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A summer academic program for public school teachers, graduate students and college professors will shrink its borders in 2016.
The National Endowment for the Humanities will no longer offer summer seminars or institutes outside of the U.S. and its territories, according to a letter sent last month to past program directors by William Rice Craig, director of the agency's division of education programs.
Craig said the decision reflects "budgetary realities" and an effort to support programs that reach the greatest number of teachers. Judy Havemann, director of communications for the NEH, reiterated Friday that the decision to cut international programs was made based on the agency's uncertain financial future.
The announcement of the change comes just a few months after Senator Jefferson Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, questioned the worth of the programs and described them as free vacations. Havemann said the agency always pays attention to feedback, but she denied that the senator's letter had any influence on the change.
The NEH's summer seminars and institutes provide three- to five-week programs for teachers to learn about a wide range of humanities-related topics. They've been offered for more than three decades, and held all over the U.S. and in 25 different countries, according to the NEH website.
The programs are open to educators at all K-12 schools, graduate students, all levels of professors and community college instructors. This past summer, seminars ranged from topics on Medieval Rome to The Canterbury Tales to Communism in America, and seven of the 30 programs for college and university-level teachers were held in foreign countries. (For school teachers, seven of the 22 offerings were held outside the U.S.)
Participants receive a stipend, ranging from $1,200 to $3,900, to help cover the cost of travel and lodging.
When Sessions, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, spoke out against the summer program, he questioned the criteria by which participants were chosen for the programs, saying it appeared to be random. (Participants must submit an essay as an application and are chosen by a selection committee that weighs their commitment to education and how the seminar will improve their teaching, among other things.)
The senator also described the itinerary and lodging for one seminar that included trips to World War I memorials throughout France and said while it sounded like an enjoyable trip, it shouldn't be financed with taxpayer money. Sessions' press office did not respond to requests for comment.
"There is also a fundamental problem with this program," he wrote of the summer seminars. "It does not have any comprehensive, systemic impact."
That line, in particular, irks David Perry, an associate professor of history at Dominican University, in Illinois. Perry wrote a blog post on the topic, in which he included some comments from dozens of teachers who attended such programs and told him about how they influenced their academic and teaching careers.
The program opened up unpublished sources, historical sites and unique artifacts to teachers who wouldn't otherwise have had access to them, he said. Yet without any comment or discussion, the overseas option is now gone.
Perry has never attended or directed a summer program through NEH.
"But I know that these programs have transformed and saved careers, and I care about the humanities," he wrote in an email. "I care about the NEH and think that its leaders are sending it astray."
Perry also described the decision as arbitrary, saying he could find no evidence that the international programs were more expensive than the domestic ones.
Grant allocations on the NEH website show that international programs have the same cost range as domestic ones, anywhere from roughly $105,000 to $170,000.
But Havemann said the international seminars tend to be longer than many of the domestic programs, so not as many teachers feel that they can attend them compared to the shorter, closer programs.
"It has become especially important to increase access to programs with the greatest possible reach and impact," she wrote in an email.
The NEH made this decision while putting together its budget for 2016, and so while funding is still uncertain, the agency hopes to redirect the money spent on international programs to domestic ones so more teachers can attend, Havemann said.
The change wasn't because the international programs weren't serving their purpose, she said, and the NEH will continue to offer programs on global topics.
Sessions previously questioned other ways in which the NEH spends its money. But he's far from the first politician to do so. Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal for House Republicans in April proposed eliminating the funding for the NEH, and a House subcommittee pushed to cut the budget by 5 percent this summer, though it was unsuccessful. The agency receives about $146 million in federal funding.