Part 34 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

On April 19, 2002, Emory University’s student newspaper The Wheel quoted History Professor Michael A. Bellesiles — author of Arming America (Knopf, 2000) — as saying, flatly, in an e-mail: “I am not being investigated by Emory.”

So, if Bellesiles is telling the truth — something that is highly unlikely, to put it charitably — what, exactly, happened to the investigation Emory was conducting of Bellesiles? What, exactly, was the conclusion of this inquiry? Because — remember? — there was an investigation by Emory.

According to a story in the Atlanta Journal And Constitution (4/20/02), a 30-day investigation of Bellesiles began two-and-a-half months earlier. This report, referring to Emory’s policy, said that “if evidence warrants, a formal investigation is launched that could lead to hearings and ultimately dismissal.”

In another article, distributed by the Associated Press (4/25/02), Robert Paul, dean of Emory, is quoted as saying in a statement that the college “has concluded that further investigation [of Bellesiles] would be warranted by an independent committee of distinguished scholars from outside Emory.”

OK. But, what conclusions were reached as a result of Emory’s investigation of Bellesiles? I mean, Bellesiles is a tenured professor at Emory. So, what is Emory’s verdict on Bellesiles? Attempts to get an answer to this question are met with a no-comment stone wall.

We ask official Emory flack, Jan Gleason: “Is it true, as Bellesiles says, that he is not being investigated by Emory?”

    A: “The University is not commenting on the status of the investigation at this point.”

    Q: “So, there is an investigation. You’re just not commenting on the status of it?”

    A: “I’m not even saying that.”

And though he is head of Emory’s History Department, James Melton is in the dark regarding what is currently going on with Bellesiles. When asked if Bellesiles is still being investigated by Emory?, he says: “I’m out of the loop…. I do not know what’s going on.”

But, why the stonewalling by Gleason? Why was the original Emory investigation announced and various school officials commented on-the-record about procedure. Now, however, when there’s an inquiry about the status of this investigation, the reply is a curt: “No comment.” This makes no sense.

Another thing that makes no sense is why Emory has passed the buck to an outside “independent committee of distinguished scholars.” Why do this? I mean, as I said, the Bellesiles scandal is primarily the responsibility of Emory to investigate. Bellesiles is a professor at Emory. Thus, the buck should start and stop at Emory.

And some of the ways in which Emory has explored the possibility of passing the Bellesiles buck are rather strange. A reliable source familiar with the procedures of the American Historical Association (AHA) says: “We had an inquiry from Emory and answered it. They wanted to know what we could do for them [regarding the Bellesiles case]. We told them.” But, nothing more was heard from Emory. This source says that for the AHA to investigate Bellesiles all Emory had to do was give them what evidence the University had concerning the Arming America controversy. This, however, was not done.

Another source from within the AHA, Debbie Doyle, Administrative Assistant to the Professional Division, says yes, it is possible for a college to file a complaint about a professor with the AHA. But, she adds, “we encourage them to handle the cases on their own.”

Good point. And this is exactly what Emory should have done but has not done.

An editorial in the Emory student paper The Wheel (4/19/02) puts the matter very succinctly and correctly. The paper, calling on the University to complete its work quickly, notes that “by remaining silent on the issue in the face of national controversy, Emory appears to be implicitly supporting Bellesiles.” The paper adds: “If Emory has already completed its investigation, it has an unquestionable duty to its students to release its findings. And if it has not yet, the University should reach a verdict before [Bellesiles] sets foot in the classroom. Whatever the final outcome, Emory must eventually participate in the national dialogue surrounding Bellesiles’ research, either to support him or denounce him.”

This editorial in The Wheel also says that “an overwhelming amount of evidence has surfaced to suggest that Bellesiles was indeed guilty to some degree of fraud.”

Finally, there is evidence that Emory has implicitly supported Bellesiles, that Emory has tried to cover up some of Bellesiles’ lies. The Academic Exchange is a publication distributed free to all Emory University faculty. In one issue of the A.E. (1/22/02), Bellesiles said that contrary to what had been alleged by some critics, he (Bellesiles) had found certain records at the “California History Center.”

To make a long story short, Bellesiles was wrong again. For openers, the place Bellesiles said he found the disputed records was the Contra Costa County Historical Society (CCCHS) not the “California History Center.” And Bellesiles was wrong about what he said he found. And the CCCHS posted several hundred words on its Web site detailing numerous ways in which Bellesiles was wrong about virtually everything he said.

So, at the time, we asked Emory’s official mouthpiece, the aforementioned Jan Gleason, if the Academic Exchange would be running anything about what the folks at the CCCHS said about Bellesiles’ errors? Incredibly, Gleason said no, “I don’t think so. I mean, the Academic Exchange is a faculty newsletter. The previous issue had contained an article regarding controversial research.” And Bellesiles wrote “kinda like a letter-to-the-editor or whatever.”

    Q: “But, the people at the Contra Costa County Historical Society say that what Bellesiles says in his letter is false!, that the records he says are there are not there!”

    A: “The role of the Academic Exchange is not to cover the ongoing controversy blow-by-blow. It’s a publication to — I don’t know what to say — encourage faculty interaction and exchange ideas and that was the spirit in which the Bellesiles letter was printed. This is not a Web site that’s going to provide updates.”

Right. But this is a Web site that has allowed Bellesiles to lie with impunity, covered up his lies and denied the truth to its readers. This is not a good sign that Emory’s investigation of Bellesiles is an honest investigation.