Humanities Advocacy in 2009

On March 11, 380 representatives of universities, colleges, museums, historical and scholarly societies, humanities councils, and (of course) scholarly publishers fanned out across Capitol Hill to make the case for continued support and increased funding of federal humanities agencies.

Big numbers were the theme of the 2009 National Humanities Alliance (NHA) Annual Conference and Humanities Advocacy Day. The NHA was requesting an additional an additional $75 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and (NEH) and a total of $22 million for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

These big numbers were justified by the much smaller number that NHA presented to delegates: 16%. That is the rate at which the NEH was able to fund competitive, peer-reviewed proposals, as compared to the 26% funding rate for merit-reviewed projects at the National Science Foundation. As a result, the NHA request was specifically geared toward increasing the funding available to the core programs of the NEH, including preservation and access, education, and research. At its funding peak in 1979, the Endowment demonstrated the capacity to operate at much higher funding levels ($431 million adjusted for inflation). The NHPRC is up for reauthorization, and humanities advocates hope to double its funding limit.

The timing of Humanities Advocacy Day happened to coincide with the belated passage, on March 10, of the FY 2009 omnibus spending bill. We entered the congressional visits knowing that the legislature had just passed a $155 million NEH budget, itself a comparatively handsome increase over 2008 funding levels. The NHPRC grants program, authorized at a $10 million level, received $9.25 million for FY 2009, after being zeroed out in the Bush Administration budget request for several years. Humanities advocates needed to thank the representatives and senators who had fought for that funding and make a strong case for even greater levels of support in a time of economic crisis.

What was surprising, at least on the visits I participated in (to members of the Senate Appropriations Interior subcommittee), was how few eyebrows were raised by our requests. While offered with the caveat that nothing was assured, we heard often that the need for humanities funding was recognized and appreciated, and that Senate offices were prepared to consider these larger increases.

In early May, President Obama's budget request for FY 2010 was released. While our moderately extravagant hopes were not met here, it is certainly a better starting point for humanities advocates than in recent budget fights. NEH would see a $16.3 million increase, although $10 million of that would be earmarked for taking over the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program. Obama is also requesting the full $10 million currently authorized for NHPRC. Unfortunately, due to funding allocations in the president's request, this includes a "cut of 55% for NHPRC supported publications projects," according to the May 2009 NHA Policy Digest.

It is particularly key this year that NHA and its members help policymakers understand that funding for the humanities is essential to our nation's health; that work in the humanities is an integral part of our economic life and future. Fortunately, we were given a great new tool to make that case with the launch of the "Humanities Indicators Prototype" from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (AAAS). These indicators provide the kind of data on the humanities workforce, education, funding, and research that fields of sciences and engineering have long had at their fingertips. One of the most important data points for a Congress looking at a faltering economy: the humanities sector represents at least 2.5 million jobs—distributed across every state and district in America.

Brenna McLaughlin
Electronic and Strategic Initiatives Director, AAUP