In Memory of Robert K. Webb

By Jordan E. Kurland

Robert K. Webb, a preeminent authority on British history and an outstanding figure in the AAUP’s leadership, died on February 25 in his ninetieth year. Webb began his teaching career in 1951 at Wesleyan University, went on in 1953 to Columbia University, and in 1968 moved to Washington, DC, as chief editor of the American Historical Review. In 1975 he joined the faculty of the newly established University of Maryland Baltimore County as chair of its history department, retaining that position until his retirement. Through these years, Webb was a prolific producer of academic publications. His Modern England: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present introduced generations of undergraduates to the subject as the standard college textbook. A prominent fellow scholar writes that the “wise commentary” in Webb’s annotated bibliography on Britain and Ireland since 1760 ranks with “the best kind of graduate course.”

Webb’s AAUP career began with his election to membership in April 1953, when he was still at Wesleyan. He became increasingly active at Columbia, where he was president of the AAUP chapter. His accomplishments in that office led to an array of national AAUP assignments. Beginning in the 1960s he chaired the Nominating Committee, the Resolutions Committee, Committee B on Professional Ethics, Committee D on Accreditation, and several investigative committees. In 1970 he was elected as the Association’s first vice president. He became a member of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure in 1975, and in that same year became editor of the AAUP Bulletin, guiding its transition to the current Academe.

Those of us who had the privilege of knowing and working with Bob Webb join in praising his accomplishments in enhancing knowledge in his academic discipline and in addressing core AAUP principles. We tend, however, to focus on Bob the person, his wit, zest, and good humor.

Walter Metzger became fast friends with Bob in the 1950s when as young faculty members they shared an office at Columbia. He writes that as the junior of the two he “survived that pressured tenure-seeking phase” largely because of Bob’s “quiet learnedness, his infallible kindness, and the graceful articulation” in his writing as a model to emulate. A decade later, Metzger continues, “we were reunited by our service in the AAUP where, as in our youth, we shared very much again―this time a devotion to the academic profession through the AAUP’s good offices.”

Larry Poston, who as an AAUP staff member in the late 1960s came to know Bob and who preceded him as AAUP Bulletin editor, writes that Bob, who was “one of my mentors in Victorian intellectual history” and “who would have laughed heartily at being called eminent,” was “a natty dresser with a remarkably keen wit and stage presence.”

In his AAUP work, “his intervention on any subject was inevitably timely. He was utterly without anything resembling professorial pomp.”

The working relationship of the writer of this obituary with his subject dates back to the Columbia days. I particularly remember Bob’s uncanny ability to provide a description that makes someone in an investigation memorable. In one case, the damage done by a disorganized president was partially offset by a provost whose autocratic management faculty members resented but whose “probity and efficiency” they respected. Bob referred to “a nice symbolism in the fact that the master clock of the university is in Provost X’s office, hidden behind a tasteful hanging.” In another case, a veteran history teacher was being subjected to dismissal (without due process), doubtless on grounds (unstated) that she had lost her competence. Bob, not wishing to find her “incompetent” in an official report, called her teaching “fanciful.” To illustrate, he quoted an evaluation from one of her few student admirers, who wrote that she “knows lots of kings and queens.”

Finally, there is Matthew Finkin, who also knew Bob Webb for a half-century. “Others may dwell on Bob’s professional stature and all the good work he did for the AAUP,” Matt writes, “but what comes immediately to my mind when I think of him is how much fun he was to be with. He had a limitless store of anecdotes and he savored life’s ironies. One of my favorites involved his wife Patty’s dragooning him, on very short notice, to tend bar at a congressional event she was catering. He put on a white bartender’s jacket and poured. Toward the shank of the evening, a tipsy congressman approached him, stuffed a five-dollar bill into his pocket, and said, slurring his words, ‘You’re a sholar and a shentilman.’ Bob replied, ‘Thank you, sir,’ and pocketed the bill. The congressman was right, on both accounts.”