Skip to main content
Expand AU Menu

In Memory of Bob Griffith

Robert Griffith

In Memory of Bob by Richard Breitman

Bob became provost at AU in 1995.  He had generated great enthusiasm during the on-campus interviews of finalists for the position of provost. The AU faculty looked forward to having a highly experienced administrator who was also a strong scholar, an effective advocate for high and strict academic standards, and a genuinely warm human being. He and Barbara had already grown roots in Takoma Park, which made his new job seem even better.

When his tenure as provost did not work out as he and the university community had hoped, he resigned and landed, more or less accidentally, in AU's History Department, where he had received tenure when he became provost.

For a time, neither he nor the History Department was sure of the relationship. The department sought to find the right mix of courses for him. Gradually, more and more history faculty recognized the immense value of his experience. He was a political historian who understood how to apply his knowledge to present political debates and to academic situations. He was someone with an early record of civil rights activism in a department and university much interested in the history of the civil rights movement. He was an astute observer of organizational culture. And, as he liked to say, he was a bit of a salesman, a skill he had learned from his father.

He took over leadership of the Department’s Undergraduate Committee. Bob created and promoted History Day, at which undergraduate majors gave oral presentations based on their senior theses. He began to grapple with different measures of assessing the effectiveness of the History major.

A leadership vacuum in the department suddenly developed in mid-year. Another senior faculty member suggested that perhaps he and Bob could serve as co-chairs. Bob smiled and said that it was probably better to have a single chair. He did not grasp the job, but he was willing to do it, and he knew he could do it well. He was in fact vastly overqualified.

He served as chair of the History Department for about six years. In that time, the department grew in size and improved in quality, in considerable part because of his political skills and his ability to appraise talent. The Department of History gained many more majors during his tenure, and its course enrollments grew steadily.

Bob always was an advocate for public history—ways of presenting history to broad public audiences. As chair, he was even more active in this field. He now found it possible to strike agreements with government agencies and private organizations to benefit AU students. These arrangements led to internships, research opportunities, and in some cases jobs.

Bob’s last request to me was that we set up the Robert Griffith Fund for the Study of Public History, so that the history department would be able to draw on its own funds to help match support from outside institutions in public history collaborations.

Bob slowed or deferred his own scholarly work. He constantly encouraged others—and often helped them—to move smoothly through the arduous processes of tenure and promotion.  He celebrated in all the achievements of others. He supported people when they were down.

Bob was not content to live and work within AU’s history department. Because he had contacts throughout the administration, and because he was so widely known and liked, others thought of him for special tasks. He served as chair of the search committee for a new provost. He served on the search committee for the dean of the College of Arts and Science. He conferred frequently and productively with other chairs. He lobbied behind the scenes to improve drafts of a new Faculty Manual. These are but a few examples of much broader university activity.

He was a man devoted to his wife Barbara, his children Jonathan (and his wife Kate) and Matthew (and his wife Cami), his grandchildren Bridget, Maya, Caroline, and Rachel, and his many friends. He loved good company, and he made any gathering brighter.

He was a unique personality. He rarely boasted of his many achievements. He had the utmost integrity. He was fiercely loyal to friends, family, and the Department of History. Although his legacy will live on, AU has suffered an immense loss.

Richard Breitman, Acting Chair