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The New York Times

July 19, 1997


Holocaust Studies Gift: A Headache for Harvard


[Photo by] Hollis Page Harman
Ken Lipper

LipperIn 1994, the financier Ken Lipper, one of Harvard University's most powerful donors, offered his alma mater $3.2 million to establish a chair of Holocaust studies. It would be a professorship that, because of Harvard's reach and intellectual might, could define Holocaust scholarship for years to come. But three years later, after a national search among leading scholars in the field, the members of a faculty committee cannot agree on a candidate to fill the post, and the chair remains empty.

Furthermore, the search has been ridden with backbiting and accusations, among them that Mr. Lipper has interfered in favor of his own candidate, a controversial scholar of the Holocaust, Daniel J. Goldhagen, an associate professor of government and social studies at Harvard who elicits strong pro and con reactions among his peers.

Mr. Lipper has refused to allow Harvard to give the position on a temporary basis to another noted scholar, Saul Friedlander. Some candidates have charged that Harvard has allowed Mr. Lipper. who has given close to $8 million to the institution and is a former deputy Mayor of New York, to meddle in faculty hiring, which is considered unacceptable at most universities.

Harvard denies giving in to Mr. Lipper's wishes, saying that it was only honoring the original terms of his gift for a permanent position. And Mr. Lipper has denied trying to influence the search.

Gossip about the search is intensified by the public feuding among some of the candidates. Mr. Goldhagen, author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," in which he traces the Holocaust to deep-rooted anti-Semitism in German culture, has been locked in an angry debate with Christopher Browning, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. Mr. Browning has studied some of the same material, but sees the Holocaust in different terms, in part as the result of social and political pressures on the perpetrators.

Mr. Goldhagen has accused Mr. Browning of ignoring important documents in order to advance his own thesis. Their fight has spilled over into the pages of The New Republic, with Mr. Browning saying that Mr. Goldhagen had reached "a new low." A third candidate for the new professorship, Omer Bartov, a professor at Rutgers University, has also attacked Mr. Goldhagen in The New Republic. Stories about the Harvard search have appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and in Lingua Franca.

The controversy at Harvard comes just after Yale turned away a gift from Larry Kramer, the author and gay rights advocate, to endow a chair in gay and lesbian studies. In 1995, Yale returned a $20 million gift from Lee Bass, a member of a Houston oil family, for a program in Western civilization, because Mr. Bass wanted to approve faculty members.

But at the heart of the dispute at Harvard are profound differences between scholars about the way the Holocaust should be studied. There is also something of an academic turf war going on, with different departments coveting the new position.

Mr. Lipper, the son of a Bronx shoe salesman, himself went to Columbia University, as an undergraduate on scholarship, and then attended Harvard Law School. He has been a partner in Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers and was a screenwriter for the 1996 movie "City Hall." His latest gift to Harvard was part of a $5 million package, including $1 million for the Kennedy School of Government to train the new Palestinian Authority in monetary policy.

Mr. Lipper wanted to name the new Harvard chair "The Helen Zelaznik Professorship for Holocaust and Cognate Studies" in honor of the grandmother of his wife, Evelyn, who, along with his wife's older sister, died at Bergen-Belsen. Mrs. Lipper is the daughter of the late Joseph Gruss, who made a fortune in oil and gas exploration.

There is believed to be only one chair in Holocaust studies at a major university in the United States, at the University of California at Los Angeles, and it is held by Mr. Friedlander.

It took a year and a half for Harvard to write a job description for the proposed professorship. After the job was defined Mr. Lipper donated the first $1 million as an incentive to find a candidate. A search committee was formed, headed by Charles S. Maier, a scholar of European history, and candidates were invited too Harvard to lecture. Most of the great scholars of the Holocaust -- Yehuda Bauer, Raul Hilberg, Mr. Friedlander -- are of retirement age, so the committee focused on the next generation. In addition to Mr. Goldhagen, Mr. Browning, Mr. Friedlander and Mr. Bartov, the committee interviewed Dan Diner, a professor at die University of Essen and the University of Tel Aviv, who has written on how Nazism is portrayed in contemporary Germany. Another candidate was Samuel Kassow, a professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford, who is writing a book on Emmanuel Ringelblum, a historian who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto.

From the beginning, there were differences among committee members about how the Holocaust should he studied. Ruth Wisse, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Harvard and a scholar of Jewish literature, questioned the whole notion of a chair in Holocaust studies. "It's a strange idea," Ms. Wisse said recently from Cambridge. "Is there a chair in 'Communism?' You don't have a chair in modern Jewish history, but you have one on the destruction of the Jewish people."

Some on the committee wanted a scholar who studied the perpetrators of the Holocaust ; others wanted a scholar who studied the victims.

Ms. Wisse was said to favor Mr. Kassow, a scholar of the victims. "The person should he able to command German sources and Jewish historical sources," said Ms. Wisse. But the problem was that Mr. Kassow had not yet published his new work.

Mr. Browning, who studies the perpetrators, believed he was ruled out because, he said recently, "I'm not Jewish. I come from a small college."

Mr. Goldhagen refused to comment on the situation.

Another question was, which department would get the chair: government, history or Near Eastern languages and civilizations, which includes the Jewish studies program? I'm sure there is a turf war going on buried in this," said Ms. Wisse, "though it's not a major issue."

In the end, the committee couldn't agree on anyone. "I don't think the historians or the people in Jewish studies wanted this chair," Mr. Browning said. The field "was considered too narrow, too faddish," Mr. Browning went on. "The insistence on a chair in Holocaust studies came from the administration because he --" Mr. Lipper "-- is a large donor."

The committee decided instead on a temporary measure, to invite Mr. Friedlander to visit Harvard one semester a year until a new candidate could be found. Mr. Friedlander, who is 64, was never offered the position on a permanent basis.

But when Mr. Lipper was presented with Mr. Friedlander as a substitute, he vetoed the choice, saying he wanted someone In a permanent position. The choice of Mr. Friedlander "had nothing to do with my objectives of a grant to train Ph.D's," Mr. Lipper said. "It was a lecture series."

He pointed out that Harvard already had a good candidate: Mr. Goldhagen. The problem is that Mr. Goldhagen does not have tenure. Mr. Lipper said, however, that he would he willing to permit the professorship to be held by a nontenured faculty member and offered to wait for a permanent candidate until Mr. Goldhagen came up for tenure in the fall of 1998. This was perceived by some as intolerable interference.

Mr. Browning said he was taken aback. "By the standards of higher education, a donor should have no role in the selection of an individual," he said. "The fact that the donor continues to play a role is an academic scandal." Harvard, for its part, says that it never made its offer to Mr. Friedlander final. "In this university, as I hope at all universities, donors have no role in the selection of faculty," said Jeremy Knowles, dean of Harvard's faculty of arts and sciences.

For now, the search has been left open until the various contenders ripen, perhaps until Mr. Goldhagen gets tenure or Mr. Kassow publishes his book. Meanwhile, Mr. Lipper's $2 million waits in limbo, and Harvard continues to earn interest on his initial gift of $1 million.

Mr. Lipper said the long search had made him a wiser man. "I've learned from this," he said, "that it's sometimes harder to receive money than it is to give money away."square

Website note: Professor Christopher Browning is one of the expert witnesses selected by Prof Deborah Lipstadt to defend her in the David Irving libel action