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History Doyen: Stephan Thernstrom

What They're Famous For

Stephan Thernstrom is the Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard University where he teaches American social history, and Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He was born in Port Huron, Michigan and educated in the public schools of Port Huron and Battle Creek. He graduated with highest honors from Northwestern University in 1956, and was awarded the Ph.D. by Harvard in 1962.He held appointments as assistant professor at Harvard, associate professor at Brandeis University, and professor at UCLA before returning to Harvard as a professor in 1973. In 1978-1979 he was the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University and Professorial Fellow at Trinity College.

 He has been awarded fellowships from the John S. Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, and the John M. Olin Foundation, and research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mathematical Social Science Board, the American Philosophical Society, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. His most recent book, co-authored with Abigail Thernstrom, is No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. He also collaborated with Abigail Thernstrom in America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. He is the editor of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, the co-editor of Nineteenth Century Cities: Essays in the New Urban History and Beyond the Color Line: New Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity , and the author of Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a 19th-Century City.

 His books have been awarded the Bancroft Prize in American History, the Harvard University Press Faculty Prize, the Waldo G. Leland Prize of the American Historical Association, and the R. R. Hawkins Award of the Association of American Publishers. He also has written widely in periodicals for general audiences, including The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, The Public Interest, Commentary, Dissent, Partisan Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He was appointed to serve on the National Humanities Council by President Bush in 2002.

Personal Anecdote

 I cannot offer a neat little anecdote that sums up why I became a historian. I came relatively late and only gradually to the discipline. Indeed, I must confess that my interest in anything that happened in school developed relatively late in the day. I was bored out of my mind in my elementary and junior high classes, and devoted my energies to making life miserable for my teachers. Dipping the pigtails of the girl sitting at the desk in front of me into my inkwell (yes, we had inkwells back in Port Huron, Michigan in the 1940s), releasing garter snakes in class, putting thumb tacks on the teacher's chair, etc. I was an ardent reader from an early age, but saw no connection between the books I was devouring and what the teachers were trying to do. One day in 8th-grade English, the teacher urged us to consider attending college, not very common for my age group those days. To underscore the point that mere brains would not suffice, she declared that Steve Thernstrom might be smart enough for college but never would make it there because he was such a goof-off and troublemaker.

When I hit 9th-grade, we were all placed in one of three tracks--academic, general, or vocational. It was no surprise to me that I was consigned to Metal Shop, while the diligent, well-behaved students were put in Latin. It was a great surprise to my mother, though, and she marched over to the school and raised hell. As a result of her intervention, I did get into Latin, and was a crucial turning point in my education. I loved it.

In the summer before 10th-grade, we moved from Port Huron to Battle Creek. I continued with Latin, but found a new love that engaged me even more deeply—the debate team. The academic subjects other than Latin continued to bore me; certainly the U.S. and World History surveys I took were uninspiring. But the debate coach proved to be the greatest teacher I had until graduate school, and he was responsible for my intellectual awakening. I spent more time working on debate than on all my other courses put together, and my enthusiasm for it determined my choice of college.

All the best students in my high school automatically went on to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the only one who went East to an Ivy was the son of a Princeton man, and he followed in his daddy's footsteps. I decided, though, that Michigan was not for me, because it had recently abandoned intercollegiate debate. So I chose to attend Northwestern, which not only had a strong debate team but scholarships for students who were good at it. The scholarship required that recipients enroll in the School of Speech rather than the College of Liberal Arts, so that's what I had to do to be eligible for it. That did not prove very constraining. The requirements of the School of Speech were minimal and the courses were a snap, so that I always took five courses rather than the required four-course load and had ample opportunity to explore the liberal arts. Everything in the social sciences and humanities interested me in my college years. I did a fair amount of work in history (mostly European), in economics, sociology, and political science. I thought seriously about graduate school in economics, but my teacher in an economic history course advised me that I needed a strong math background to get anywhere in economics. After floundering in the math class I took as a result of this advice—ironically in light of the quantitative character of much of my later research—I gave up that idea, and decided on graduate school in political science.

When I came Harvard, in 1956, political science was taught in the Department of Government, and the faculty's commitment to that old-fashioned label was significant. The teachers I had my first year were all historians of sorts. V.O. Key taught a historically rich course in Southern politics; Robert G. McCloskey's American Constitutional Law would have fit perfectly into a history department's offerings. Most important to me was the offerings of the political theorist Louis Hartz, who had published his remarkable volume, The Liberal Tradition in America, the year before I arrived in Cambridge.

