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Institutional Responsibility and Individual Research

Civil War Memory’s Kevin Levin raises a very interesting point in a recent blog entry about Earl Ijames, curator at the North Carolina Museum of History:

“As I stated before, I would have no problem if we were talking about a private individual; however, Mr. Ijames is an employee of a public institution.  The North Carolina Museum of History and Office of Archives and History have a responsibility here.  Are we in the historical community supposed to believe that Earl Ijames speaks for the museum and the rest of the public historical community in North Carolina?  Is this the level of scholarship that they expect from their employees and is this the level of scholarship that we would find in other historical areas?”

Kevin’s raised a series of questions here that, taken on their merits, contain interesting implications for all sorts of institutions, including museums, historian agencies, federal agencies, and public academic institutions.

The fact that someone’s an employee of a public institution in itself should not be taken to mean much, so long as the person does not portray the views of the individual as the views of the institution.  Indeed, the whole notion of academic freedom touches on this issue.  I do not speak FOR Arizona State University when I express my opinions on matters of public import.  Academic freedom means that ASU and the state of Arizona give me a wide berth when it comes to expressing my views and sharing my research.  Indeed, as I’ve said before, if you are easily offended, don’t come to a college or university campus. 

Now, if one portrays themselves as speaking on behalf of an organization, everything changes, and to claim that one speaks on behalf of an institution invites all sorts of queries.  Yet, someone employed by one of these institutions will as a matter of course mention their affiliation with an institution, and indeed that’s the norm.  One could, I guess, offer the standard disclaimer that one’s views are one’s own: one should also expect that if one works for a public institution, one will receive threats about informing one’s superiors of what one has said (I’ve encountered this from time to time, and I take it as a sign that someone’s conceding that they have failed to prevail on the merits of the case, and thus want to coerce me into silence … unsuccessfully).  I accept that as part of the job.  Some people love me for the enemies I have made.

Nor do I readily understand the notion of institutional responsibility for individual research.  ASU does not take responsibility for my research and it does not sanction it with a seal of good housekeeping.  Had my research been found lacking by my professional peers, I doubt I would have been tenured, promoted twice, and awarded an endowed chair.  However, so long as the speaker does not make the claim that he is speaking on behalf of the institution, the issue of institutional responsibility is not what it otherwise be.  For example, I don’t always agree with my institutional colleagues, and they don’t always agree with me.   Institutional responsibility in that case has to do more with ensuring a fair process of conflict resolution according to previously agreed-upon rules.  There is no institutional line at ASU about why Confederates fought, for example, and the institution would be justified in reprimanding me only if it found my research to be substandard or otherwise unprofessional (plagiarism comes to mind). 

Say, however, that someone wrote me inquiring about an academic question in my professional capacity, and I replied in a matter that was explicitly insulting and outrageous.  If I’m writing an e-mail from my ASU address, or using ASU stationery, I might want to consider how I express myself (here the internet has raised all sorts of new questions about which server one’s using, etc., so let’s set that aside).  Just as I now normally use a private e-mail address for non-job-related matters on the internet (although the definition of my professional interests is rather broad) and have never claimed to speak on behalf of an institution, anything I offered on institutional stationery or through my professional e-mail address in correspondence is fair ground for someone to ask my superiors to scrutinize for matters of taste, professional deportment, etc.  Thus, I had no problem with Kevin’s recent decision to copy Mr. Ijames’s superiors on his original request or to forward Mr. Ijames’s response, which I think was ill-advised, to his superiors.  What Mr. Ijames’s superiors choose to do with that information is up to them.  I would have a problem if someone asked that Mr. Ijames be reprimanded or disciplined because of the views which he espouses.  I have no problem with someone scrutinizing his scholarship, and, frankly, neither should he.  That’s also part of the job.

I don’t think anyone should be punished for the academic views they espouse just because I may not agree with their academic views, or that a fellow professional should be silenced because of the political views they espouse, even when I have found those views absolutely repugnant.  There are constraints on such speech, and it’s up to those who endorsed those restraints to address those issues.  I have no reluctance in exposing poor scholarship for what it is, and to demonstrate the flimsy basis upon which certain people advance certain interpretations.  Let’s not confuse these things.

Comments (5) to “Institutional Responsibility and Individual Research”

  1. Brooks,

    Thanks so much for this post. I am in the process of writing what I hope to be my final post on the Earl Ijames affair. I pretty much agree with what you’ve said here. It is important that individuals are free to think and write without feeling threatened because of their beliefs. Obviously, there may be a few exceptions to this rule, but that need not concern us here.

    I’ve confined myself to Ijames’s “research” which is all that matters here. I have inquired in various posts whether his response to my request was appropriate.

    The passage that you quoted at the beginning was more an attempt to ask an honest question rather than assume one way or the other. If the Office of Archives and History is responsible for doing good history than must there be some kind of oversight in how curators and historians go about doing history? In Ijames’s case we are talking about public presentations where he is introduced as working for the North Carolina Museum of History. Should he state at the beginning that he does not speak for the museum? Apparently he uses artifacts from the museum. Does that change anything. I am not a public historian and I am unfamiliar with the protocol in such instances.

    I would love to know what others think. Of course, I would love to know what fellow employees at the museum and the NCDAH think, though I understand that they may be less than willing to come forward given the situation.

    Anyway, I thank you for raising these issues as they are an important component in all of this.

  2. I’ve been a public historian in the past, and I’ve used materials at the museum where I worked for published research, so maybe I can shed some light on that aspect of this. As far as that situation went, whatever I said in an article or speech that wasn’t under the aegis of the museum itself was my own responsibility, and not an official position or statement of the museum. They didn’t endorse or sign off on such work, any more than a university endorses an article or book published by one of its faculty members.

    I would imagine, though, that if I sent an insulting or unprofessional e-mail to a colleague or researcher via my work address, that I might fairly be called to account for it.

    I would imagine that these are fairly standard procedures for museums and archives.

    Of course, if one’s extra-curricular scholarship is substandard or questionable, then one might justifiably expect to be skipped over for promotions or tenure, or to find one’s head the first one on the block when it’s time for cutbacks.


  3. I agree Dr. Brooks with your position on this issue. I hope this is all resolved soon and we get the answers we seek.

  4. Brooks,

    I had a chance to reread the post in question and it seems to me that you let me off the hook too easily. At the end of the post I specifically stated that this would continue “until action is taken.”

    What I should have said was that Ijames’s employer should clearly state or ask him to state at the beginning of his public presentations that he does not speak for the institution. Hope that clears it up. Again, I would be horrified by the idea of employees in such situations being censored or reprimanded for their beliefs.

  5. Interesting discussion. I volunteer at a local museum and have given a couple of public talks as a representative of the museum. I think a lot of this is common sense, but it was nice to see this in writing and I have forwarded it to some of the other volunteers as well, as some of them may give such talks as well. It’s definitely “food for thought.” Thanks for posting this perspective.