Phi Beta Cons

Grimsley Reaps

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: 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.
UPDATE: Grimsley replies here.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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