The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is again looking for a director, after Steven Katz resigned last weekend from the post he was scheduled to assume March 16.
Katz, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., had been elected to the post Jan. 3. to replace Jeshajahu Weinberg, who is retiring.
His resignation came less than two weeks after the Washington Post published a report detailing disciplinary measures taken against him by Cornell during his 11-year tenure there.
Museum officials say it is “quite possible” that one of the other candidates originally considered for the post will now get the nod.
These candidates include Walter Reich, an expert on the Holocaust and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank; Tom Freudenheim, who oversees the Smithsonian Institute’s museums of arts and sciences and serves as president of the National Foundation of Jewish Culture; and Michael Berenbaum, the Holocaust Museum’s director of research.
“We will act expeditiously and come up with a resolution shortly,” said Miles Lerman, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which serves as the museum’s board.
The council’s executive committee is scheduled to meet March 14.
Cornell took the measures against Katz four years ago, after Katz misled the school about a book contract and improperly took a job while on a paid study leave from the university.
In a resignation letter to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, Katz wrote, “I feel that at the present time the frivolous and non-meritorious allegations which have been asserted would unduly distract from the important educational mission which the Council and I share.”
Lerman, who defended Katz down to the end, said this week, “He has withdrawn. He was not fired.”
“He has spent his lifetime in academia, and has come to the conclusion that the public limelight and controversies is not his cup of tea,” said Lerman.
Lerman said the museum will support Katz as he completes work on the last two volumes of his trilogy, “The Holocaust in Historical Perspective.”
The first volume of the work, which amasses an immense amount of historical data to argue that the Holocaust was a unique event, proved the source of Katz’s rise and fall.
The work catapulted Katz, originally a Jewish philosophy scholar, into the front lines of Holocaust studies.
But it was the same book that became the subject of controversy. During the 1980s, Katz repeatedly described the book as “to be published” by Harvard University Press, even though the manuscript was not completed and no contract was signed.
The book was accepted for publication by Oxford University Press in 1991.
This was among the reasons Cornell disciplined Katz with a three-year salary freeze.
According to Lerman, the museum knew of the charges against Katz before his selection for the post.
“It was the feeling of the executive committee that these allegations were not serious enough to change our mind about him,” said Lerman.
But the view of the past offenses as minor was not shared by many members of the museum staff.
According to the Washington Post, a series of staff meetings at the beginning of last week made it clear to Lerman and other officials that Katz had lost the confidence of the museum staff.
In part, according to people familiar with the situation, this reflected differing standards between the lay leaders on the museum’s board and the academics on the staff. The two groups disagreed over whether what Cornell had described as “academic misconduct” was really only a “misdemeanor,” as board members contended.
At the same time, museum staff loyal to museum Research Director Berenbaum, who had been passed over for the post, may have exploited the issue.
“I feel very strongly that Professor Katz was the victim of an unfortunate attempt at both character and career assassination,” said Menachem Rosensaft, a New York attorney who served on the museum’s search committee.
He said he was referring to “those who made it clear they did not want Professor Katz to assume the directorship.”
Rosensaft said he firmly supports the executive committee “in its determination that the academic misdemeanors for which he apologized did not in any way disqualify him from assuming the directorship.”