Chuck’s Stories about Himself: Entering Academe

In 1989, I was trying to understand how civil wars could end and not resume when the underlying problems had not been solved. The answer seemed to involve the nature of the state which emerged after the violence, and someone suggested that Charles Tilly was the guru on state formation and was giving a talk at Rutgers soon. The talk was on another topic entirely, but he had also set aside time to meet with individual faculty about their research. We spent a half hour together, and he suggested that I come to the Center for Studies of Social Change (CSSC) at the New School for Social Research the next year on my sabbatical. I became a member of the seminar and have attended most of its meetings in the nearly twenty years that followed. It changed my life.

Because I came to Chuck in the middle of my career, his unique qualities were immediately apparent. His ability to treat all students, not just the chosen few disciples, as intellectual equals was equaled only by his eagerness to put his staggering knowledge and time at their service and his concern about their lives as well as their work which lasted long after they had departed. The seminar was a demonstration of the “wisdom of crowds” notion; we would come in to talk about a paper which often wasn’t very good (having provided more than a few of those myself), and somehow by the end we would have produced a whole set of ideas about how to make it better (often contradictory, but that gave the author some space) which none of us, including Chuck, would have thought of on our own. When it worked it was intellectual magic, and it worked a lot, which is why I kept coming back; regardless of the title, it was a seminar on how to do social science, and I have never seen anything to approach it. A lot of former seminar members have complained to me that they hadn’t found anything similar, and I reluctantly have to tell them that they probably never will.

As we all know, Chuck was both very open to people and very private at the same time. In retrospect, of course, I wish I had asked him more about himself; I don’t really know, for example, why and how he wound up in graduate school. But he did tell a few stories about himself, and I thought it might be useful to set them down here. These are just my fallible memories; others who know more are invited to point out where I got it wrong or where there are multiple narratives.

When Chuck finished at Harvard in 1958, he asked his dissertation director for help in finding a job since he had a wife and children to support. Barrington Moore’s response, according to Chuck, was: “Hostages to fortune, eh, Mr. Tilly?” and a refusal to help. Chuck attributed this to the fact that Moore was independently wealthy; I simply don’t know if there were personal factors involved or not, and it’s interesting that, according to a friend of mine, Moore himself was apparently never really part of the social relations department at Harvard and might have felt uncomfortable soliciting jobs in sociology departments.

At any rate, Chuck found himself at the University of Delaware. It was at the end of the McCarthy period, and Delaware’s president was very unsympathetic to anything that seemed remotely left-wing. Chuck found himself with a very heavy teaching load and a hostile political atmosphere with very poor prospects. He sent out applications for jobs at other schools with no response and thought seriously about leaving academics altogether.

One of his fellow students at Harvard had been Harry Eckstein. Out of the blue Eckstein, who was at Princeton, contacted him and said that he had gotten a grant (I think this was the one that resulted in the book Internal War) which included money to hire someone to run the grant for a year at Princeton. Eckstein made sure Chuck understood that it was for one year only and that there was no possibility that it would lead to a job at Princeton. Chuck said he grabbed it. He went to Princeton, wrote more job applications on the Princeton stationary (I think he said sometimes to the same schools), got a number of responses, and went to Harvard; the rest is history.

I had Chuck tell this story over dinner to several generations of graduate students as a comment on how the academic system really works. But I’ve always felt that part of the explanation for Chuck’s extraordinary commitment to students could be traced to this traumatic experience.

Roy Licklider
Rutgers, Political Science

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