Published: April 22, 2021

Renowned historian honored for her work bridging the gap between academics and the general public

Patricia Limerick, a well-known historian at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been selected as a member the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the academy announced today.

Limerick, who is also faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West, is one of 252 new members of the academy nationwide. She is the 38th member of the CU Boulder faculty to win this honor.

The academy recognizes extraordinary people across America and around the world who help solve the world’s most urgent challenges, create meaning through art, and contribute to the common good from every field, discipline and profession, the group stated.

Patty Limerick

Patricia Limerick

“We are honoring the excellence of these individuals, celebrating what they have achieved so far, and imagining what they will continue to accomplish,” said David Oxtoby, the academy’s president. “The past year has been replete with evidence of how things can get worse; this is an opportunity to illuminate the importance of art, ideas, knowledge, and leadership that can make a better world.”

The academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock and others who believed the new republic should honor exceptionally accomplished individuals and engage them in advancing the public good.

Limerick has dedicated her career to bridging the gap between academics and the general public and to demonstrating the benefits of applying historical perspective to contemporary dilemmas and conflicts. 

Limerick is also known as an energetic and engaging public speaker, sought after by a wide range of constituencies in the American West that include private industry groups, state and federal agencies and grassroots organizations.

In 2016 she was the Colorado State Historian and was appointed to the National Endowment for the Humanities advisory board, the National Council on the Humanities. 

"Holding the job of Faculty Director of CU's Center of the American West has always served as a daily 'delivery system' of good fortune. Learning of my election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences raises my sense of good fortune even higher," Limerick said. "This would be a great honor under any circumstances, but it carries even greater meaning to a person who has sometimes been seen as a risk-taking maverick, but who is now simply a grateful member of the wondrous profession of history."

A native of California, Limerick earned a PhD in American studies from Yale University in 1980, and from 1980 to 1984 served as an assistant professor of history at Harvard. 

In 1984, Limerick joined the history department at CU Boulder. In 1985 she published Desert Passages, followed in 1987 by her best-known work, The Legacy of Conquest, an overview and reinterpretation of Western American history that has generated academic and public debate. 

In 2012 she published A Ditch in Time: The City, the West, and Water, a history of water in Denver. Limerick is also a prolific essayist, and many of her most notable articles, including “Dancing with Professors: The Trouble with Academic Prose,” were collected in 2000 under the title Something in the Soil.

In “Dancing with Professors,” Limerick skewered academic writers this way:

“In ordinary life, when a listener cannot understand what someone has said, this is the usual exchange:

“Listener: I cannot understand what you are saying.

“Speaker: Let me try to say it more clearly.

“But in scholarly writing in the late 20th century, other rules apply. This is the implicit exchange:

“Reader: I cannot understand what you are saying.

“Academic Writer: Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader. If you were smarter, you would understand me.”

Limerick said academic writers of all political persuasion and disciplinary focus shared a devotion to a “cult of obscurity,” which holds that “unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind.”

We are honoring the excellence of these individuals, celebrating what they have achieved so far, and imagining what they will continue to accomplish."

Limerick has previously won a MacArthur Fellowship and the Hazel Barnes Prize, the CU Boulder’s highest award for teaching and research. She has served as president of several professional organizations, advised documentary and film projects, and done two tours as a Pulitzer nonfiction jurist, as well as chairing the 2011 Pulitzer jury in history. 

She regularly appears on the op-ed pages of local and national newspapers and, in the summer of 2005, served as a guest columnist for The New York Times

Limerick has served as President of the Organization of American Historians, American Studies Association, the Western History Association and the Society of American Historians. 

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the country’s oldest learned societies and independent policy-research centers. Current academy members represent today’s innovative thinkers in every field and profession, including more than two 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.

New members join the company of academy members elected before them, including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton in the 18th century; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Maria Mitchell in the 19th; Robert Frost, Martha Graham, Margaret Mead, Milton Friedman, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 20th; and—in the past two decades—Antonin Scalia, Michael Bloomberg, John Lithgow, Judy Woodruff, Nicholas Kristof, John Legend, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Anna Deavere Smith.