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February 10, 2009, 06:18 PM ET

Who Can Lead the NEH?

The Chronicle reported this afternoon that the Obama administration has appointed Carole Watson the Acting Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It had been widely rumored that the NEH Transition team (headed by Clem Price, a distinguished historian from Rutgers-Newark) would name an acting Chairman for NEH, since they were not yet prepared to make a choice for a full term — the same approach that the transition team for the cultural agencies (headed by Bill Ivey of Vanderbilt, former chairman of NEA) has taken for the Arts Endowment. Carole is well-known and widely admired by those of us who work with NEH. She is a scholar of African-American literature who has worked for the Endowment for 30 years, most recently as assistant chairman for partnership and national affairs. She is bright, experienced and easy to deal with — attributes that were not widespread among the political appointees to the agency in recent years.

The interesting question is how much difference it will make who is appointed to the NEH chairmanship? There is already considerable jockeying among the stakeholders in the humanities community to influence the choice, and 10 or 12 names have surfaced as “candidates.” The reality is that this choice will be made by Price and Ivey, and it is not yet clear what criteria they will use. Their task is complicated, though, for the humanities community is complex. The new chairman must relate to the scholarly community, state humanities councils, libraries, museums, academic publishers, digital humanists, independent scholars, history museums, and more. Most of these groups think that they are the most important stakeholders, but NEH is a public funding agency, and it should support them all.

The Endowment must do so on a very small budget, a budget which, as David Glenn pointed out in The Chronicle a few days ago, has actually declined in real dollars over the past 30 years. It is not likely to grow substantially over the next few years, in part because of the impact of the recession, and in part because there is not the political will to increase federal funding for the humanities. As you may have noticed, the arts folks acted quickly and got their advocates to insert a $50-million line into the House version of the Stimulus Bill (later struck out in the Senate), but the humanities community did not even make a comparable attempt. Different strokes for different folks.

So the challenge to Carole Watson’s “permanent” successor will be how to stretch existing funds to satisfy the broad humanities community. I predict the result will be more of the same, for the chairman will find that there is too little money and there are too many needs. I think the real opportunity (and need) will be for the new chairman to speak out for the humanities, articulating their value and suggesting affordable new directions. That will not be easy, and who is up to the challenge?

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