In Memoriam: Thomas Haskell, 1939-2017


In Memoriam: Thomas Haskell, 1939-2017


Professor Thomas Haskell passed away on July 12, 2017, at 78 years of age.  With his death, 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.

            Tom was born in 1939. He attended Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude in 1961. From 1961 to 1965, he served as executive officer of a minesweeper in Japan, and then as a naval advisor in the early years of the Vietnam War. After 1965, he returned to the United States, to enter graduate school in history at Stanford University. He completed his Ph.D. in 1973, with a dissertation on the rise of the professional social sciences in America in the context of a crisis of professional authority, a work that remains heavily cited today forty years after its publication in 1977.

            Historical scholarship for Tom was serious, even sacred. 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.

            Tom led this charge while still an untenured professor at Rice University, where he had begun teaching in 1970.  His sharp, critical interventions continued. 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's 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.

            The discipline for Tom was not abstract. It was where he worked, it was the professors at the university. He put his money where his mouth was. As chair of the Department of History, as speaker of the Faculty Council, as director of the Center for the Study of Cultures (the forerunner of today's Humanities Research Center), Tom did the hard, everyday work of promoting the pursuit of truth, of defending the mission of the university, and not least of defending academic freedom. Here, too, he could make people uncomfortable as he raised difficult questions. For more than a decade, he challenged the place of athletics at Rice, which involved a deeper question about the basic function of the university: how it admitted students, how it allocated funds. 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. Beyond the university, Tom served on the nationwide "Committee A" of the Association of American University Professors from 1993-1996, which dealt with that organization's most basic purpose, the defense of academic freedom.

            Tom was equally dedicated to his teaching. His presence in the classroom was intense and demanding--and what serious students wanted. Tom won the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching five times over the course of his career. He was recognized by the award of 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, among others.

            Tom succumbed to complications related to Alzheimer's disease. He is survived by his wife Dorothy, his children 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 (AAUP), with its long standing defense of academic freedom; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

            A memorial service for Tom will be held in the fall.