Hartz dazzled me, and it happened he was then serving as chair of the interdisciplinary History of American Civilization Ph.D. program. My excitement over his explorations in what later came to be called "consensus history" led me to transfer into that program. I was not primarily interested in the history of political thought, though, and could not accept Hartz's view that the roots of American exceptionalism were fundamentally ideological. I thought that a closer look at the evolution of the American social structure would illuminate the question more than further study of Madison or Calhoun. After entering the Am Civ program, I studied with Hartz, Oscar Handlin, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Frank Freidel, and took two sociology courses, one on social stratification and social mobility, and another, from Barrington Moore on modern social theory and political power.

After passing my orals, I began work on my dissertation--what became Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a 19th-Century City--under the wise guidance of Oscar Handlin. The underlying question it addressed—the absence of a class-conscious proletariat in the United States—had been explored by Hartz, and by Sombart and Marx before him. But I sought to answer it by using some simple quantitative techniques borrowed from sociology as well as the usual tools of the historian, building on a foundation supplied by the rarely used manuscript schedules of the U.S. Census I chose to work on Newburyport rather than another city conveniently near Cambridge—Lowell or Lawrence, say—because it was famous in American sociology as the site of W. Lloyd Warner's five-volume "Yankee City" series.

While I was doing my Newburyport research, I continued to learn from exposure to scholars in other disciplines. I worked as a section leader in sociologist David Riesman's "American Character and Social Structure" and political scientist Samuel Beer's "Western Thought and Institutions " A fellowship from the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies gave me a final year free to do the final writing of the dissertation, and fruitful contact with specialists in urban economics, urban politics, demography, geography, and city planning.

As I neared the end of graduate school, I had come to consider myself an American historian, and those were the job advertisements that I began to pore over anxiously. (I did have an inquiry from a leading sociology department, but decided that much of what I wanted to teach wouldn't fit there and withdrew my name from consideration.) But I was also determined to keep up with the other social sciences as much as possible, and to make use of concepts and methods from other disciplines that might prove useful in explaining historical developments. In the four decades or so that have passed since then, my interests have changed to some extent; I work mainly on the 20th century rather than 19th century now, for example. But I still am doing the kind of history I learned to do in graduate school. 

Quotes By Stephan Thernstrom

From Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom in "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

"In 1991, 13 percent of the whites of the United States said that they had generally "unfavorable" opinions about black Americans. In an ideal world, that number would be zero. But such a world is nowhere to be found, In Czechoslovakia that same year, 49 percent of Czechs had "unfavorable" attitudes toward the Hungarian ethnic minority living within the boundaries of their country. Likewise, 45 percent of West Germans disliked the Turks living in Germany; 54 percent of East Germans regarded Poles negatively; 40 percent of Hungarians frowned on the Romanians who lived among them; and 42 percent of the French disdained Arab immigrants from North Africa. In only two dozen European countries surveyed - Britain and Spain - was the proportion of the majority group less than twice as high as in the United States.

 America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible JPG Much of the animosity had deep historical roots. In 1991, a third of the Poles still had an "unfavorable" opinion of Jews, for example. Gypsies had the most enemies, with unfavorable rating ranging from a low of 50 percent in Spain to 91 percent in Czechoslovakia. "Ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds are thriving across Europe as the 20th Century draws to an end," noted two commentators on the study. As the movement toward European union increases the flow of the labor across national boundaries, "the Continent could turn into a tinderbox," they warned.

Against this yardstick the racial views of white Americans look remarkably good. But are seemingly tolerant whites simply more hypocritical than Czechs or French? Perhaps they have learned to keep their animus hidden from public view. We think not. Although different ways of framing questions about racial prejudice yield slightly different answers, the bulk of the evidence squares with the 1991 survey results: when it comes to intergroup tolerance, Americans rate high by international standards."

From Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom in "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning"

 "The racial gap in academic achievement is an educational crisis, but it is also the main source of ongoing racial inequality. And racial inequality is America's great unfinished business, the wound that remains unhealed. Thus, this is a book about education, but it also addresses the central civil rights issue of our time: our failure to provide first-class education for black and Hispanic students, in both cities and suburbs.

 The black high school graduation rate has more than doubled since 1960. And blacks attend college at a rate that is higher than it was for whites just two decades ago. But the good news ends there. The gap in academic achievement that we see today is actually worse than it was fifteen years ago. In the 1970s and through most of the 1980s, it was closing, but around 1988 it began to widen, with no turnaround in sight.

