NEH vs. Historians

Endowment accuses scholarly group of "inaccuracies and distortions" -- while admitting that it changed peer review system.
September 25, 2006

A week ago, when the National Endowment for the Humanities was asked to respond to a letter from historians and archivists questioning some recent policy shifts by the agency, an NEH spokesman called the letter "thoughtful."

On Friday, the NEH released a formal response to the letter, calling it anything but thoughtful. Rather, the letter was characterized as containing "inaccuracies and distortions" and the scholars involved were accused of spreading "false and misleading information."

The NEH response has further angered the historians -- both for its substance and tone. Significantly, the endowment is going on record defending a policy in which what many key scholars consider a key part of peer review -- analysis by experts -- has been eliminated.

In addition, while the NEH says that complaints from the scholars about grant requirements were inappropriate, the endowment has changed the grant review criteria to explicitly state (as requested by the historians) that projects not be excluded for not being online and free.

Where this will leave the dispute is unclear -- but if the NEH was hoping that its letter would reassure the historians, the agency is likely to be disappointed. Roger A. Bruns, president of the Association for Documentary Editing, the group that has led the protest to the NEH, said in an interview that he was stunned by the agency's response. He said that while the agency was accusing historians of making distortions, it had not identified a single error of fact.

"Their policies are putting our projects in jeopardy, and all we were asking for was a meeting to talk about this, and they fire back with this insulting letter," said Bruns. "They know that there are a whole lot of people concerned and complaining, and they don't answer the concerns. I resent this response and don't understand why they are doing this."

The dispute that brought historical groups into conflict with the NEH concerns a relatively small, but important program -- Scholarly Editions Grants -- but scholars say that the underlying concerns affect the endowment's programs as a whole.

Scholarly Editions Grants support projects to review, edit and publish the key writings of figures or periods in American history. Many of these projects run quite long (over decades), producing volumes with the raw materials that in turn are used by other scholars and teachers. There is considerable irony in the NEH fighting with the scholars involved in this program. While endowment officials -- especially during Republican administrations -- tend to worry about supporting some cutting edge, multicultural scholarship, many of the projects where scholars are angry at the endowment do work on dead white men (early presidents, for example), and the quality of the scholarly work has never been questioned on ideological or other grounds.

Peer Review

One of the key disputes is over peer review. The letter from the scholarly group to the NEH said that the endowment had eliminated a key stage of peer review involving outside experts. Once that level of peer review was eliminated, many scholars said, well regarded projects started getting their proposals rejected, and comments from NEH reviewers started to be inconsistent. The NEH response -- written by Michael McDonald, acting assistant chairman for programs -- says that the "claim" that peer review had been dropped was "the most troubling allegation."

Then McDonald outlines how the NEH continues to believe in the use of peer review panels and how competitive rankings still determine who is awarded grants. But McDonald acknowledges that "one element" of peer review had changed -- and that the endowment had in fact stopped "specialist reviews." Endowment leaders believe that these reviews "did not yield sufficient improvements in the quality of review to justify returning to the previous practice." McDonald also chides the historians for complaining about the change now. In his letter, he writes, "I am surprised that the changes you mention are only now coming to your attention, as they were put into effect more than two years ago."

Bruns said that many historians did disagree with the change two years ago, and some said so at the time. But he said that his group didn't protest until now because it was willing to see how the changes worked. "We don't just protest things willy nilly," he said. "But there is now a crescendo of objections."

The layer of peer review that the NEH eliminated was the layer that involved people who do the kind of work being evaluated, the people who know how to edit a volume of documents and how to prepare documents for use as teaching or research skills, and people who understand the budgeting for such work, Bruns said. The people who are left to review these projects are genuinely intelligent and knowledgeable about many things, Bruns said, but not about the projects they are reviewing.

"What they've eliminated are the true experts," Bruns said. "What they have done is to reduce the knowledge they have about the projects. How can that be good? How can they make as intelligent a decision if they have less information?"

Digital Preferences

Another major part of the dispute concerns language in the revised rules for Scholarly Editions Grants that suggested that the projects that are produced digitally and that are made available online free would receive "preference" when grants are awarded.

The scholars who produce these projects have noted that they are already working to make much of their work available online, much of it free. But in many cases, they have noted, the rights to the work are controlled by university presses, which publish the work -- often times at a financial loss. With funding in this area so tight, scholars said that a preference would de facto be a requirement -- and one that puts them in an impossible position, since they need to work with university presses and the NEH.

On this issue, the NEH was more conciliatory. While stating that NEH officials didn't understand why there was so much worry, McDonald noted that the digital policy was part of a broader endowment effort to make more of the work it supports broadly available online. But "in the hopes of putting this issue to bed once and for all," he said that the NEH had made several "small modifications" to its grant rules to specify that the "preference" is not a requirement. Those changes include an explicit statement in the Frequently Asked Questions section in which NEH answers the question about whether there is any requirement in this area with a direct "No."

Bruns said that he did view these changes as providing "a bit of relief," but he took issue with the idea that the historians had created more concern about this issue than was necessary. "The way they wrote the guidelines was poor -- they just weren't well written," he said. He also said that concerns remain about how strong a preference is involved, and what impact that would have.

Another area in which McDonald objected to the historians' letter was in its comparisons of support for the program generally, and drops in the number of grants supported. McDonald noted that the NEH budget had taken some severe hits over the years, resulting in many awards being cut back.

Bruns said that the problem is that with existing money "being funneled to a select few projects," it is all the more important that scholars have confidence in the system for allocating funds. The letter outlining the concerns with the NEH policies was put together after consulting a variety of historians, archivists and others, Bruns said, and he said that these scholars would have to consider their response now. Of the NEH response thus far, he said, "this is very disappointing."


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