two military historians would not make Wisconsin competitive in this field, though the general excellence and reputation of its history department would undoubtedly attract some graduate students. But as an area in which to make a major commitment, military history would seem an unlikely choice, particularly since in a good year there are only two or three academic positions in the field advertised nationwide.

Finally, departments are not obliged to replace faculty in the same field upon their retirement. And in Mac Coffman's case, I don't think he was originally hired as a military historian, but rather an American historian who happened to pursue military history as a research specialization. That he succeeded in producing a generation of outstanding military historians testifies not only to his gifts as a mentor and scholar, but also to the cooperation he received from other Wisconsin faculty whose assistance was indispensable to training his students.

In short, with regard to the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair, I think the Wisconsin history department is much more sinned against than sinning. But while I sympathize with the difficult fiscal environment in which the university finds itself, I think John makes a point it ignores at its peril: colleges and universities can't be allowed to dodge their commitments.

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