US: Humanities Endowment Should Get Back to Basics, Scholars Say

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Feb 13 15:50:53 UTC 2009

>>From the issue dated February 13, 2009

Humanities Endowment Should Get Back to Basics, Scholars Say
Academics hope the agency will support more individual projects under
the Obama administration


Clement A. Price, a member of the Obama transition team's committee on
the arts, spent several days in December walking the halls of the
National Endowment for the Humanities, interviewing program officers
and generally taking the temperature of the place. It was an
interesting moment to visit. Not only was a new president preparing to
take office, but the endowment was about to lose the longest-serving
chairman in its history. Bruce Cole, who had served in that role since
2001, announced in November that he would leave in January to take a
position with a museum in Pennsylvania. As scholars await the
appointment of a new chairman — and no one seems to know when to
expect an announcement — old questions about the basic mission of the
agency are being asked with new force.

"My instructions were as follows," says Mr. Price, a professor of
history at Rutgers University at Newark: "to spend some time in the
agency getting a real-time sense of what was going on, to learn how
the eight years of the Bush administration had affected the agency,
and to make recommendations with respect to budgetary and policy
Few scholars ever enjoy the kind of access that Mr. Price received in
December. But he is far from alone in offering advice about the
endowment's budget, policies, and purpose. Since the moment of its
creation, in 1965, the endowment has been torn among several
constituencies. How much of its money should go to lonely scholars
toiling away on obscure topics in philology, and how much should go to
documentaries and museum exhibits aimed at a mass audience? Should
awards go strictly to the most excellent proposals, or should the NEH
take care to distribute funds across all 50 states, the better to keep
Congress happy?

In interviews with The Chronicle, Mr. Price and seven other NEH
watchers offered a far-from-unanimous wish list for the agency under
the Obama administration:

A stronger pipeline to the White House. Several high-profile
advocates, including the music producer Quincy Jones, have urged
President Obama to create a cabinet-level "czar" for the arts and
humanities. That is apparently not going to happen. But William J.
Ivey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts who led
the transition committee on which Mr. Price served, says that there
probably will be a mini-czar of sorts.

"They're seriously considering the creation of an arts-and-culture
portfolio within the domestic-policy council," says Mr. Ivey, who is
director of Vanderbilt University's Curb Center for Art, Enterprise,
and Public Policy and author of Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have
Destroyed Our Cultural Rights (University of California Press, 2008).

That role would be valuable and overdue, Mr. Ivey believes. "There has
been over the years a missed opportunity," he says. "The cultural
agencies never really had an established, formal link with mainstream
West Wing policy making. ... I think we do have a chance here for a
much more robust policy support structure behind the efforts of the
cultural agencies."

But David A. Smith, a lecturer in history at Baylor University, warns
that such a position might simply create a new layer of bureaucracy
that would disrupt the chemistry of the arts and humanities

"I fear that it would take away the nimbleness of the cultural
programs that are in place today," says Mr. Smith, who is the author
of Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American
Democracy (Ivan R. Dee, 2008). The position might also convey "the
wrong idea about art as an element of civic life — that it's capable
of being centralized," he says.

Wilfred M. McClay, a professor of humanities at the University of
Tennessee at Chattanooga and a member of the endowment's advisory
board, is also skeptical. "Any change that would bring political
forces to bear on the endowment is something that should be looked at
very carefully," he says. "Still, these things are all in the doing.
I'm going to withhold judgment until I see what they actually do."

Greater openness. "The NEH should provide much more information about
the number of proposals that come in and the percentage that are
approved," says Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of
Learned Societies.

Ms. Yu and others contrast the NEH with the National Science
Foundation, which releases detailed annual reports about its
grant-making patterns.

"I believe the last time they offered a formal report to the president
was 2003," says Jessica J. Irons, executive director of the National
Humanities Alliance, an advocacy group in Washington.

Some scholars would also like to see the NEH mimic the National
Science Foundation's annual "Science and Engineering Indicators"
reports, which offer data about the state of the science work force.
The 1965 statute that created the humanities endowment instructed it
to compile such data, but that role has really never been performed,
according to Ms. Irons and Ms. Yu.

"The basis of good policy making is good information," says Ms. Irons,
"and we do not have that for the humanities."

In the absence of such data from the NEH, the American Academy of Arts
and Sciences and other organizations recently created their own set of
"humanities indicators" (The Chronicle, January 16). But that task
would have been far easier, Ms. Yu says, if the NEH took data
gathering seriously.

Mr. McClay says he is sympathetic to such concerns. But he also
cautions that scholarship in the humanities probably isn't as easily
quantifiable as scholarship in science and engineering. "In a sense,
the spirit of the humanities is really to oppose quantitative
indices," he says. And he worries that data gathering would siphon
money away from grant making in an agency whose resources are already

A stronger peer-review system. Mr. Price and Mr. Ivey say this was one
of their committee's major concerns.

