With support from the University of Richmond

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The AHA, Historians, and COVID-19

Many of us have learned a lot about infectious diseases in recent months. We’ve read about the dangerous implications of airborne contagion, surface versus human contact, and other forms of transmission. We’ve pondered the dangers of that person who passes too close on the sidewalk, the runner breathing heavily just behind us. These reflections are about people, the intensely human implications of the public health emergency that has engulfed our lives.

As historians, we work hard to understand people—the people we study and the people we teach, in the classroom and beyond. We also study institutions, how they work, why they matter, and their role in shaping and contextualizing human interaction, including our own work. Other than in a figurative sense, institutions are not susceptible to infection. President Nixon surely understood John Dean’s reference to a “cancer on the presidency” as a plea for decisive surgery, but the metaphor did not extend to anything resembling chemotherapy. The status of corporate entities as individuals, despite its long and convoluted legal history, does not imply institutional quarantine—although I do find that image rather intriguing from time to time. 

My perspective on the policy implications of the relationship between people and institutions is no doubt skewed by the physical immediacy of the Capitol, especially at a moment when daily walks along the National Mall are my only opportunity for outdoor activity and reflection (with an occasional rant thrown in). At no other time in my life, in no other place, would I have received email news bulletins reporting the latest manipulations, the tactics that determine who gets what when the proverbial legislative sausage is made. Negotiations over the CARES Act, the $2 trillion coronavirus relief legislation, included debates over the allocation of funds to individuals (including tax cuts, direct payments, and unemployment insurance) versus institutions (such as corporate subsidies and loans, small business assistance, higher education funding, and payments to states). Should the federal government provide relief to lenders in danger of bankruptcy because of mass loan defaults or funnel cash to homeowners who could then make mortgage payments? Either way, what happens to renters? It’s not quite as straightforward as it might seem. Institutions employ people and provide services to individuals. But cash put directly in the hands of individuals will be spent quickly, filling coffers from which wages are paid and services sold. Andrew Yang was hardly the first to suggest the macroeconomic impact of a guaranteed national income.

These different approaches are relevant to the AHA’s concerns about how to help both individual historians and the institutions in which they work. Many of our most vulnerable colleagues are employed on a contingent basis in higher education. The AHA has sought support from foundations for direct immediate relief for individual scholars with insecure employment, but with no success so far; given the vast landscape of need, most funders are besieged with countless legitimate requests. Institutionally, we have publicly urged all higher education institutions that employ contract and/or part-time faculty to compensate them fully for courses already contracted for the balance of 2020. Larger and more influential associations, such as the American Council on Education, lobby on behalf of higher education, and we have notified our department chairs of the resources in a small part of this bucket that might be available to history departments.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History