Former History Department Chair Thomas Haskell dies at age 78

Thomas “Tom” Haskell, the Samuel G. McCann Professor Emeritus of History and a former chair of the Department of History, died July 12 at the age of 78 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.

“The faculty of the History Department and of Rice University has lost one of its most important figures: a thought-provoking scholar, an inspiring teacher and, not least, a leader in faculty governance,” wrote History Department Chair Carl Caldwell, the Samuel G. McCann Professor of History, in an “in memoriam” post on the department’s website.

Thomas Haskell

Thomas Haskell

Haskell came to Rice in 1970, and during his 39 years as a faculty member, he served as chair of the Department of History (1994-96), speaker of the Faculty Council (1995-96) and director of the Center for the Study of Cultures (1993-96), now known as the Humanities Research Center. He also served as chair of the Graduate Committee, chair of the Faculty Council Committee on Athletics and as a member of the Promotion and Tenure Committee along with other university committees.

“Tom did the hard, everyday work of promoting the pursuit of truth, of defending the mission of the university and defending academic freedom,” Caldwell said. “He played a central role in developing the professor-run process for addressing severe sanctions placed on professors, including terminations. These procedures remain in place today.

“Tom was equally dedicated to his teaching. His presence in the classroom was intense and demanding — and what serious students wanted,” Caldwell said.

A Ph.D. graduate of Stanford with a B.A. from Princeton, Haskell was a noted authority on the history of American thought and society and historical interpretation. He specialized in U.S. history from the 17th century to the present and also studied Victorian intellectuals.

“Historical scholarship for Tom was serious, even sacred,” Caldwell said. “History was the fearless search for truth, no matter how uncomfortable that truth could make people. Truth was essential, as was criticism. His first scholarly publications appeared in The New York Review of Books, where Tom, not himself trained as an economist, took on an influential attempt to apply statistical and mathematical methods to the history of slavery in the United States. Tom’s critique was one of the first to show the limits to cliometrics.”

Haskell led this charge while still an untenured professor at Rice and continued “his sharp, critical interventions,” Caldwell said. “In the 1980s, for example, in a controversial article he attacked the use of statistics to argue for discrimination in a case of employment discrimination against Sears, at the same time criticizing some women historians for putting politics above truth.

“He also took on arguments viewing the anti-slavery movement as a functional defense of capitalism, arguing instead that anti-slavery originated out of a humanitarian ethos inherent in free-market capitalism. The arguments remain important in the field, even where they have been challenged. More important, however, is the ethos underlying the arguments, the notion that the professor of history should seek the truth. This theme came out clearly in a powerful essay from 1990, ‘Objectivity Is Not Neutrality’: a defense of the search for truth, even if the consequences are tragic, as the justification for the discipline.”

His professional honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Mellon foundations as well as the National Humanities Institute at Yale and the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford. He served on the nationwide “Committee A” of the Association of American University Professors, which dealt with that organization’s most basic purpose, the defense of academic freedom.

Haskell won the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching five times over the course of his career at Rice. He also received the Graduate Student Association Faculty/Teaching/Mentoring Award for outstanding service to graduate student education.

In 2013, Rice’s Department of History and Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway hosted “Values in History: A Conference Honoring Thomas Haskell.” Leading historians from across the United States, including Thomas Bender (New York University), James Kloppenberg (Harvard University) and Wilfred McClay (University of Tennessee) along with some of Haskell’s former students spoke at the conference.

Haskell wrote, edited and contributed to a number of important books, including “The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the 19th-Century Crisis of Authority,” “The Authority of Experts: Historical and Theoretical Essays” and “The Antislavery Debate.” His articles and review essays appeared in The New York Review of Books, the American Historical Review, Reviews in American History and History and Theory.

Haskell is survived by his wife, Dorothy; his son and daughter, Alexander Haskell and Susan Khan, and their spouses; and six grandchildren. The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the three charitable foundations that he named in his will: the American Association of University Professors, with its longstanding defense of academic freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Friends Service Committee.

Caldwell noted that Rice will hold a memorial service for Haskell in the fall.

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.