Over spring break, while UT students flocked to the beach, Head of the Department of Religious Studies Rosalind Hackett went north to D.C. for a conference of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA).
For two days, Hackett, along with three representatives from Vanderbilt, met with Tennessee congressmen's aides to lobby for the necessity of humanities funding — specifically for the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH).
In President Donald Trump's “America First” budget blueprint released on March 16, the elimination of both the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts is proposed. The funds gained from the dissolution of the NEH would total around $150 million, and that money would be redirected into a $54 billion increase in defense spending, bringing the Department of Defense's budget to a total of $639 billion, about 4,260 times greater than what would have been allocated to the NEH.
For Hackett and other humanities faculty and directors nationwide, this proposition causes serious concern.
“I was one of at least 300 people who also decided it was very important and timely to attend such a meeting. (The NHA) had never had that many before,” Hackett said. “There was a real urgency to this meeting.”
As vice president of the UNESCO Humanities Council in addition to her position at UT, Hackett said she has noticed both a national and international shift toward STEM fields and “professional majors” over the past few years to the detriment of the humanities.
“There's been a lot of misunderstanding about the value of a humanities education or a humanities degree ...,” Hackett said. “You can't do away with the humanities or else you're doing away with such a huge chunk of what we call literacy.”
Since its inception in 1965, the NEH has enabled the publication of 7,000 books, 16 of which became Pulitzer Prize winners, the cataloging and microfilming of 63.3 million pages of historic newspapers and the funding of approximately 56,000 lectures, discussions, exhibitions and programs nationwide each year.
Amy Elias, professor of English and director of the UT Humanities Center, said that these projects show that the work done by the NEH is not just for “elite universities” but for students at all levels and the general public.
“A lot of the work that they are funding is work that allows access to information for people who might not normally have access,” Elias said.
“It's fundamental for the operation of our democracy.”
Currently, two programs within the Department of History receive funding through the NEH and are geared toward informing the public: “The Papers of Andrew Jackson: A Documentary Edition” and “Correspondence of James K. Polk.” Both projects earned three-year NEH grants of $275,000 in 2015 and $200,000 in 2016, respectively. To fund the project on Andrew Jackson, Daniel Feller, professor in history, said he had to fill out an almost 75-page application justifying the need for his work.
“We have to jump some pretty high hoops to actually get this money and demonstrate that we are spending it well,” Feller said. “We think we do a good job of justifying the quality of our work and the NEH thinks so, too. The NEH has funded the Jackson project continuously at one level or another since 2004.”
Before a project is awarded money, the proposal is evaluated by a board of humanities peers from a national network. Professor in anthropology Jan Simek said that for one of their proposals to receive funding they must prove what it is they plan to do, why it is important, how they are going to disseminate it to the public and how it will engage students. Essentially, Simek said you must prove “how the knowledge you're generating is worth having.”
Although the Andrew Jackson project also receives $1,600 in funding from the Tennessee Historical Commission each year, Feller said without the NEH grant, his work may have to stop.
“There's a lot of difference between $1,600 and $90,000, which is about what our NEH grant comes out to per year,” Feller said.
Although Feller said he will be meeting with the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in a few weeks to discuss what could be done to continue his project, he is trying to remain optimistic.
“Nobody wants to cry wolf too soon,” Feller said. “On the other hand, if the wolf is actually there and you cry too late, then you've waited too long.
“It's difficult to know when to actually press the panic button.”
In addition to funding larger programs and initiatives, the NEH also awards faculty fellowships for individual research each year. Out of nearly 160,000 humanities faculty in two- and four-year universities nationwide, the NEH receives close to 1,200 applications for only 80 fellowships, an award ratio of 7 percent.
“Because there are so few of these awarded, if you just get one per year, you are in the top 10 of universities in the country who are getting these awards,” Elias said.
Despite these narrow odds, UT ranks not only in the top 10, but first in the nation in summer stipends, ninth in fellowships for public and private universities and fourth among public universities. This places UT above Vanderbilt, Emory, Duke, Stanford, Yale and Cornell, among others, a fact that Hackett made sure to mention while in D.C.
“This produced a gasp from the Vanderbilt folks when I first trotted this data out,” Hackett said.
A faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies is a current recipient of a fellowship, which Hackett said has allowed that professor to expand on her research of the “radicalization of religious violence in early Christianity.” Both Hackett and Elias agreed that NEH fellowships give humanities faculty a precious gift in the academic world — time.
