Field Notes


Perhaps Shakespeare's plays were written by Francis Bacon after all. Maybe Homer didn't actually compose the Iliad. It's even possible that the Salem witch possessions arose from hallucinations brought on by indigestion. Then again, maybe not. That's why we rely on academics to separate fact from fancy.

Fancy is a wily seductress, however. For nearly twenty years, the University of Vermont's Donald A. Grinde Jr. and Nebraska's Bruce E. Johansen have written separately and together in defense of the "Iroquois influence thesis." Their claim is that the Iroquois Confederacy and Great Law of Peace - which united six Native American nations while the colonists were still parading the Union Jack - had a formative effect on the design of the United States government. According to Grinde and Johansen's book Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy (California, 1991), Founding Fathers James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams enjoyed repeated contact with Iroquois Indians, from whom they derived inspiration for the Constitution's ideas about the separation of powers, representative democracy, and federalism.


Grinde and Johansen do not claim to have introduced the notion. That honor belongs to William E. Griffis's 1891 book, Sir William Johnson and the Six Nations; earlier in this century, J.N.B. Hewitt, an ethnologist at the Smithsonian Institution, was a noted proponent of the idea. But Griffis's work received little attention from historians until Grinde and Johansen resurrected his arguments two decades ago. Since then, they've been joined in their advocacy by Oren Lyons, who teaches American studies at SUNY Buffalo.

In 1987 their efforts paid off: New York State incorporated the thesis into its eleventh-grade history curriculum. The following year, Lyons, a member of the Onondaga Nation, won over Colorado Democratic representative Ben Nighthorse Campbell, himself a Native American (and now a Republican senator), and successfully lobbied Congress to pass a joint resolution acknowledging "the contributions of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution." More recently, James Loewen included the assertion as fact in his 1995 best-seller, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New Press).

But the ascendance of the Iroquois influence thesis may be short-lived. In the July 1996 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, the journal of record for students of eighteenth-century America, two colonialist scholars tried to definitively discredit the theory, which, according to one of them, depends on words "misquoted, misattributed, decontextualized, inaccurately paraphrased, liberally edited, and misinterpreted." Among the statements that Philip Levy, a doctoral candidate at William and Mary, and Samuel Payne Jr., a professor of political science at Ferrum College, object to are the following: Thomas Jefferson had deep respect for the Iroquois, and even promoted intermarriage with them; James Madison was inspired by the Iroquois's notion of freedom; John Adams conducted an interview in Boston with Joseph Brant, a Mohawk chief, about the details of the Iroquois compact; and Benjamin Franklin, in the course of his Indian diplomacy, looked to the Iroquois Confederacy as a model for the impending confederation.

In fact, Levy counters, Jefferson predicted, but did not promote, intermarriage - and it was because the Indians had inferior laws, not better ones, that Jefferson foresaw such unions as inevitable. As for Madison, writes Payne, he was exposed to the Iroquois but never spoke of any influence; the mistake originates in a 1948 biography of Madison. Payne points out that Madison cites numerous influences for the Constitution in The Federalist Papers, including the Amphictyonic council, the Achaean league, and the Swiss Confederacy - but never mentions the Iroquois Confederacy. And while Franklin certainly had respect for the Iroquois, says Payne, he never connected them directly with the 1754 Albany Plan of Union (the colonies' early confederation plan), as Grinde and Johansen aver. What Franklin actually wrote was: "It would be a strange Thing, if Six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies" - in context, hardly a ringing endorsement.

In a fifteen-page reply, Grinde and Johansen do not challenge Levy's assertion about Jefferson, or Payne's about Madison. They concede another of Levy's points - that John Adams could not have met with Joseph Brant in Boston because Adams was in London at the time - and promise that "the error will be remedied" in future editions of their book. But they continue to maintain that Franklin encouraged the colonists to emulate the Iroquois model. Their strongest remonstration: that Levy and Payne "suffer from imprecision in the delineation of our case"; and that, "having demanded proof," Levy "fails to define his term."

Be that as it may, the scholarly community is unswayed by the reply. Wilcomb Washburn, former director of American studies at the Smithsonian Institution, emphasizes that Indian influence, while real, was limited. "Grinde and Johansen built this incredible superstructure on inferences, suggestions, and leaping to conclusions. I'm more sympathetic to Indian influence than a lot of scholars, but I simply can't go along with it." According to William and Mary's James Axtell, a leading advocate of interpreting eighteenth-century American history as a cultural contest between natives and colonists, the 1988 Congressional resolution owes its existence to "a public-relations effort by one small faction of the Iroquois folk," led by SUNY Buffalo's Lyons. And when David Hackett Fischer, the noted Brandeis scholar of the early-modern era, is asked how much credence the Iroquois influence thesis is given, he is terse: "With me, zero."