"We found that the panel system, the peer-review system, had been
diminished," Mr. Ivey says. "Many key decisions about where money went
had been pulled up to the senior-management level, and out of the
hands of review panels and program directors. There will be a need on
the part of new leadership to rebalance the agency, so that the panel
system comes back to its appropriate prominence."

That argument is echoed by Ms. Yu, who says that the endowment's
senior leadership has sometimes failed to treat the review panels'
judgments as "sacrosanct."

Mr. Price says he noted such concerns in his formal report to the
transition team. But he adds that Mr. Cole, the former chairman, had
some plausible reasons for centralizing the grant-making process. "He
essentially wanted the division heads to take a greater role in making
sure that the peer-review process had not tilted unfavorably against
the larger mission of the endowment," Mr. Price says. "He was very
concerned that the endowment's resources be spread equitably around
the nation."

Mr. McClay says that Mr. Cole's approach was the correct one, given
the complexity of the endowment's mission. "In my experience, the
review-panel members are extremely dedicated," he says. "But someone
in this process has to represent not just the academics but also the
American people."

This is yet another area where Ms. Yu and Ms. Irons would like the
endowment to imitate the National Science Foundation. The endowment's
peer-review structure would be stronger, they say, if more of its
program officers were short-term, two-year hires on loan from academic
jobs. "Having people from the scholarly community moving in and out of
staff positions seems to work very well for the NSF," Ms. Yu says.

Less emphasis on splashy public projects. Over the last two decades,
each of the endowment's chairmen has promoted at least one large-scale
populist program. For Sheldon Hackney, who served as chairman during
the Clinton administration, it was a National Conversation on American
Pluralism and Identity. Mr. Cole championed Picturing America, a
project that offers iconic American images and related teaching
materials to schools and libraries.

In the eyes of some — including the Obama transition team — those
projects have detracted from the endowment's core purpose. "We
definitely observed that there was an imbalance between investment in
national programs like Picturing America and the routine work of
sponsoring research, funding programs in museums, and funding
preservation work," Mr. Ivey says. "The routine grant-making work of
the agency has been somewhat compromised."

Ms. Yu agrees. "Research is really the cornerstone of any humanities
activity," she says. "And right now it's not as significant a
percentage of their budget as it should be."

But others say that the public projects have done more good than harm.
"Every chairman seems to want to do a populist history project of one
kind or another which involves Americans in interpreting their own
history, in discovering their own history," says Michael Kazin, a
professor of history at Georgetown University. "And, you know, that's
fine. There are a lot of different publics out there. If I were
chairman of the NEH, I would want to continue to have that kind of
broad scope."

And William R. Ferris, who served as chairman at the end of the
Clinton administration, says that the projects have become part of the
agency's identity. "It's expected that the chairman will have a vision
and a project that will give a personal touch to the work of the
agency during his or her tenure," says Mr. Ferris, who is now a
professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill. "It's expected by the staff and by the humanities community at
large. The projects vary with each chair, but over the long haul they
all blend together as one big legacy that NEH has established."

More money. Not surprisingly, many conversations about the NEH begin
and end with this topic. As Stanley N. Katz, the director of Princeton
University's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, pointed out
in an essay in The Chronicle in 2001, the endowment's budget (adjusted
for inflation) peaked in 1979.

"NEH funding is just a fraction of what's available for the sciences
through the NSF and the other agencies," Ms. Irons says. "We need to
see some kind of closing of the gap between what's available for the
sciences and for the humanities. It's simply a matter of maintaining
what has really been the tradition in this country of educating people
in a well-rounded way."

But in this economic climate, new support may be a hard sell.
Talk-radio hosts ridiculed the idea that $50-million might be given to
the NEH's sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, in the
stimulus package that was before the Senate last week.

Mr. Smith, of Baylor, says some of his conservative acquaintances
would like to see the federal government get out of the
arts-and-humanities business entirely. "People can make a good case
that government ought to be doing other stuff, and that art is so
individualized that government ought not to be involved with it at
all," he says.

But in the end, Mr. Smith says, he does not agree. "The arts and
humanities are important enough to civic life that they're a proper
concern of government," he says.

Mr. Price, for his part, is hopeful that Mr. Obama's personal
interests in history, literature, and public culture will help drive
new support to the endowment.

"The endowment is underfunded, and has been since the so-called
history and culture wars of the 1990s," Mr. Price says. "And those
wars, while not over, have certainly been modified by the march of
time. It is now time to more substantially fund the endowment so it
can go about its work on a much more effective level." Section: The Faculty Volume 55, Issue 23, Page A8

Copyright (c) 2009 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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