“What you need is time, time to improve your knowledge of ancient or foreign languages and time to read and go deeply into various questions,” Hackett said. “... These fellowships that provide the sabbatical, that provides the time and the space for this deep and sustained research on a particular topic.”
The fellowships are able to give professors this time for research by compensating the university for their absence and by funding researchers' travel to access resources, which Simek said is essential to keeping the university functioning as usual. If those fellowships were unavailable, Simek said, less knowledge will be generated overall by the institution.
“The consequence of that is either those folks are not going to be able to do the research or the institution is going to suffer when they do,” Simek said. “And that's just a bad solution to the prospect of generating new knowledge.”
Although anthropology professors do not usually access NEH fellowships, Simek said their position at the intersection of social sciences and humanities allows them to receive funding for projects such as archeological digs or the study and preservation of historic sites. If the NEH is eliminated, however, the Anthropology Department's access to potential funding from other sources may also decrease.
“Any time you reduce the potential sources of research funding it makes it more difficult. It increases pressure on what are then the available sources,” Simek said. “The sum effect of this no matter how you look at it is to diminish the resources available for basic research, the kind of research that future knowledge is built on.”
In addition to limiting the total amount of monies available for research, Hackett said that the elimination of the NEH and its fellowships will make it harder to compete for awards themselves.
“You get one award and it enables you to leverage another award. It applies to the faculty and it also applies to general project funding,” Hackett said. “That's a critical point. If we were to lose (NEH fellowships), we would lose leverage.”
The “stamp of excellence” that Hackett said comes with NEH awards brings prestige to the recipient, but also to their department and university as a whole. This is why fellowships and grants factor into national rankings, including the top-25.
“Every time one of our faculty gets one of these (NEH fellowships), everyone in the university benefits because we rise in the rankings,” Elias explained. “It really gets us toward that top-25 mark and the Vol Vision statements that the administration has made.”
Elias said that when a department or college receives more “investments” it has a “cascade effect” on the entire program, bringing the best students, the best professors and national recognition. Therefore, elimination of investment sources could reverse this and act as a depressant on an institution's academic activity.
“Speaking candidly, will it be the end of the world? No ... but it would make us all poorer,” Feller said “... Could these teachers lose their jobs if they don't get to go to one of these? No. But will they be less enthused about teaching history? Will they know less about teaching history? Will their teaching be a little bit less? Yes.”
The direct detriment on students is something Simek fears as well through the loss of anthropology dig grants.
“As those funds diminish, it gets harder and harder to do what is, in my mind, the most important work we do — to bring these great, bright students into the research realm so they can experience it and see what its like,” Simek said.
Elias also said she fears the loss of databases and programs that professors and teachers use for classroom instruction.
“The NEH has this huge impact on education, not just on my personal research but on humanities education overall. And that's why we're upset about it,” Elias said. “One, it's such a small part of the budget compared to the rest of the budget, and two, you get an awful lot of bang for your buck with the NEH. That small investment just does an enormous amount of work for education across the country.”
The proposed elimination of the NEH among other funding cuts is something Elias sees as part of the larger “polarization” of the country. She said she is “deeply saddened” to think that the sharing of knowledge and conversations across fields and disciplines is one of the first things to be cut “in the interest of economic prudence.”
“Everyone understands that there are certain things that you invest in because they are valuable,” Elias said. “You always put those things first, because if you don't you are undercutting the basic values that make America, America or a democratic republic, a democratic republic. Those values of understanding the importance of equality, of wisdom, of history, of ethics, of beauty and art as the expression of all those things.”
For Elias, the proposed NEH elimination is an opportunity for the humanities to prove their worth and make their voices heard.
“I'm angry, and I'm saddened by the fact that one the government doesn't realize that the very principles upon which it acts are built on the values that it's attacking, I'm a little angry at us that we haven't made a better case for what we've done and what we do so that people see this kind of diversity and importance to the larger social body,” Elias said.
After returning from D.C., Hackett said she has “cautious optimism” because of the positive response and support she and the team from Tennessee received from every representative they met. After the official Humanities Advocacy Day, Hackett met individually with Congressman Duncan through a connection with a former student. She said she wanted to find out if the humanities had his support, and that she “got it.”
“These troubled times are really pushing us to kind of rethink what happens when the humanities go away,” Hackett said. “Well they can't write, they can't think, and they can't speak. It's as simple as that.”