Historian's Yardstick

'Measure twice because you can cut only once', is a carpenter's adage making the rounds of American history departments in the wake of the case of David Abraham.

Abraham, a young historian turned out of his post at Princeton University, has become the centre of a storm over academic standards and professional ethics. It is a storm whose intense winds have not been seen for decades and whose direction is still not clear.

In the American system, young scholars are promoted to lifetime tenure after a seven year period of probation. The process, which differs from place to place, consists of various peer reviews, by departmental colleagues as well as experts from outside the institution, and then by a university review on matters of standards, policies, and finance. Criteria for promotion at universities like Princeton centre upon the production of original scholarship that makes a significant contribution to knowledge in its field. Judgments about originality and significance are at the heart of the debate, and the debate is fierce. A life-time commitment of tenure is reckoned to cost $1 million in future salary along with, as business-orientated University administrators say, the opportunity cost: choosing A costs the opportunity to choose B. Stakes are just as high for the candidate. Failure to achieve tenure is at least stigmatising and at worst debilitating.

To secure his tenure, Abraham had published a large and controversial book, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic. In assessing its significance and originality both department and university sought the opinions of experts conversant with the methods and materials on which Abraham's argument was based. Characteristically, opinions varied. If the published book reviews are any guide to the private letters, there was much praise for the forcefulness of the argument and the forthrightness of the conclusions. But at least one scholar was convinced that whatever its significance, the work was too original: that checks in local archives failed to recover documents cited and that quotations from other sources were tendentious and inaccurate.

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