Alan Brinkley: Scholar, Teacher, Author - Provost
By Shira J. Boss-Bicak ’93
Prominent historian is looking forward
to facing new challenges, continuing to teach
tact and capacity for getting things done serve him well as
PHOTO: EILEEN BARROSO
The tapping of prominent historian Alan Brinkley to become University
provost last summer came as a surprise to many, most of all to Brinkley
himself. "I had no warning," he says. "It came completely out of
A professor who chaired the history department, Brinkley has a
strong service ethic but did not covet administrative positions.
Yet, after a national search, President Lee C. Bollinger made his
pitch to Brinkley over dinner, and Brinkley only took a few days
to accept the position as one of the highest-ranking officials at
"I had many misgivings because I loved what I was doing and expect
to go back to it," Brinkley says. "I made the transition because
I admire Lee Bollinger and am excited by his work at Columbia. When
you value a community, it's hard to say no."
Colleagues in the history department, which Brinkley had chaired
since 2000, as well as at other universities, observe that Brinkley's
talents extend beyond exceptional scholarship and devoted teaching
to his being an energetic and diplomatic leader in the field and
a commentator for the public.
"Alan feels the call of duty," says Gary Gerstle, chair of the
history department at the University of Maryland and Brinkley's
longtime friend. "He's not someone who craves power. He's ambivalent
about power. It's about how he can contribute to an institution
and a city he cares about deeply."
Students had reason to watch wistfully as Brinkley moved his headquarters
to Low Library. He is a universally popular professor with an eloquent
way of enveloping students in American political history. The immediate
effects have been buffered because 2003-04 was scheduled to be a
sabbatical year for Brinkley to finish his biography of Henry Luce,
co-founder of Time magazine. Despite becoming provost,
after this academic year, Brinkley plans to return to the classroom
to teach at least one course. He continues to advise a dozen graduate
students and has not ruled out taking on more.
Underneath his tranquil manner is an orderly vault of energy that
enables Brinkley to tackle an imposing spectrum of work. In addition
to his duties as provost and his plan to continue teaching, Brinkley
makes daily progress on the Luce biography (he fits that in at dawn)
and is keeping up as a leader in his field.
"He has a tremendous sense of professional service," says Michael
Flamm '98 GSAS, an associate professor of American history at Ohio
Wesleyan University who studied with Brinkley as a Harvard undergraduate
and at GSAS. "He's generous to individuals but also generous to
Brinkley has been involved in the two major historical societies,
writes a prodigious amount of recommendation letters and generously
reads colleagues' essays and reviews manuscripts. "He says he rarely
reads [history] books anymore - he's read everything in page proofs,"
Flamm says. (In Brinkley's mysteriously existent free time, he favors
People wonder how he does it. "We used to joke that his desk was
the cleanest, and he was the chair," says Alice Kessler-Harris,
current chair of the history department. She adds, "One of the things
we admired about him was his willingness to take on jobs related
to his work."
"Most people would consider [Brinkley]
the best, or at least the most influential, political historian
of his generation."
Brinkley has not shortchanged students in favor of more prominent
work. "Given the quality of his scholarship, I figured he'd be a
reserved and distant type," says Kevin C. Murphy, a third-year history
graduate student who came to Columbia in part because of the impression
made on him by one of Brinkley's books. "He's an extremely friendly
person, very approachable, and clearly makes time for students.
I've never seen him turn someone away and say, 'I'm busy.' "
"He's very efficient. He must not spend as much time as other people
checking e-mail," says Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown,
who then pauses to reconsider. "But he does get back to you quickly,
so, I don't know. I'm in awe of him."
Professioral duties are only part of Brinkley's contribution. He
is chairman of the board of the Century Foundation, a member of
the editorial board of The American Prospect magazine,
a board member of the New York Council for the Humanities and a
member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
"Alan always has emphasized the need for historians to engage the
public," Flamm says. Brinkley is doing his part as a public intellectual.
In addition to writing scholarly articles, he has contributed to
periodicals such as The New York Times, Newsweek,
The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New
York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement
and has become a reliable source for the media, appearing as an
expert or commentator on television and radio. "He's somebody in
the academy who can review and interpret what scholars are doing
for people outside the academy," Gerstle says.
Brinkley is appreciated for his straightforward, engaging way of
writing and talking. Kazin recalls hearing Brinkley interviewed
on National Public Radio: "His answers sounded scripted - they were
so articulate, very eloquent with all of these witty touches - but
of course, they weren't. Alan just talks like that."
Part of Brinkley's talent for public communication probably was
inherited - his parents were journalists. His mother, Ann, started
as a reporter at United Press, where she met her future husband,
David Brinkley, who became a distinguished broadcast journalist,
longtime anchor at NBC News and host of This Week With David
Brinkley on ABC. Brinkley's brother, Joel, is a reporter for
The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner; his other
brother, John, is a former Washington, D.C., correspondent for the
Denver Rocky Mountain News.
