Jacob Neusner’s fierce attack upon the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (Cultural Revolutions, December 1990) is not as well-informed nor as balanced as one would expect from a scholar of his eminence.

Neusner claims that the permanent faculty of its schools of historical studies and social sciences “are not prominent, though they publish,” and he castigates them for failing to conduct “collaborative research projects with generations of IAS members, though they may chat with them from day to day.” During my own period of residence at IAS, which was contemporary with that of Professor Neusner, I was indeed privileged to “chat” on a daily basis with a scholar of outstanding brilliance and international renown who, though emeritus, was available for consultation in his office six days a week and who gave as generously of his knowledge as anyone I have ever met. Such “chats” were invariably illuminating, even if they were unstructured, though I have to confess to an inability to comprehend why collaborative research in the strict sense of the term is inherently preferable or more intellectually valid than that which is undertaken on an independent and individual basis.

To establish as the criterion for sitting on the board of directors of IAS the ability to contribute “one million dollars a year at a minimum,” as Neusner recommends, would no doubt improve matters financially—if that indeed is the overriding goal of any academic institution, whether it be devoted to teaching or research. But is it, or should it be? Neusner also complains about the “mostly-male and lily-white character of the Institute.” Whatever the composition of its board at present, it is hard to see that such a prescription would do anything more than to entrench further that element whose influence he is, with some justification, anxious to reduce. It should also be pointed out that Neusner wholly ignores the quite extraordinary radical diversity of its visiting members at any one session.

The decision by IAS to decline funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities was not a case of telling the NEH “to take its money and shove it,” to use Neusner’s quaint terminology, but the result of a determination to set and maintain its own standards of accountability. Such a determination is not a manifestation of dangerously irresponsible hauteur. Any self-governing body has a right and indeed an obligation to refuse funding from any source, whether public or private, if it has reason to suspect that the acceptance of it would be prejudicial to its long-term interests, assuming that these interests do not conflict with the vision and ideals of contemporary society. Manifestly this is not so in the present instance.

Very considerable though my respect is for Jacob Neusner as a scholar, my disagreement with his characterization of life at IAS is profound. Perhaps this is because what I regard as the institute’s greatest strength, namely its accountability to scholarship and scholarly excellence, rather than to the vested interest of one or other political opinion, he seems to perceive as a fatal flaw. As a British scholar who came to this country six years ago with little prospects of making headway in my own university system, who now has tenure and a full professorship, I am immensely grateful to the United States, not only for providing me with an opportunity to practice my specialized skills, but, no less important, for generously funding my research projects. I have also witnessed firsthand the debilitating and near-terminal impact of populist-style politics on British intellectual and academic life. Such populism should not be allowed to prevail in this country. Britain possesses nothing remotely comparable to IAS for those working in the social sciences and historical studies, and for this reason I am perhaps more sensitive than Neusner to the uniqueness of the institution that he would seek to reform out of recognition. For myself, IAS possesses a remarkable environment, created by outstanding scholars of international renown, some permanent, many visiting, and I wish to set my own conviction and experience alongside Neusner’s, lest his should prevail unanswered. America has every reason to take pride in the uncompromising integrity of the institution that it has fostered.

        —Robert Garland
Professor of Classics
Colgate University
Hamilton, NY

Dr. Neusner Replies:

The Institute for Advanced Study is made up of a few buildings, a pile of money, and a permanent faculty burdened by an enormously inflated opinion of itself But my esteemed friend. Professor Garland, and I do not differ so radically as would appear to be the case. He correctly points to Professor Homer Thompson, but others at IAS do not strive to meet Professor Thompson’s high standard of civility and collegiality. It would be unseemly to narrate a variety of anecdotal cases that convey a different picture. When IAS declined NEH funding, it demanded that Congress rewrite legislation to accommodate IAS; that is not the same thing as declining funds. The rules that the NEH applies to all research institutes in the country, deemed fair and reasonable everywhere else, were supposed to be suspended; that seemed to many to be arrogant. I understand matters have now resolved themselves, for which everyone must be grateful. Turning back the money, after all, did no harm to the permanent professors, only to the members who would lose their year of study because of local hauteur. IAS is distinguished in some areas (math and particle physics) and mediocre in others (social science and some areas of history, including art history). But Professor Garland and I concur that IAS provides a fine opportunity for sustained research, and those who use the place well, as did he and I, can only be glad for it. But a research institute would have to be considerably more distinguished than is IAS to sustain and justify the extraordinarily high opinion that some of its permanent faculty have of themselves. In the end, the place is as good as the members of any given year, and, in my year, I found many first-rate minds whose company I treasured and who remain valued friends.

I am puzzled by the claim that Britain has nothing comparable to IAS, since I have been appointed Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, to pursue research there in 1992. But that does not detract from my admiration for Professor Garland and my pleasure in addressing his points.