 Today, at age 17 the typical black or Hispanic student is scoring less well on the nation's most reliable tests than at least 80 percent of his or her white classmates. In five of the seven subjects tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a majority of black students perform in the lowest category -- Below Basic. The result: By twelfth grade, African Americans are typically four years behind white and Asian students, while Hispanics are doing only a tad better than black students. These students are finishing high school with a junior high education.

 No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning JPG Students who have equal skills and knowledge will have roughly equal earnings. That was not always true, but it is today. Schooling has become the key to racial equality. No wonder that Robert Moses, a luminous figure in the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, is convinced that "the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities throughout this country is an issue as urgent as the lack of registered Black voters in Mississippi was in 1961." Algebra, he believes, is "the gatekeeper of citizenship."

 Literacy, too, is a "gatekeeper," and the deadline for learning is alarmingly early. "For many students...the die is cast by eighth grade. Students without the appropriate math and reading skills by that grade are unlikely to acquire them by the end of high school...," a U.S. Department of Education study has concluded.

 Race has famously been called the "American dilemma." But since the mid-1960s, racial equality has also been an American project. An astonish-ing, peaceful revolution in the status of blacks and the state of race relations has transformed the country. And yet too few Americans have recognized and acknowledged the stubborn inequalities that only better schools can address.

 Even civil rights groups have long averted their gaze from the disquieting reality. "You can have a hunch that black students are not doing as well, but some of this was surprising," A. V. Fleming, president of the Urban League in Fort Wayne, Indiana, said, as the picture of low black achievement began to emerge in the late 1990s. In Elk Grove, California, an affluent suburb of Sacramento, black parents were shocked, angry, and in tears when they learned of the low test scores of their kids. "People know that this is an important issue, and they don't know how to talk about it," said Philip Moore, the principal of the local middle school, who is black himself.

 For too long, the racial gap in academic performance was treated not only by civil rights leaders, but by the media, and even by scholars, as a dirty secret -- something to whisper about behind closed doors. As if it were racist to say we have a problem: Black and Hispanic kids, on average, are not doing well in school.

 Suddenly, however, this shamefully ignored issue has moved to the front and center of the education stage. In part, the new attention is simply a response to an altered economic reality. A half century ago, an eighth-grade dropout could get a secure and quite well-paid job at the Ford Motor Company or U.S. Steel. Today, the Honda plant in Ohio does not hire people who cannot pass a test of basic mathematical skills.

 Demographic change, too, has forced Americans to pay attention to an educational and racial catastrophe in their midst. Fifty years ago, Hispanic children were no more than 2 percent of the school population. Today, a third of all American students are black or Latino. In California, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas white schoolchildren have become a numerical minority. These numbers, in themselves, drive home the urgency of educating all children. 

 The unprecedented sense of urgency is unmistakable in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2001 version of the nation's omnibus 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The central aim of the revised statute, as its preamble states boldly, is "to close the achievement gap...so that no child is left behind." Closing the gap is the core purpose of the legislation -- and the test of its eventual success. 

 Thus, the act requires all states to test children in grades 3-8 and report scores broken down by race, ethnicity, and other demographic characteristics associated with educational disadvantage. Each group must show significant annual progress. Affluent districts will no longer be able to coast along, hiding their lower-performing black and Hispanic students in overall averages that make their schools look good. A bucket of very cold water has been poured on educators -- and particularly those who have been quite complacent. NCLB has been an overdue attention-getter. At a well-attended national meeting on education in September 2002, the audience was asked to name the most important new policy requirement in No Child Left Behind; closing the racial and ethnic achievement gap was the clear winner.

 Indifference to minority children who arrive in kindergarten already behind and continue to flounder is no longer an option for schools. The problem has been acknowledged -- and thus must now be addressed. Racial equality will remain a dream as long as blacks and Hispanics learn less in school than whites and Asians. If black youngsters remain second-class students, they will be second-class citizens -- a racially identifiable and enduring group of have-nots." 

From Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom "Have We Overcome?" Commentary, November 2004

 "Is America still "segregated"? In our deeply divided national conversation on race, the question endures, and it was raised again last spring by the 50th-anniversary celebrations of Brown v. Board of Education. Did that landmark decision by the Supreme Court promise much and deliver little? The ruling itself spoke only of segregation in the nation's public schools, but its potential sweep was unmistakable. Officially sanctioned separation of the races, the Justices wrote, had the "detrimental effect" of "denoting the inferiority of the Negro group," generating "a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community." The logic of the decision, if not its words, was thus pertinent to the entire Jim Crow system, from water fountains to hospitals and bus systems, and was indeed rapidly extended to other spheres of public life in the South. The Justices had no magic wand with which to eliminate racism, of course, but in Brown they had declared, in effect, that racial inferiority was an idea whose time was up.