One wonders why the Iroquois influence camp wishes to establish the native roots of a Constitution under which Native Americans suffered more than a century of brutal subjugation. Surely the Iroquois's Great Law of Peace is worth studying for its own merits. Dickinson College's Daniel K. Richter, a prominent historian of Native America, understands the appeal of the thesis but thinks that Grinde, Johansen, and Lyons's efforts are misplaced. "It would be better to look at the real ways that the state and federal governments have been shaped by interactions with Indians," he says. The most usable past, in other words, may be the real one.



What's the worst way to choose a chair for your political science department? Fordham University in New York has at least two suggestions: Try picking a name out of a hat. If that doesn't work out, try choosing someone behind closed doors - while most of the faculty is away on summer vacation. Both methods have recently been tested in Fordham's political science department, and the results have hardly shown the illustrious Jesuit university at its best. The department faculty are divided and acrimonious, and the American Association of University Professors is looking into a possible violation of faculty prerogatives on the part of the university administration.

The odd story begins in 1995, when Fordham integrated its two campuses - Rose Hill, in the Bronx, and Lincoln Center, in Manhattan - into a unified structure. Like all departments, the political science faculty was told to choose a chair for the newly unified department on a one-year interim basis. But as straightforward as that may sound, asking sixteen ideologically contentious political scientists to take part in an election was asking for trouble.

At a departmental meeting on April 21, 1995, two professors - William Baumgarth (a conservative Aquinas expert and the outgoing chair of the Rose Hill department) and Nicole Fermon (a Lincoln Center Rousseau scholar with a special interest in feminist theory) received eight votes each, both short of the nine votes needed to send either name on to the administration for affirmation. With a second ballot needed, several of Baumgarth's supporters came up with what they believed to be a clever plan: They suggested that everyone vote for both candidates, so that both names might get the necessary number of votes to be sent up to the administration. Once this was done, the Baumgarth partisans assumed that the school's then-vice president of academic affairs, Reverend James Loughran, would choose their man. After all, as a Bronx-based traditionalist, Baumgarth was the candidate most likely to please the school's top brass.

The political scientists, it turned out, had only outmaneuvered themselves. On the second count, Baumgarth again received eight votes, but Fermon now had eleven, and thus the department's nomination - virtually guaranteeing her the chair. The Baumgarth allies - two of whom happen to be election specialists - were furious at their miscalculation. "You may think you've won," declared one as they stormed out of the room, "but you're wrong. You really lost."

Even as the official ballot results were on their way to Loughran, the Baumgarth faction wrote Loughran to explain what had happened, calling the vote a sham. Loughran, faced with open dissension in the department, came up with a novel idea. Gathering his secretary and others around him, he put Baumgarth's and Fermon's names in a hat. Fermon's came out first, and the chair was hers after all.

Peace was not at hand, however. A year later, when Fermon's one-year appointment was up, she was renominated by the department in a nine-to-seven vote. But this time the new vice president for academic affairs, Robert Carrubba, made it clear that he would not be appointing her. Instead, he sent out a memo dated August 19, 1996, calling for a department meeting in one week. "In accordance with the University Statutes," he wrote, "our purpose will be to identify a person, other than the original nominee, to serve as department chair."

Called at short notice while school was out of session, the August 26 meeting did not have a quorum of department faculty, as several professors noted at the outset. Nonetheless, Carrubba proceeded to solicit names and three were offered. Two days later, David Lawrence, a Rose Hill faculty member and original supporter of Baumgarth's, was named the new chair.

Just what is it that the administration doesn't like about Nicole Fermon? Lawrence points to long-standing pedagogical divisions "over professional identity" and notes Fermon's decision to open up curricular discussions to all departmental faculty, regardless of their area of expertise. For his part, Carrubba reportedly gave several reasons for refusing to nominate Fermon at a department meeting in December. Among them was that she wasn't available enough to faculty and students, and had acted in an "insubordinate" manner when she refused to accept a Baumgarth supporter as deputy after her own candidate was rejected. Fermon's supporters, meanwhile, suggest that the administration disapproved of her because she was a feminist, a progressive, and had challenged the Rose Hill style of "governance by minority," as one put it.

In any case, Carrubba's interventions into the political science department's business have been serious enough to warrant the attentions of the American Association of University Professors. On the Fordham campus, too, the departmental divisions have stirred up some trouble, garnering headlines in the campus paper such as dirty politics. In a happier development for Fordham administrators, the faculty senate has found that the administration did not violate any university statutes by failing to have a quorum on August 26. "The decision was that a simple majority [of department faculty] was needed," says philosophy professor Dominic Balestra, who served on the faculty senate committee considering the political science complaint. "The acting chair, David Lawrence, is legitimate."

Legitimate, perhaps, but not universally well liked. Lawrence put off scheduling a department meeting until the fifth month of his term. ("People felt they would serve no purpose, I among them," he explains.) But he does still hope that "some reconciliation can take place" in the near future. His appointment, however, is only for one year, and when asked whether he'll stay on as chair long enough to bring that peace, Lawrence sighs. "My God," he says. "I hope not."



