Editorial & Opinion

The Curious Case of RI Historian Laureate Pat Conley

“…to be clear, I don’t think that Patrick Conley’s reappointment as Historian Laureate is the most pressing issue facing Rhode Island right now. But it’s not insignificant either.” In 2012, the Rhode Island Secretary of State announced that the state’s inaugural Historian Laureate would be the lawyer, developer, and former Providence College professor, Patrick Conley. I remember the announcement well;

Published on October 27, 2020
By Phil Eil

“…to be clear, I don’t think that Patrick Conley’s reappointment as Historian Laureate is the most pressing issue facing Rhode Island right now. But it’s not insignificant either.”

In 2012, the Rhode Island Secretary of State announced that the state’s inaugural Historian Laureate would be the lawyer, developer, and former Providence College professor, Patrick Conley. I remember the announcement well; I wrote a short piece on Conley for the Providence Phoenix to mark the occasion.  

Conley was, in some ways, a logical choice for the post. As the announcement noted, he has a PhD in history from Notre Dame, he had taught at Providence College for decades, and he was the author of “dozens of books and papers including “Makers of Modern Rhode Island” and “Rhode Island Founders: From Settlement to Statehood.” His long record of public speaking about the state’s history made him a natural fit for a position that calls, by statute, for “delivering historical lectures about pertinent aspects of Rhode Island history at important state historical ceremonies and observances.“

But Conley was also an unusual pick. On his website, he boasts that, in 1987, the Providence Business News dubbed him “Providence’s largest, private landowner (in terms of number of parcels owned)” and that he is, or at least once had been, the “holder of more Rhode Island real estate titles (via tax sale purchases) than any person in Rhode Island history.” He owns waterfront homes in Bristol and Matunuck. His resume notes that, from 1977 to 1984, he was a special assistant, speechwriter, and chief-of-staff for the notorious former Providence mayor (and, later, twice-convicted felon) Buddy Cianci. In the mid 2000s, the New York Times reported on the lengths Conley went to in his “personal quest” to turn Providence’s industrial waterfront into a “$300 million mixed-use development” with “a hotel, marina, 240 condominiums or rental apartments, a parking garage for 890 cars, a floating restaurant, retail and office space, and green space for festivals, concerts and other outdoor events.” This is not your usual academic.

I was reminded of Conley the other day when I read his latest piece in the Providence Journal arguing against removing “Plantations” from the state’s name, via a ballot question in next week’s election. Conley is a frequent presence on the Journal opinion pages. He has written, among other things, a letter questioning diversity’s role as a consideration for selecting Rhode island supreme court judges, and a defense of the late businessman and philanthropist, Ralph Papitto, whose admitted use of the N-word during a meeting brought the removal of his name from the law school at Roger Williams University. In June, as protests against police brutality roiled the nation following the death of George Floyd, Conley penned a piece referring to “The current irrational and hyperbolic political discourse — both right and left, but especially left.” Perhaps the most visible product of Conley’s tenure as historian laureate is his apparent open invitation to opine in the pages of the state paper of record. Reading these pieces, it’s not always clear which one of his many hats he’s currently wearing. Is he writing as a lawyer? Developer? Historian? Wealthy octogenarian? 

After reading his latest piece, and seeing that he was still being identified as the historian laureate, I wondered: hasn’t this guy’s term expired?

After a bit of digging, I learned that the answer is both yes and no. According to his certificate of appointment, Conley’s term ended in July of 2017. But as Ian Donnis reported for The Public’s Radio in June, he had been quietly reappointed earlier this year in a move that was, by the Secretary of State office’s own admission, never publicly announced. This was surprising to me — and disappointing.

Conley’s reappointment is disappointing, first, because there is no shortage of good candidates in Rhode Island who could do exciting, provocative, and enriching things with this post. I’m not even a historian or a history teacher and yet I can name a handful of eminently qualified candidates. Can you imagine what kind of insight and energy that, say, Christy Clark-Pujara, author of Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, would bring to the post? Or URI history professor, Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, who writes daily Twitter threads on labor history? Or Providence Cultural Equity Initiative founder and CEO Raymond Two Hawks Watson? Or local expert and lecturer about Black history, Keith Stokes? Conley’s reappointment isn’t just a colossal missed opportunity, it’s an insult to the state’s many worthy candidates who apparently didn’t even get the chance to apply. 

Speaking of the process by which this reappointment occurred, not only was there no announcement of the reappointment, but, unlike the first time Conley was appointed in 2012, apparently there was no call for public nominations. Nor does there appear to have been a period for public comment, during which, say, the local journalist John McDaid could have re-submitted his 2014 piece calling for Conley’s removal as laureate after his bizarre, personally-motivated public attack on the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. And unlike the seemingly analogous position of Rhode Island poet laureate, which has changed hands every few years since its introduction in 1987, here the state’s first historian laureate was shooed in for a second term. The whole situation has a pungent aroma.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that Patrick Conley’s reappointment as Historian Laureate is the most pressing issue facing Rhode Island right now. But it’s not insignificant either.

First, this whole episode calls into question what other public business is being conducted by our elected leaders without much public scrutiny or announcement. Although no money was involved here, in the local marketplace of ideas, this was the equivalent of a no-bid contract. It was a glimpse of a Rhode Island that’s still very much tilted in favor of the powerful, wealthy, and politically connected. And the way that Gorbea’s office described the process to Ian Donnis — “Secretary Gorbea met with Dr. Conley in February, at which time Dr. Conley expressed his desire to continue in the role of Historian Laureate of Rhode Island” — made it sound, disturbingly, as if the title were Conley’s personal possession, rather than a publicly-owned privilege which he had been temporarily bestowed. 

But more unsettling was the glaring tone-deafness of it all. There has been no year in my lifetime when the story of this country is more politicized. Statues have been torn down by both political decree and public force. Names of schools and other institutions have been changed to reflect changing political attitudes. Seemingly overnight, Juneteenth became a widely recognized holiday. Providence high school students pursued a lawsuit over their lack of civics education. Of all of the years to silently reappoint a local historian-in-chief who decries “‘political correctness’ run rampant!” 2020 was particularly bad.

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Alas, it appears that there isn’t much to be done about Conley’s undemocratic reappointment. You can write to the Secretary of State to voice your frustration with the sketchyness of this process, and ask that the public have a chance to be heard next time a Historian Laureate is appointed. You can write to the ProJo the next time Conley pens a conservative op-ed that carries the state’s tacit stamp of approval. You can take it upon yourself to chart your own journey through Rhode Island’s extraordinary, fascinating,  and often disturbing history. I made some suggestions about how to do this for UpriseRI over the summer. 

But, if nothing else, this is a good time to remind everyone that, while Conley will claim the “Historian Laureate” title for the next five years, he is not the authoritative voice on the state’s history. This year, more than any other, is a year to question what “authoritative” even means when it comes to local and national storytelling. 

It’s also a good time to remember that one of the beauties of history is that it doesn’t belong to any one guy, no matter how much property he owns. If you live in Rhode Island — no matter your age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, employment (or lack thereof), or immigration status — you are a living, breathing, vital part of the state’s history. And there are plenty of things you can do to flex this muscle.

You can do this from home, by writing op-eds, or recording podcasts or YouTube videos, or contributing to public history projects like the Rhode Island Historical Society and Providence Public Library’s open-to-all COVID-19 archive.

You can do this by voting, or participating in protests, or joining in community organizations, or producing works of public art and activism.

And you can do this, especially, by continuing to question what guys like Pat Conley say about who we are, how we got here, and where we’re going.

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