Practice what you teach

May 15, 2002

SOMETIMES, the more you try to keep something quiet, the louder it gets. That's a lesson learned the hard way by administrators at the Bryn Mawr School in the wake of news stories detailing the school's refusal to allow a historian's dissertation to be published.

It all started when Andrea Hamilton, a graduate student at Tulane University, decided to write her dissertation on the history of the well-respected private girls' school in north Baltimore and got permission to mine Bryn Mawr's archives for material. She spent a week on the campus in 1995, wrote her dissertation - aimed at exploring changes in the education of young women as seen through the rich history of the school - and in 1998 the Johns Hopkins University Press agreed to publish it.

Ms. Hamilton was thrilled, but Bryn Mawr was not. For reasons that are still unclear, the school chose to invoke its rights under an agreement the author had signed giving the school control over publication of anything in its archives. School officials threatened to sue the Hopkins Press if it published the book, and the press withdrew.

For Ms. Hamilton, that decision was devastating; the difference between an unpublished dissertation and one selected by an esteemed university press like Hopkins can mean the difference between a tenured teaching career and a life on the academic fringes.

For Hopkins, it was a lost opportunity to publish a book it found worthy - but a loss that, given the agreement signed by Ms. Hamilton, was legally necessary.

And for Bryn Mawr? The decision to quash publication has raised questions - and rightly so - about the school's commitment to academic freedom and scholarly research, as well as its concern for the free and unfettered flow of ideas. One must raise the issue of fundamental fairness as well.

The Johns Hopkins University Press had sent the manuscript out for peer review before agreeing to publish it; that's standard procedure. By all accounts, its reviewers praised the work. Bryn Mawr's then-headmistress also sent the manuscript to two historians for review, and they both panned it. But, of course, reviews commissioned by the subject of a book cannot be considered on a par with those of disinterested reviewers. And, astonishingly, both reviewers selected by Bryn Mawr had ties to the school, one of them being the sister of the headmistress.

The school's action has been the subject of two articles in the nationally distributed Chronicle of Higher Education, and this week a petition signed by 140 historians supporting Ms. Hamilton's right to publish was presented to Bryn Mawr School. In a heartening turn of events, David M. Funk, chairman of the school's board of trustees, said school officials are "taking a fresh look" and reviewing the whole business.

Good thinking. After all, no one doubts the legality of the school's action. But far too many people doubt the rightness of it. Jim Jordan, director of Johns Hopkins University Press, has said it would still like to publish Ms. Hamilton's book. It should be allowed to do so.

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