Alan Brinkley with his
famous father, David, and his brothers, Joel (next to Alan)
PHOTO COURTESY ALAN BRINKLEY
"I suppose that my decision to become a historian was shaped in
part by growing up in Washington and in a somewhat public family,"
Brinkley says. "I became interested in politics and history at an
Brinkley graduated from Princeton in 1971 and earned his Ph.D.
in history from Harvard in 1979. He taught at MIT before joining
the Harvard faculty in 1982, where he stayed for six years. "At
Harvard, his lectures had a cult quality" with scores of students
and several teaching assistants, says Charles Forcey, a Columbia
history Ph.D. candidate whom Brinkley advises. "His popularity doesn't
come from a dog and pony show but a literary performance, with all
of the dramatic qualities of pacing and surprises, [melded with]
sophisticated thoughts and ideas."
"The magnitude of this job is balanced
by it being very interesting and challenging."
Despite his following, writing a book that won a 1983 National
Book Award and winning the Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching
Prize in 1987, Brinkley was denied tenure the next year. He taught
at the CUNY Graduate Center and Princeton before joining the Columbia
faculty in 1991.
Brinkley with his
wife, Evangeline Morphos, and their daughter, Elly, on vacation
PHOTO COURTESY ALAN BRINKLEY
New York has proven a good fit for Brinkley, who takes advantage
of the city's theater, music and museums. His wife, Evangeline Morphos,
is an off-Broadway theater producer and teaches theater and film
in the School of the Arts. The couple's daughter, Elly, is a seventh
grader at Dalton.
"In my eyes, he's been a co-architect, with a few others, of turning
the Columbia history department into one of the best in the nation,"
Forcey states. The department's reputation was flagging, Forcey
explains, when Brinkley, Eric Foner '63 and other visionaries changed
some of the department's practices - for example, starting to support
full funding for all graduate students - and restored it to prominence.
"It's not hyperbole to say that most people would consider him
the best, or at least the most influential, political historian
of his generation," Kazin says. "He's the central figure in the
revival of political history in the U.S. in the past 10-15 years."
An integral part of Brinkley's influence has been his writing,
unusually suitable for both academic and general audiences. "It's
smooth as butter," Kazin says. Gerstle describes Brinkley's prose
as "clear, elegant and efficient. There's not a wasted word."
His work has focused on populism, the politics of reform and the
politics of the New Deal, all analyzed within social and cultural
"He writes about politics and policies, that's not easy
to do," Kazin says. "He's able to think about and write about what
the government does and tries to do and how people understand what
the government does and what they want it to do."
Brinkley's first book, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father
Coughlin, and the Great Depression (Knopf, 1982), is a scholarly
work that had mass appeal and won a National Book Award for history.
His other books include The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism
in Recession and War (Knopf, 1995) and Liberalism and Its
Discontents (Harvard, 1998). "They're assigned for every graduate
student of political history in the U.S.," Kazin says.
Brinkley also is read widely by undergraduates and even advanced
high school students, owing to his bestselling history textbooks,
American History: A Survey (McGraw-Hill), which is in its
11th edition, and The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of
the American People (McGraw-Hill), coming out in its fourth
edition this month. Unusual for such a far-reaching subject, Brinkley
is the books' sole author, and he updates them regularly. "He's
an incredibly hands-on textbook author," Forcey says. "There's no
team of ghostwriters."
In addition, Brinkley was a co-author of The Chicago Handbook
for Teachers: A Practical Guide to the College Classroom, and
contributed the section on lecturing.
Beyond his professional credentials and capacity for getting a
wide range of things done, Brinkley's personality and tact make
him a desirable administrator. "He was a beloved chair," Kessler-Harris
says. "He was thoughtful and careful, and had a reputation for being
fair and representing the department and its interests fully." He
is described as loyal and caring, self-effacing and not interested
in self-promotion. "I don't know of anyone who dislikes him," Murphy
says. "He's so easygoing."
"He is independent-minded and doesn't waiver from his principles,"
Gerstle notes. "He has respect for others' views and low tolerance
for nonsense, hypocrisy and self-aggrandizing personalities." On
a personal level, Gerstle adds, "He can be very unbuttoned, frank
"The magnitude of this job is balanced by it being very interesting
and challenging," Brinkley says. "The biggest surprise to me about
this job is that I wasn't prepared for the number of tasks that
come to me." Among the issues Brinkley is addressing as provost
are the University's physical expansion, improving the sciences,
expanding student financial aid and forming a closer collaboration
between the Morningside Heights and Health Sciences campuses.
The history department is conducting a search for a junior 20th-century
historian, although not specifically as a replacement for Brinkley,
Kessler-Harris says. "We're not looking for someone to duplicate
what Alan did, because that would be folly," she says. "We're hoping
that in five or six or seven years, he'll come back to the department."
There is no term for provost. Brinkley's predecessor, Jonathan
Cole '64, held the position for 13 years. "I won't do this for as
long as Cole did it," Brinkley says. "But it won't be for just a
couple of years."
Contributing writer Shira J. Boss-Bicak '93 is
a freelance journalist in New York. Her most recent cover story
(July 2003) was about Professor Kathy Eden.