I write to you in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 600,000 people worldwide, disproportionately impacts Native American, Latinx, and Black communities in the United States, threatens the future of higher education and public history institutions, and shows no sign of abating. Federal agents have invaded U.S. cities, and despite national protests the police continue to murder Black people.
Given these crises, the controversy that has embroiled the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic since the webinar, “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump,” took place on Friday, July 17, may not appear particularly grave. But despite the chaos in the world outside, the inner workings of this organization are important to all of us. The membership of SHEAR is owed transparency, and what follows is an account of events leading up to the panel and what happened afterwards.
A little more than three months ago, the leadership of SHEAR, like that of every other professional organization, faced the impossibility of holding an annual meeting during the Covid-19 crisis. The Executive Committee, which includes the Immediate Past-President, the President, and the President-Elect, decided to delay the conference until 2021, and extend President Doug Egerton’s presidency for a second year; he and I would serve as co-presidents, and he could deliver his presidential address at a full and true conference, as have all previous SHEAR presidents.
At the time, we brainstormed about offering a few virtual events over the conference weekend, including the much-loved Second-Book Writers’ Workshop, and a graduate student meet-and-greet (both of which were, thanks to their organizers, great successes). We also asked the chairs of the 2020 Program Committee to recommend panels accepted for the conference that might not feel fresh a year from now. President Egerton approached the organizers of several such panels, but among them, only Professor Daniel Feller agreed to present his panel virtually. Although I was not privy to the specifics of this or any other proposed panel, I endorsed the plan to present it to the membership because I thought it was a timely topic and something that you, the membership, would appreciate. This was a mistake.
I will not discuss the many failures of that event, and Professor Feller’s paper in particular, as they have been eloquently addressed by my SHEAR colleagues. As SHEAR President, let me reiterate the values of the organization and its commitment to engaging critically with the full complexity of the early American Republic, which requires thoughtful consideration of the experiences of all the diverse peoples who shaped the period that is SHEAR’s focus. With the support of the Advisory Council, I am appointing a committee to review our Statement of Values about Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment and recommend changes for review and approval by the whole membership.
The webinar plan was not the only important decision made in April. The most pressing issues at the time were the contractual obligations SHEAR had already made to conference hotels for the 2020 and 2021 meetings. When, after many hours of work, Conference Coordinator Robyn Davis skillfully resolved the situation, we in the leadership breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Advisory Council voted to postpone the 2020 meeting to 2021, and move the location of the 2020 and 2021 conferences forward a year. What we did not do was hold an election between the April meetings and the Conference to ratify the Executive Committee decision to have President Egerton extend his presidency. As a result, he could not serve in that role and his term ended, as it has for all presidents, on the Saturday night of the conference. This year, that was July 18th.
This had a profound effect upon the way events unfolded in the aftermath of the webinar. As criticism of SHEAR grew online and in our inboxes, events moved very fast. Concerned members of the Advisory Council, who were justifiably upset about the panel and convinced that the letter of apology that President Egerton published had not been a sufficient response, met on Sunday to discuss a course of action. Unfortunately, they did not take into consideration that there are 9 officers of SHEAR who are also ex officio members of the Advisory Council. These members were not invited.
There was no intent to deprive the ex officio members of the Council of their right to be heard and to vote on this or any other matter. The concerned members acted in good faith. However, had the entire Advisory Council, including its ex officio members, met as a body, it would almost certainly have become clear that President Egerton’s formal term ended Saturday night, and events might well have unfolded very differently. Instead, working on the mistaken assumption that President Egerton would remain co-president for another year, the group of concerned members decided to publicly recommend he “resign as President and step down from the Executive Committee” which he did by resigning his position as Immediate Past President. After being elected unanimously by the full Advisory Council, former President Annette Gordon-Reed has kindly agreed to spend an additional year on the Executive Committee in his place. The Nominating Committee invites your nominations for the election to be held next month for all open SHEAR offices, including a new President-Elect.
These events, and the constructive criticism that has ensued, have forced all of us in leadership positions at SHEAR to reflect on how we can better discharge our responsibilities in our various roles. Moving forward, we pledge to work together as a unified leadership team governed by the constitution and by-laws. We also commit to a searching review of our policies and procedures to see where they can be improved. In this process, we will and must createopportunities for the membership as a whole to express their views and offer their ideas. Next week the Advisory Council will consider a number of specific proposals to improve SHEAR governance.
Had our leadership not elevated said panel to plenary status, SHEAR governance would not now be an issue. Over the past week friends, colleagues, and members of the public have shared with me their reactions to Friday’s panel and SHEAR’s institutional inequity. Many members told me that the SHEAR they saw on the webinar was not the SHEAR they knew and loved. But too many other scholars made it clear that this is the SHEAR they recognized: a heavily white institution in which they struggled to find the comfort and safety of an intellectual home. Our organization has long prided itself on collegiality and the mentorship of junior scholars, but the letters I have received this week make clear that SHEAR’s collegiality and mentorship have not been open to everyone. I thank all those who have taken the time to reach out and to call our organization to account. We can all agree that SHEAR needs to be more welcoming to scholars of color, and it must foster diverse scholarship. The question lies in how best to enact that change. One answer is to expand leadership opportunities to a wider range of stakeholders in the organization, including contingent scholars and graduate students. We can also point to aspects of our organization’s history that suggest progress, including the Journal of the Early Republic, which has published some of the best anti-racist scholarship on early U.S. history. In doing so it has provided essential resources to scholars and teachers engaged in this struggle.
Like others in our country, ours is an organization deeply entangled in a legacy of inequity and racial disregard, and moving forward will require all of us to consider what further steps we can take to loosen that knot. Together, we must figure out what it means for a professional organization to be anti-racist. We can begin that work collectively on Monday, with the opportunity to discuss a series of possible diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives for the organization. The conversation will begin on The Panorama with a working report prepared by several colleagues over the last year at the behest of the Advisory Council, with the expectation that our engaged membership will supplement those ideas with many more of their own. The Advisory Council will meet in September to implement an action plan with clear accountability mechanisms to allow SHEAR to meet the demands of the current moment. Through transparent and practical change, I am committed to earning back and maintaining the trust that has been eroded in our organization and in the public. I won’t do everything perfectly, but I promise to do my best, and to be held accountable for my mistakes.
Many of us were surprised to find there was a public audience for a Friday afternoon webinar in July with multiple crises engulfing the nation. But what we should have realized is that the history of the United States between its Revolution and its Civil War matters a great deal in American public life— perhaps more than ever before as our current political moment lays bare the legacies of the period we study. As historians, the members of this organization have the power to reveal the origins of the racism and political structures that have brought the United States to its current impasse. I invite all of you to help make SHEAR worthy of this responsibility.
Amy S. Greenberg
President, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic