Over the summer, Yale President Peter Salovey convened the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming to underscore our “obligation to confront this country’s — and our University’s — past.” This is a positive move, but to consolidate historical expertise and preserve institutional memory, the University should appoint an official University historian.
The University historian will not be a benign symbol of nostalgia for Old Yale. In private, she will provide advice to senior administrators on issues relating to heritage and memorialization, such as the recent debate about the renaming of Calhoun College. But equally important, she can provide a historical perspective on contemporary issues by framing them in their longue durée. Given the high administrative turnover in recent years — a reality of any modern research university — the need for such a position is more urgent than ever.
The University historian could provide counsel on almost every controversy of the day. In a discussion on college admissions, she could bring to bear Yale’s disgraceful history of anti-Semitic exclusion. In discussions about mental health, she could remind the community of the pioneering role of its mental hygiene department, but also its ambiguous relationship with the military. And in debates about the role of Greek life on campus, she would explore the reasons for its unexpected revival in the ’90s, after fraternities died off in the ’60s.
The University historian should have full access to the University’s archives. This would include the meeting minutes of the Yale Corporation, which are currently sealed for 50 years. Such an arrangement would strike a balance between calls for transparency and the need for confidentiality, given the delicate nature of the Corporation’s work.
In public, the University historian would serve as a champion for informed engagement with the University’s past. The half-life of Yale College is two years; most Yale students have no way of contemplating longer timescales, apart from quirky traditions like going to Mory’s or singing “Bright College Years.” But judging by enrollment in the seminar “Yale and America,” there is real interest in candidly assessing the history of the University. The University historian could fulfill this unmet demand, organizing events, writing articles and supporting student research.
Who might be the inaugural University historian? Presumably, she would be a senior professor specializing in American history or the history of education. Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, who teaches “Yale and America,” is an obvious choice, as is History Professor Glenda Gilmore, who has been outspoken in a number of campus discussions. Alternatively, the University historian could be an experienced librarian or curator: Judith Schiff, chief research archivist at Sterling Memorial Library, has been studying primary documents about Yale for almost four decades.
The University historian would have to be distant enough from the day-to-day operations of Yale to be credible, but significant enough in its hierarchy to exert influence on the administration. She will probably hold a position equivalent to that of associate vice president, equal in seniority to, say, the dean of student engagement.
Over the last decades, Yale historians have played a major role in crafting a number of momentous reports. C. Vann Woodward wrote the “historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement.” Frank Turner GRD ’71, who as provost outlined an overarching academic strategy in 1990, was a scholar of 19th-century European intellectual history. The appointment of a University historian would simply codify the outsized role that historians have traditionally played in University governance.
Why should Yale appoint a University historian at this particular moment? Many of the issues facing elite institutions involve a historical complexity that cannot be subsumed under the rubric of mere heritage. For example, Georgetown University’s recent decision to offer preferential admission to the descendants of slaves creates complicated methodological questions, like how genealogical lines are traced. In the same vein, what was missing in last year’s conversation about the renaming of Calhoun was an analysis of past debates and decisions — after all, the question has waxed and waned since 1933. A University historian would move beyond orthodox triumphalism and revisionist shame, and achieve a synthesis that captures the rich texture of the past.
As an institution, Yale would also be a model for policymakers, businessmen and activists to bring a humanistic perspective to bureaucratic administration, which is too often dominated by the social sciences. In “The History Manifesto,” Jo Guldi and David Armitage call for historians to participate in public debates; conversely, in the September issue of The Atlantic, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson argue that the U.S. president needs a council of historical advisers. Of course, historical scholarship is innately valuable, but if a university doesn’t take its own history seriously, who will?
In appointing a University historian, Yale would be capitalizing on the longstanding strength of its history faculty, who have always been committed to engaging nonspecialist audiences. The University historian will need to speak truth to power, rather than hedge her judgements. Historians do not operate by committee. If Yale is committed to engaging the past, it must appoint a figure devoted to its study.
Jun Yan Chua is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .