Adams Out at NEH

Humanities leaders had hoped to see William D. Adams, an Obama appointee, finish his term. The agency is among several targeted for elimination by the White House.

May 23, 2017
 
NEH Chairman William D. Adams

The National Endowment for the Humanities announced Monday the resignation of Chairman William D. Adams, effective today.

Adams was an Obama appointee, but the position is among those in the executive branch in which terms can go past a change in administration. His four-year term wouldn't have been up until 2018.

Advocates for the humanities said they were sorry to see him go no matter the timing. His departure, though, comes at a time when federal support for the arts and humanities is subject to renewed threat from the Trump administration and some Republicans in Congress. The White House is expected to release a 2018 budget proposal today that will call for eliminating funding for the NEH as well as the National Endowment for the Arts.

The overall budget of NEH is miniscule compared with large science-oriented federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. But it is typically the biggest source of outside funding for university-based researchers and educators in the humanities.

Adams said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that no one from the Trump administration or anywhere else put pressure on him to resign. As the transition gathered momentum, he said, it made sense for him to step aside.

"This was my decision, in both substance and timing," Adams said.

The NEH was among several agencies reportedly being considered for elimination proposals in budget blueprints drafted by the Trump transition team. Later, that proposal made its way into the “skinny budget” released by the White House in March, along with a proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities’ entire $148 million budget. Adams said in a statement at the time that he was “greatly saddened” to learn about the call for elimination.

That early budget document, as well as the full budget expected to be released today, was premised on the argument that massive cuts to nondefense discretionary spending were necessary to pay for huge increases in military funding. But conservatives have long made philosophical arguments against public support of the arts and humanities. And in January, the Republican Study Committee released a document arguing that support for those areas “can easily and more properly be found from nongovernmental sources.”

Adams said while he was still in office it was inappropriate for him to comment on budgetary proposals to defund the agency.

"But I am enormously proud of the work we do around the country, and I know that millions of people value not only the resources that we provide, but also what we stand for," he said. "NEH represents the country’s commitment to its historical and cultural legacy, and that symbolic commitment is enormously important."

Adams -- who goes by the nickname Bro -- joined NEH as chairman after serving as president of Bucknell University and Colby College. Under his leadership, humanities advocates say, the agency developed a strong focus on demonstrating the public value and relevance of the humanities.

“He has not only made his presence known in communities around the country through visits and speaking engagements to talk about the ways that the humanities are critical to community life,” said Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance. “He’s also created a number of innovative grant programs that have all really centered around the idea of engaging the public with the humanities.”

An Adams-led initiative called Common Good used the agency’s traditional grant-making programs and other special initiatives to encourage scholars to think creatively about how the humanities relate to contemporary issues. Last year, NEH announced the launch of Dialogues on the Experience of War, which provided grant funding to community programs exploring the perspective of veterans.

Kidd said Adams’s tenure would be remembered in particular for his emphasis on veterans and the relevance of the humanities to their transition back to civilian life.

“Bro Adams has been just the leader we needed during his term as chairman,” said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association of America. “Those of us in the scholarly community have found his leadership to be transformational. I’m very sorry to see him go.”

Feal said she was confident that members of Congress would recognize the value projects like the veterans' initiative have brought to their districts. In the announcement of Adams's resignation, NEH noted that the fiscal year 2017 omnibus funding package approved by Congress this month boosted the agency's funding by nearly $2 million over 2016 levels.

Deputy Chair Margaret Plympton will serve in an acting capacity until a successor to Adams is named. Asked about Adams's resignation and the process for picking the next chairman, a spokesman for the White House said it does not comment on personnel matters.

Assuming Congress maintains the agency, President Trump will have additional appointments to make at NEH beyond the chairmanship. Because Republicans in the Senate blocked so many of Obama’s nominations during his second term, 13 members on the National Council for the Humanities, the board that advises the NEH chairman, are currently serving with expired terms. Another eight members have terms expiring in 2018. That means Trump -- if he is interested -- could dramatically reshape the composition of the council.

The council, which meets three times a year, both advises the chairman and reviews applications for grant funding. Members serve staggered six-year terms, but those with expired terms continue serving until the Senate confirms a replacement.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said Adams's resignation was a big loss regardless of the timing.

"Bro Adams provided the NEH with stellar leadership, not only as a spokesperson for the value of the humanities in public culture, but also as a thoughtful and even-handed convener of people with different perspectives and different experiences," he said.

Advocates said they hoped the successor eventually picked to lead NEH would be as committed to the humanities as Adams with as deep a sense of their value.

"I hope his successor is as creative and as committed and as articulate in his or her promotion and advocacy of the humanities," Grossman said.

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