 It is easy to forget how far we have come over the past 50 years....Today, the typical black youngster attends a school that is only about halfblack- an extraordinary change in a half-century. Or is it? The most curious aspect of the anniversary of Brown last spring was the hand-wringing that accompanied so much of the celebration. Paul Vallas, Philadelphia's education chief, lamented that "we're still wrestling with the same issues" today as in 1954. Newsweek opined that "Brown, for all its glory, is something of a bust." For the Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, "the evil that Brown sought to eliminate- segregation-is still with us." His verdict was shared by the Washington Post columnist Colbert King. "Segregation has found its way back-if, indeed, it ever left some schools," he wrote. "To be sure, today's racial separation is not sanctioned by law. But in terms of racial isolation, the effect is much the same."

 ...Those who recall what life was like for blacks in the Deep South before Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights Act should be outraged by the equation of racial imbalance with segregation. The black children who broke the color-line in Jim Crow schools-the children who faced white mobs spewing insults and brandishing sticks-showed extraordinary courage in the face of state-sanctioned racism. Advocates of racially balanced schools are not engaged in a remotely similar fight. In claiming otherwise, they not only rob the civil-rights movement of its achievement, but turn our eyes toward the wrong prize-schools that look right rather than schools in which children, whatever their color, are truly learning. 

About Stephan Thernstrom

"America in Black and White is lucidly written, rigorously researched, and persuasively argued. On a topic that frequently divides and polarizes, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom have elevated and enriched the national conversation. America in Black and White looks honestly at the history of American racism while also looking to a more just, cohesive, and ultimate color-blind society. But it does more than that: the Thernstroms make a compelling case for color-blind public policies as the surest route to a society where all individuals are judged on the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin." -- William J. Bennet reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

 A benchmark new work turns the accepted history of racial progress in America upside down." -- Tamala M. Edwards, TIME magazine reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

 ". . . their tough-minded book serves the cause of racial justice. It shows that the issue is not whether black exceptionalism should end. The issue is when." -- Alan Wolfe, The New Republic reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

"...A richly factual, rigorously analytical, profoundly humane account of the changing status of black Americans and of black-white relations since the early 1940s." -- Kenneth S. Lynn, The American Spectator reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

"What distinguishes America in Black and White is its comprehensiveness: this is the Summa, the Magnum Opus..." -- Roger Lane, The Philadelphia Inquirer reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

"[America in Black and White] is in a class by itself when it comes to telling and analyzing what has been happening in this country on the racial front over the past two generations." -- Thomas Sowell, Forbes reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

"...[The Thernstroms] have written the definitive account of U.S. race relations in our time." -- David Frum, Financial Post reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

"...Deeply researched and powerfully argued. . . . America in Black and White is a notable edition to the lengthy shelf of books dealing with contemporary race relations. . . tightly argued, richly documented, provocative book – scholarship of the highest order." -- James Patterson, The Wilson Quarterly reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

"Well-written and thoughtful, the book never stoops to the exageration and bombast that plague much of the current debate on race." -- Paul Magnusson, BusinessWeek reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

"[America in Black and White's] discussion of race is far more level-headed and useful than anything the president or his recently appointed commission on race has said or is likely to say." -- Walter E. Williams, Parkerburg News reviewing "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible"

"THAT a book like this would appear was merely a matter of time. The revived interest in ethnicity required a reference volume, if only to aid students struggling with term papers. But that such a work would come from Harvard, with its imprimatur in the title, might not have been predicted. After all, for most of its existence our senior university held itself aloof from ethnic America, as did most established institutions. All the more reason, therefore, to see how the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups treats its subjects....

Hence the rationale of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. It is not just a book to sit on a reference shelf. Rather it is designed for a broad and varied audience, to be owned and read with pride. In fact, the effort that went into it shows that someone cares. At the same time, motives are always mixed, and never simply manipulative. This volume can also be seen as Harvard's expression of atonement for having been party to a process that evokes a measure of regret. And this is only fitting: For atonement is a rite with honored ethnic origins. -- Andrew Hacker reviewing "HARVARD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AMERICAN ETHNIC GROUPS" in NYT

Teaching Positions

Winthrop Professor of History, Harvard University, 1981Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute, 1999Chairman, History of American Civilization Program, Harvard University, 1985-1992 Director, Charles Warren Center for the Study of American History, Harvard University, 1980-83, 1986-87;
Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, University of Cambridge, 1978-79;
Professorial Fellow, Trinity College, 1978-79;
Professor of History, Harvard University, 1973-8l;
Professor of History, UCLA, 1969-73;
Senior Associate, Institute of Government and Public Affairs, UCLA, 1969-73;
Associate Professor of History, Brandeis University, 1967-69;
Assistant Professor of History, Harvard University, 1966-67;
Instructor, Harvard-Yale-Columbia Intensive Summer Studies Program Summer, 1966;
Research Member, M.I.T.-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies, 1962-69;
Instructor in History and Literature, Harvard University, 1962-65.

