Monday, October 27, 2014

The NEH and Jeff Sessions

I'm still waiting on documents to arrive for the NEH as I'd like a much clearer assessment of who is making decisions over there.

I'm angry, as well, that they aren't more forthcoming. The NEH belongs to us. It belongs to everyone who has participated in an NEH program or applied for one. It belongs to every citizen that works in the humanities at any level. It belongs to the taxpayers. And that's why FOIA exists, to force transparency when craven bureaucrats hide their process and make statements that seem untrue. I'm not famous. I'm not important. And I can't get answers by simply asking reasonable questions. And so I wait for documents.

In the meantime, my attention on Jeff Sessions is intensifying. I think a lot of people dismiss him as an anti-intellectual crank, but he's quite sophisticated at speaking to people who are, at the first, suspicious of the humanities, and who are suspicious of federal support for research of any kind except for the most pragmatic (and military).

Sessions is the ranking GOP member of the Senate Budget Committee. In a few days, he could be the incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee. At which point, every budget emerging from his committee will include little to no funding for basic research of all kinds. The NEH and NEA are obvious targets, but the NIH is going to be in trouble too. It's all bad for knowledge.

So if there's a GOP Senate, that's not going to be fun. In such an environment, though, targeted groups cannot respond to pressure through this behind-the-scenes fait accompli kind of a decision making. They have to gather stakeholders in, make us feel part of the process, make us feel like the NEH is something worth fighting for.

And right now, when Sessions says cut the NEH, my emotional response (not rational response) is to shrug and say, "whatever." Because it's pretty clear, right now, that the big fancy folks at Washington don't care about my voice. Or your voice. It's not our NEH, so why not just let Sessions gut it.

I will try to resist such emotional responses, but none of this was necessary. The NEH could have contacted its program Directors (and through them past participants) and said - "we have this series of bad choices and are trying to figure out what's the least bad response. One thought was to cancel foreign programs for the following reasons..."

In such a circumstance, they build community and sympathy for making hard budget choices. But they also then have to be transparent about what those choices actually are and I fundamentally don't believe they have been.

  • To my knowledge, they aren't really saving much money (and possibly not any money) by cutting the program. 
  • To my knowledge, the foreign seminars attract more applicants than the domestic ones, so the NEH's suggestion that this is about access doesn't stand up. 
  • To my knowledge, the NEH foreign seminars consistently produce books, conference sessions, and career-changing/sparking moments in ways that they would have not have without their on-site location.
I continue to believe this decision is part of a defensive crouch in the face of the coming GOP storm. To duck and cover while ridding yourself of allies seems like a poor choice strategically. 

Our next moves will also have to be political.


3 comments:

Aranye Nin, Ph.D. said...

Good for you for requesting the docs. It's amazing that a looming GOP storm doesn't inspire a Democratically-controlled Senate to plump up research funding (e.g. climate change) and safeguard it. I think we need to be taking a look at Harry Reid too. His record of success in managing purported allies and converting the opposition is nonexistent. The strategy of pre-capitulation to opposition sadly is not confined to Congress. It seems to be rife in nearly every university.

Brent Peterson said...

Let me just add that it's difficult for me to think that NEH even did a back of the envelop calculation. I've done 3 NEH Summer Seminars for Teachers in Berlin (2010, 2012, 2014), and a quick look at the last budget shows that over 60% of our money went to two items that are the same no matter where the seminar is held: stipends for the participants and summer salaries for the director(s). Since Berlin is a lot cheaper than some places in the US, say NYC or DC, and since the still fund things like museums, we were able to build in first class ways of contextualizing seminar material for relatively little money, and we also found an amazingly cheap place to hold the seminar itself. Our living expenses, covered by per diems set by the State Department, were also lower than a lot of places. In short, whatever the NEH says, this decision was not about money. Since we held the seminar in German, it robs German teachers and others with that ability and an interest in our topic, migration and German culture, of an immersion experience coupled with the chance to explore crucial information for teachers and their students who want to learn about how Germany really works beyond the cliches that still circulate in the US. It was also one of my most rewarding teaching experiences. Brent Peterson, Professor of German, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI

David Perry said...

Thanks Brent. The NEH has refused to answer my specific budgetary questions. I'll be writing another piece in a few days on their reticence.