The Bancroft prize, post-Bellesiles

Columbia University's Bancroft Prize has been awarded for 2004. This might be a good time to shower the recipients with praise and good wishes but I would like to look at the prize itself.

You'll recall that the Bancroft was enmeshed in the Bellesiles controversy in 2002. Bellesiles received the prize apparently without having had a peer review, or (more important) an end note review. His notes were studied only after the fact by outraged readers, one of whom is named Clayton Cramer.

We have no idea if the Bancroft people learned anything from this scandal, for their awards process is cloaked in fog: "the Bancroft is awarded annually by the Trustees of Columbia University to the authors of books of exceptional merit in the fields of American history, biography and diplomacy."

It is awarded by the trustees but who selects the winners? A quick visit to the trustees' page gives us access to their resumes. This is the list I used to compile the following list of occupations:

Lawyers: 4
Educators: 3
Judge: 1
Financier: 6
Dotcom CEO: 1
Property manager: 1
Scientist: 1
Lobbyist: 1
NBA commissioner: 1
Fortune 500 VP: 2

I don't think that this crew is reading Bancroft nominees; not one of them; not one book; not for one minute, not before or after the prize is awarded. This is a group of ribbon cutters.

There must be a prize jury but we have no idea of its workings. There were only tiny leaks associated with the Bellesiles blowup. Cramer, for instance, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that
the concerns about fraud were directed to Columbia's history department before the Bancroft Prize was awarded. Eric Foner's response, reported in the popular newspaper coverage of this scandal, suggest that it wouldn't have mattered anyway. At least one of the journalists who interviewed me along the way tells me that she was allowed to contact one of the members of the Bancroft Prize jury and his reaction was that it didn't much matter if it wasn't true, because it would promote debate on the subject.[My emphasis.]
The National Review managed to find the head of the 2001 jury: "Arthur Goren, professor emeritus of Columbia, then chair of the prize committee, said ... 'We reviewed 150 books over a four month period.'"

How many jury members reviewed 150 books in 120 days? Is this a good process, professor?

National Review also produced a quote from professor Eric Foner which may be the one Cramer referred to in the Chronicle: "We assume a book published by a reputable press has gone through a process where people have checked the facts. Members of prize committees cannot be responsible for that."

Not at a pace of one book to read per day; no sir, you cannot.

Eventually, Columbia did the right thing and rescinded Bellesiles' prize. Is the problem fixed? We don't know.

Whatever the rationale is for a secret selection of winners, we know what the results are. Bellesiles is one outcome. Here's another - call it an attitude:
Academic prizes are seen as rewards for your friends or fellow travelers. As one European intellectual told me, "The law only exists to be applied to your enemies."
Call that my attitude, too.

Let a public jury publicly award the prizes. We, the readers, want to see one hand washing the other.