By John Wenzel
The Denver Post
Controversy is never far from public money, as policymakers and pundits argue over how much of it should go to whom — and for which projects. Double the concern for government funding of cultural endeavors.
But the National Endowment for the Humanities, the 45-year-old federal organization that has supported everything from Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series to Pulitzer Prize-winning books and the “Treasures of Tutankhamen” exhibit, has been a relatively solid rock in the churning debates about the role of government money in our culture.
Even though it has paid for such potentially eyebrow-raising research programs as “Sex, Privacy and the Constitution” and such esoteric, seemingly nongovernmental projects as cataloging the art collection at Boulder’s Naropa University, the NEH has been served well lately by its stable internal structure, bipartisan support and steady hands at the helm.
"There's always concern for federal spending," said Jim Leach, chairman of the NEH, in Denver earlier this month for a whistle-stop tour of public appearances. "In a direct framework, historical, literary and philosophical probing can be very controversial. Sometimes history’s more controversial than current events, so there will be things that NEH will do that will cause controversy."
True, but the NEH’s sister organization, the National Endowment for the Arts, suffers most of the political blowback when it funds controversial projects, even though the NEH’s work is equally as relevant and necessary — if a bit less sexy.
The NEA deals with the creation of new works, while the NEH is oriented toward preservation and education (for example, by digitizing tens of millions of pages of newspapers dating from the Civil War).
But their subjects overlap. Truth and beauty. War and liberty. Gender and race. History and identity. Individual rights versus the common good.
These topics are as relevant as when the country was founded, but because the NEH’s work is less immediately provocative, it often flies under the radar.
"Its content areas are a lot broader than the NEA," said Maggie Coval, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Humanities, which gets about half of its $1 million annual budget from the NEH and half from fundraising. "But it’s really hard to just make generalizations because of their range of work."
Making things happen
With a 2010 budget of $167.5 million — a $12.5 million increase over 2009 — the NEH was able to fund scores of ambitious projects nationally, including ones at museums, libraries and colleges across Colorado.
Recipients argue that these coveted grants and fellowships are the only way they can move ahead in their ultra-competitive, often poorly funded fields.
"(The NEH) is a godsend," said Virginia Anderson, a University of Colorado at Boulder history professor who recently received a $50,400 fellowship to complete her book "The Martyr and the Traitor: Choosing Sides in the American Revolution."
"Before I had gotten this I was frantic with, 'How am I going to write this book?'" she said. "And there’s so few of these out there. It’s a real lifeline for people like historians but also anyone who works in the humanities."
Anderson’s book explodes assumptions about patriots and traitors (in this case Nathan Hale and Moses Dunbar, respectively) in the American Revolution — a topic that echoes the "terrorist vs. freedom fighter" debate that has bubbled up since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Federal funding is absolutely essential for what we do because we don’t get the same kind of attention as science and medical research," said Jessica Smith Rolston, an assistant professor adjunct at CU-Boulder who was also awarded $50,400 to finish her book "Reworking Gender: Labor and Relatedness in the American West."
The anthropology study asks why so many women work in the coal mines of northeastern Wyoming — a typically male-dominated field — and what it means for gender relations in the workplace.
"It’s been difficult for me to get traditional anthropology funding, since anthropology tends to be focused on research outside of the U.S., so the NEH is important for that," she said.
It’s a competitive field, to be sure. This year the NEH awarded fellowships to only 8 percent of its 1,235 applicants, and Colorado — with its marquee institutions like CU-Boulder and Colorado State University — received more than any neighboring state.
Spreading the wealth
But how does the NEH decide who to give its money to? And how does it avoid the glare of liberals who think it ought to give more cash to avant-garde pursuits and conservatives who might not be interested in paying for research that challenges traditional thinking?
Current NEH chairman Leach provides an example. He served in Congress for 30 years as a respected Republican representative from Iowa. But he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 — who appointed him to the NEH position after becoming president.
"I would never suggest that my background is uniquely suited to this job, but I think a background in Congress has particular relevance," said Leach, who founded and co-chaired the Congressional Humanities Caucus. "A member of Congress really deals with problems in society. The NEH has had a long history of fine chairmen, both quite conservative and those that would be considered more liberal."
Instead of making top-down decisions from its Washington, D.C., perch, the NEH employs panels of academics and scholars from diverse disciplines to evaluate applications on various merits, including intellectual significance, overall quality and accessibility to the public. A national council, whose members are appointed by the president, then evaluates that panel’s work.
"At the moment, the majority of the council is made up of Bush administration appointees," said NEH communications director Judith Havemann.
In other words, good ideas are encouraged to rise to the top — regardless of any perceived agenda.
"We really have to make sure (applicants) are able to express their ideas in a clear way," said Russ Wyland, deputy director of the NEH’s research division. "We encourage applications to get away from that jargon of science and medicine. We have to have a good idea of how the person is going to spend taxpayer dollars."
Wyland, who has been a rank-and-file NEH worker for two decades, is most proud of the diversity of opinions that go into each decision.
"The one thing that remains constant is this really deep respect for the idea of peer review," he said. "People with very different views and very different approaches are at the table."
That's a rare approach in government decision making. Outside of the NEH, only a few other organizations use it, such as the NEA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
Chairman Leach, no stranger to political wrangling, echoed that sentiment in his "Civility in a Fractured Society" speech to the nonpartisan Denver Forum on Aug. 5.
"Any social organization that can’t work together divides and weakens," he said. "Isn’t the challenge trying to look at the world through more than one set of eyes?"
John Wenzel: 303-954-1642 or firstname.lastname@example.org