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Alma Mater, Historia Crudelis: Writing Institutional History Without Losing Your Mind or Your Soul

by Benjamin Justice - June 22, 2015

This commentary describes the promises and pitfalls of writing institutional history.

Recently, I was asked to co-author a brief history of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. I have been a faculty member of Rutgers for more than a dozen years. Emotionally, it is like my family: I am proud of the work it does, vocally critical of its shortcomings, and eager to pitch in. Being an historian of education, I was invited to join the University Archivist, Tom Frusciano, in writing the “History and Politics” Chapter of a large coffee-table book celebrating my university’s 250th Anniversary; I found this to be the perfect opportunity to combine my research interests and my service obligations.

There was a time when most of what historians of education discussed was Institutional History. Whether they wrote banal and blithely amnesic celebrations of particular institutions, or sweeping syntheses of whole classes, the tendency was to focus uncritically on changes in administrative policy over time, while ignoring historical context, race, gender, social class, religious bigotry, and other forms of socially organized oppression that institutions tended to reify. Happily my tribe has moved on from those days, to the point where studying exclusion, bigotry, sexism, and racism—not to mention letting the hot air out of claims to institutional exceptionalism—are at the heart of what we do.

Thus, mindful of institutional history’s inglorious past, and cognizant of the occasion for our writing, the very first question my co-author and I asked the editors was whether we as “real” historians could intellectually and ethically participate in this project. The answer was yes—a promise that was honored and well-supported by our superb editorial staff. In the end, we wrote something we were both proud of, and is, we hope, of interest to historians and lay people alike.

Yet despite these well meaning assurances, I came to appreciate a number of subtle ways in which institutions corrupt their own histories, where my goals as a “real historian” seemed to be under threat from unexpected sources, and where there was the potential for good history to lose its way. I also learned, however, that good history making does not always mean making the best history; the present context (in which we write) matters as much as the past context does (for what we write about).

Our vision was to: break the history into eras that have some internal logic, set up each period with a brief discussion of the social and political context (major wars matter a great deal for the history of higher education, as do major shifts in the history of K-12 public schooling), add what was happening in higher education generally, and then try to focus on what matters to us now. Keeping in mind that significant developments in purpose, organization, and experience explain why change happened over time, we decided not to just be inclusive, and we made the struggle for inclusion and exclusion a central theme. We highlighted key moments and individuals only if they helped us understand larger changes. And we did not excessively celebrate in the end zone.

After completing our initial draft of some 17,000 words, we submitted it to an editor who circulated it among a variety of readers across the university and within the editorial staff. This helped us fact-check, as well as audience-check and edit. In this process, however, some patterns emerged which individually were harmless, but which together seemed to be pulling us in directions we did not anticipate. Three lessons emerged in the process that highlight the perils and promise of writing institutional history today.


The first issue was, predictably, the racial, sexual, classist, and religious forms of bigotry and exclusion that characterize the history of American higher education. We did not shy from discussing each of these, but such issues make editors uneasy. In one example, a well-meaning editor tried to add a sentence at the end of a several paragraph section on anti-Semitism in the 1920s with the apologetic statement that “Today, with more than 6,000 Jewish students at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Reform Judaism Magazine consistently includes the campus among the “Top Schools Jews Choose’…” We stuck to our guns.

On the other hand, we also tried to weigh moments and facts that do not, in the balance, accurately convey broader trends. In a section on institutional racism up to and during the Civil Rights Movement, for example, we mentioned that neither of the two previous institutional histories of Rutgers, written by William H. S. Demarist and Richard P. McCormick, even attempted to discuss the absence of African Americans in the student body or faculty. While true, this comment did some injustice to McCormick, who later wrote a thoughtful history of the Black Student Riots of the late 1960s and who personally provided outstanding and courageous leadership among the faculty during Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. Thanks to gentle guidance of a longtime administrator, we removed the comment. Nevertheless, the paragraph still concluded with, “Not until the Civil Rights movement forced the issue did the university seriously consider the problem of race, and accept social justice as a part of its mission.” Later, we give students themselves the primary credit for doing the work that is still ongoing.


There was a good deal of editorial pressure to cut the context, and it became clear that non-historians don’t treasure it the way we do; however, context-free history is no history at all, and institutional history can only be intellectually viable when it helps readers understand why things happened and what they meant in their own day. For example, we wanted today’s readers to understand that, for most of their history, colleges like Rutgers were elite, White institutions. Thus, at the conclusion of a chapter on Gilded-Age multi-purpose colleges, we wrote, “Despite this period of transformation and growth, as of the year 1900 only 2.3 percent of Americans aged 18-24 attended some form of higher education. College did not become all things to all people, but many things to a chosen few.” We resisted efforts to remove this sentence, as well as another alerting readers that higher education was largely segregated in the 19th and much of the 20th century, with separate black institutions, now called HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), emerging in the late 19th century.

In another instance, however, we bowed to pressure to curtail (but not eliminate) our discussion of the origins of Rutgers, within the politics of the Dutch Reform Church in America. While once of the utmost importance, the details of these late eighteenth century controversies are vital for a robust historical understanding, but do not necessarily address pressing issues of our own day, or align with the interests of a general readership. What we provide is—we hope—sufficient, but it is not deep.



On the other hand, there was another unexpected pressure that I think made our piece better, even if it did not make it better history. In its long life, our university has acquired an extensive list of locally famous people, places, and events. Many of these are not especially important for a deep understanding of history, but they are significant to our institutional culture and group identity. The names on buildings, monuments, medals, and awards, as well as legends woven into student rites and rituals, need to find some place in this book, if it is to be useful to our community. We could not include them all, but we hoped to hit the major ones, basing our selection on the rather ahistorical criterion of what is popular today, but historically obscure, like some you have probably never heard of (the log cabin, the grease trucks, or the Red Lion Inn) and some you probably should have heard of (such as Paul Robeson, or Selman Waksman, who led the team that discovered antibiotics).

To put it a different way, the good folks publishing our 250th anniversary history in a large coffee table book hope that we contribute some popular appeal. As we historians tend to be skeptical about exceptionalism, we can certainly recognize—and even value—distinctiveness.


In each of these cases, any single change would not have made that much difference. Taken together, however, suggested changes in controversial subject matter could have fundamentally altered the piece, sapping it of its intellectual rigor and emotional vitality. The controversy is what makes the story inclusive and realistic, allowing everyone’s story to be told. Polishing the icons makes our institutional history inclusive, recognizing that what matters in the historical sense is not the same as recounting the shared details that help it all make sense together.

What I learned about writing institutional history is that there is no secret room filled with cigar-chomping contrarians who will thwart you. Rather, challenges to rigorous and critical history are an inevitable consequence of a process that is, necessarily, communal. Writing high quality institutional history without losing your mind, or your soul, depends on being clear about your priorities, flexible in your commitments, and appreciative that your alma mater has many other children who love her as dearly as you do, just in different ways. An institutional historian must not only be a recent expert on the past, but must also be a patient and modest ombudsman in the present.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 22, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18002, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:17:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Benjamin Justice
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    BENJAMIN JUSTICE is Associate Professor of Education and History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. He is a contributing co-author, with Tom Frusciano, to the forthcoming book, Rutgers: a 250th Anniversary Portrait.
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