Area of Research: 
Social, demographic, and economic history of America; 20th century Social History, immigration, race and ethnicity.

B.S. with highest honors, Northwestern University, 1956
A.M., History, Harvard University, 1958
Ph.D., History of American Civilization, Harvard University, 1962

Major Publications:

● (with Abigail Thernstrom) No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, (Simon and Schuster, 2003)

●  (with Abigail Thernstrom) America in Black in White: One Nation, Indivisible, (Simon and Schuster, 1997)

●  (with Richard Gill and Nathan Glazer) Our Changing Population, (Prentice-Hall, 1991)

●  A History of the American People, 2 vols., (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984; revised edition, 1988)

●  The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880-1970, (Harvard University Press, 1973)

●  Poverty, Politics, and Planning in the New Boston: The Origins of ABCD, (Basic Books, 1969)

●  Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a l9th-Century City, (Harvard University Press, 1964)

● Professor Thernstrom and his wife Abigail are writing a co-authored book that reconsiders the concept of de facto segregation.

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

● Co-editor (with Abigail Thernstrom) Beyond the Color Line: New Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity, (Hoover Institution Press, 2002)

● Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, Editor, (Harvard University Press, 1980)

● Co-editor (with Richard Sennett) Nineteenth Century Cities: Essays in the New Urban History, (Yale University Press, 1969)

● Co-editor (with Neil Harris and David Rothman) Readings in the History of the United States, 2 vols., (Holt Rinehart Winston, 1969)

Awards and Grants:

The Other Bostonians was awarded the Bancroft Prize in American History and the Harvard University Press Faculty Prize.
 The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups received the American Historical Association's Waldo G. Leland Prize and the R.R. Hawkins Award of the Association of American Publishers
America in Black and White received the Caldwell Award from the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, and was named a "notable book of the year" by the "New York Times"
No Excuses was named one of "best books of 2003" by the "Los Angeles Times," and a 2003 and a "2003 Notable Book" by the American School Board Journal." No Excuses and were honored with the Peter Shaw Award from the National Association of Scholars. Research grant, John M. Olin Foundation, 1998-99;
John M. Olin Fellow, 1992-93;
Research grant, Smith Richardson Foundation, 1990-92;
Research grant, Rockefeller Foundation, 1975-80;
Research grant, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1975-1980;
John S. Guggenheim Fellow, 1969-70;
Research grant, Mathematical Social Science Board, 1965-68;
American Council of Learned Societies Fellow for Computer-Oriented Research in the Humanities, 1965-66;
Research grant, American Philosophical Society, 1964-65;
Samuel S. Stouffer Fellow, Joint Center for Urban Studies, 1961-62;
Frederick Sheldon Travelling Fellow, 1959-60;
Woodrow Wilson Fellow, 1956-57;

Additional Info:

Thernstrom's professional activities include: National Council on the Humanities, 2002;
Society of American Historians Editorial Board, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1970; Editorial Board, Journal of Family History, 1976; Editorial Board, Journal of American Ethnic History, 1981-97; Editorial Board, Labor History, 1970-75;
Co-editor, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Modern History book series, Cambridge University Press, 1980;
Co-editor, Harvard Studies in Urban History series, Harvard University Press, 1972;
Co-editor, Documentary History of American Cities series, New Viewpoints Press, 1975-78;
Co-editor, Perspectives in American History, 2nd series, 1984-86;
Committee Member, Citizens' Initiative on Race and Ethnicity, 1999-2001;
Board of Directors, National Association of Scholars, 1990-97;
Board of Advisors, National Association of Scholars, 1997;
Consultant, U.S. Civil Rights Commission studies of "The Economic Progress of Black Men in America" and "The Economic Status of Americans of Asian Descent";
Panel Member, Committee to Review National Standards in U.S. History, Council on ' Basic Education, 1995;
Planning Committee, National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1994 Assessment in U.S. History Textbook Advisory Committee, Education for Democracy Project, 1986-88;
History Area Committee, Foundations of Literacy Project, National Assessment of Learning, 1985-87;
Executive Board, Immigration History Society, 1983-88;
Board of Directors, Social Science Research Council, 1977-78.