Congress chaos riles historians

June 19, 1998

THE WORLD of economic historians is racked with uncertainty over the fate of the 12th International Economic History Association congress, due to be held in Seville at the end of August.

The conference was unexpectedly cancelled on May 18 by association president Gabriel Tortolla.

John Komlos, an economic historian at Munich University, offered his city as a venue. But Professor Tortella decided on June 4 to reinstate the congress in Madrid. Professor Komlos has since renewed his Munich offer.

More than 1,500 participants were expected in Seville but fewer are expected in Madrid. By last Tuesday the conference website, called CONG, showed that only 12 of the 90 scheduled sessions had been confirmed, including two of four plenary themes. Six sessions were cancelled. A poll of 20 scheduled participants for one session revealed that only two were definitely going to Madrid and 12 were not. The session was cancelled.

The website displays angry emails about the affair. The cancellation of the Seville congress followed a breakdown in relations with organisers Promocin de Congresos en el Sur. There could be legal action.

Emails have attacked the central bureau of the association and singled out Professor Tortella, general secretary Joseph Goy and two others. They are accused of secretiveness and arbitrary behaviour. Four members of the executive committee have formed a breakaway "provisional emergency committee" calling for the democratisation and reform of the organisation.

Mark Spoerer, of the University of Hohenheim, Germany, wrote on June 6:

"That IEHA is dead in its current form is absolutely clear, irrespective of whether the congress takes place."

David Mitch, of the University of Maryland, called for the disbanding of the association on June 8 and its replacement. He suggested website readers should seek out a copy of Small World, David Lodge's satire on international academic conferences. "I wouldn't have thought that economic historians could outdo Lodge. But we seem to be giving him a real run for his money," he said.

Professor Tortella was unavailable for comment.

History benchmarks, page 12

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