Less than a month before his move to Washington, Steven Katz has received a brutal reminder of Henry Kissinger’s adage that the fiercest politics is academic politics.
Katz is due to assume the directorship of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on March 16.
Last week, disciplinary measures taken against Katz during his 11-year tenure on the Cornell University faculty resurfaced in the Washington Post.
The actions were taken after Katz violated the university’s leave policy and misrepresented a book contract.
The measures at Cornell, located in Ithaca, N.Y., were taken in 1991 in response to what Katz characterized as “a cluster of accusations from people who were trying to injure me.”
“I made two technical errors. I don’t want to shy away from them.” Katz said in a telephone interview last week.” It’s very regrettable, but I did not do it intentionally.”
The executive committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which acts as the museum’s board, is standing behind Katz.
The museum leadership looked into the charges against Katz before he was nominated for the post, according to the council’s chairman, Miles Lerman.
“We felt he may have committed bad judgement, but did nothing improper,” Lerman said.
Katz was chosen to succeed Jeshajahu Weinberg, the museum’s founding director, after a lengthy search.
Last week, in response to queries from the Washington Post, the executive committee and the museum counsel again looked into the charges.
“We came to the conclusion that in as much as some of the innuendo may be correct as stated, overall there is nothing to give us concern that we have hired the wrong man,” Lerman said in an interview.
The measures were taken against Katz after he violated the university’s policy that barred faculty from taking other jobs while on a study leave. On such a leave in 1989, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
Katz said the rules violation was inadvertent, He said he “did not know the difference” between the more restrictive study leave and an unrestricted sabbatical leave.
Katz was also reprimanded for writing on resumes and grant applications that his work on the Holocaust was “to be published” by Harvard University Press when in fact no contract had been signed.
As punishment for these infractions, Katz was barred from further study leaves, and his salary was frozen for three years.
Of the resume infraction, Katz said, “That was a technical violation.” He added that he should have said his book was “being considered” by Harvard University Press.
Although Harvard University Press had expressed interest in the book, the book ended up being published by Oxford University Press.
Katz said Harvard rejected the book for the same reason that the work, described in 1983 as “being prepared for publication,” was not actually completed until 1990. The research project had ballooned over the years from a 500-page manuscript to one of 7,000 pages.
After completing a one-volume version of the book in 1984, “I realized I had not done justice to the issues,” said Katz.
In the end, “The Holocaust in Historical Context, Volume 1: The Holocaust and Mass Death before the Modern Age” weighed in at 700 published pages.
Summing up the brouhaha in 1991, one Cornell University official wrote that “claims `to be published by Harvard University Press’ in specified years were satisfactory since they led us to deal with Professor Katz on the basis of false assumptions about his publications. I would add, however, that the significance of the loose representation pales in the face of the work accomplished and its current status.”
Katz acknowledged the irony of his position, given his record as a scholar who has stressed the importance of accuracy and truth in documenting and interpreting the Holocaust.
“I’m much more careful about scholarship than I am about my bookkeeping,” he said.
“I was working so hard in one, I was just very casual about the other. That’s not a crime. It’s a sloppiness,” he said.