Thursday, November 13, 2014

NEH and their REDACTED Decision-Making

After the NEH cancelled overseas summer seminars, I requested two sets of documents via FOIA.

You can read all about the context here (article over at the Chronicle), here (collection of comments on how important the program is), and here.

My FOIA requests were:
  1. All documents (I listed many types) about the cancellation of the summer seminar.
  2. All documents responding to Senator Jeff Sessions' criticism of the NEH.
#2 came in with 1144 pages, leading to a long letter in which the NEH responded to his questions. I worked through them yesterday (heavily redacted, heavily repetitive, but had some useful material).

#1 came in with 16 pages. You can read them all here (in pdf).

What I wanted to see is how the NEH responds to political challenges like Sessions' letter. The Director of Communications has claimed that the cancellation of the programs had nothing to do with Sessions. Anonymously, various people at the NEH or people who have talked to folks at the NEH (nothing reliable) have stated that they believe it's all political and directly linked to the Sessions letter.

Unfortunately, the actual process is entirely redacted. Still, you can tell a lot by the scope of the archive. Here's something important - they decided to cut this major component of their programs in one meeting, a "back-of-the-envelope" calculation (which they refused to provide me), and about six emails.

Again - according to their own documents, deciding to cut the NEH Overseas Programs took one meeting, some rough calculations, and about six emails.

That's how much they value you, O Academicians.

The NEH has the right to align their budget however they want. They are not, however, sovereign. They are beholden to the taxpayers. To the White House. And to the people who work in the Humanities with whom the NEH collaborates. When they render edicts down, rather than engage in dialogue, they lose allies. And they lose allies at EXACTLY the moment when they need allies most. Sessions, as the incoming Senate Budget Chair, is going to hammer the NEH. The NEH, in its turn, is going to want me to care.

First step towards me caring - transparency.

UPDATE: For people unfamiliar with FOIA (like me four weeks ago), here's how they justify redacting their text (pdf of the letter). It's a "working documents" exemption meant to protect documents in which people are giving their unvarnished opinions over email. The fear is that if they don't have this protection, no one will be able to give advice to anyone.

The NEH does not have to redact them, of course. It's a choice.

There are references to minutes in the documents above which are quite likely not protected. I may file another FOIA to get them.


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