In Elizabethan times, according to a New York University pamphlet, "even the grandest room in a nobleman's castle rarely held more than a single piece of furniture that could be called a chair." And so it was a significant event back then when an instructor was promoted to professor and presented with an actual chair to call his own. Nowadays, of course, even TAs get their own places to sit, and the endowed chair, while still a symbol of academic arrival, is an increasingly common item of campus furniture.

"What we would love to do is endow all our faculty," says Steve Oliveira, associate vice president for development at Brown University. His school recently completed a fund drive that took in $84 million more than its $450 million goal and endowed 53 new professorships, at the price of at least $1 million per. After a recent ten-year, billion-dollar campaign, NYU added to its stable more than 90 endowed chairs, bringing its total to 152.

All of these new chairs might sound like good news for cash-strapped departments, but there's a catch: Whereas in the old days an endowed chair was often filled after a nationwide search for the ideal scholar, today's administrators are increasingly bestowing their newly endowed positions upon scholars who are already on the payroll. And so, while a department might be thrilled to acquire a new chair, it may also soon find out that nothing much has changed: There has been no net increase in the number of its faculty or even in its funding.

What's going on here is that universities are using their endowment money to support creative "budget shifting." And that can be a remarkably lucrative activity. NYU associate vice president David Koehler explains: "Basically, the money you would have used to pay a professor's salary can be used for something else because you can now pay that salary out of an endowment." In other words, the endowed chair becomes a canny way of funding the mundane - hardback volumes for the library, a few new acres of asphalt, perhaps green spray paint for the quad.

So, how much must a donor cough up? Development officers agree that the price of a chair has more to do with the "dynamics of fundraising" than with the actual cost of paying a professor's salary. As a result, prices tend to vary according to the wealth of a school's alumni: While Harvard requires $2.5 million, the University of North Carolina requests a mere $333,000 (which is matched by $167,000 from the state) from its philanthropists.

Even at the going rate of $1.5 million, however, a chair endowment may not be enough to pay a professor's salary and the chair's attendant costs in perpetuity. And that is all the more incentive for a university to offer a new chair to a professor from its own ranks. After all, nobody likes a gift that ends up costing them money.

Universities may deserve credit for realizing the endowed chair's full financial potential. But one wonders if in doing so, they risk devaluing the very resource they are relying on. After all, the University of Minnesota has 241 chairs today. In 1985, it only had 17. As the endowed chair's exclusivity - and corresponding prestige - begin to fade, schools may also have to find a new resource to sell. Coming soon: the endowed cubicle.



Now that the New School for Social Research is seventy-eight years old, the powers that be at the Manhattan institution have decided that it's finally time for a name change. But they're not dropping the "New": On December 4, President Jonathan F. Fanton announced at a special convocation that the New School's trustees had voted to change the name to "New School University." Huh?

In his speech, Fanton explained that the old name, although it had "acquired a charm for me," was "a source of puzzlement" - not least because its reference to social research concealed "the fact that over half our degree students are in the arts." Indeed, revenue from Parsons School of Design, Mannes College of Music, and the New School's other arts programs makes up 60 percent of the university's tuition income. So the hope is that the new name will, as Fanton put it, help "clarify" the situation.

Of course, there's that little redundancy problem - and the fact that the new name makes no reference to the arts. Fanton acknowledged these dilemmas in passing at the convocation: "Let us hope the odd juxtaposition of 'School' and 'University' will continue to spark a conversation about why we are different." He suggested that the new name was a compromise between what he alluded to as "fairly radical ideas" and the desire to maintain some continuity with the school's history.

Not everyone is happy with Fanton's decision. Students have been protesting (chanting "The new name sucks!" and the like) and circulating petitions in opposition to the change. "It's a bad idea, and it's an embarrassing, stupid name," says Jason Kosnoski, editor of Rant & Rave, the graduate student newsletter. Professor Agnes Heller agrees. "A name carries history," she asserts. "One does not need to explain that the New School is a university, but from now on we shall need footnotes to identify this institution as the one where so many great scholars were teaching. The present does not tolerate variety, it swallows up the past."

The administration did indeed consider other, more "radical" names, according to senior staff members. (The students, faculty, and alumni, not being formally consulted, did not.) John Dewey University was one striking suggestion. The problem is that Dewey, although involved with the school and its founding (and constantly mentioned in its brochures), was never a permanent member of its faculty. Oh, sure, he was a friend and supporter, but he preferred to stay safely uptown at Columbia. So, what about one of the other original faculty members? Unfortunately, Thorstein Veblen University doesn't exactly trip off the tongue.

Why not something that conjures up New York, like... Gotham University? This, too, was considered and rejected - perhaps in fear of how DC Comics's legal staff might respond. The third runner-up was perhaps the most promising: Greenwich Village University. Alas, the trustees must have realized that there already is a Greenwich Village University. It's called NYU.


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