An Interview with Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities Jon Parrish Peede

Interview by Blake Plante (PO ‘19), D.C. Correspondent & Digital Content Writer

Jon Parrish Peede is the current Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). This interview was conducted the week after his confirmation by the Senate. Peede’s previous positions include Publisher of the Virginia Quarterly Review 2011-2016, senior leadership roles in the National Endowment for the Arts 2003-2011, Director of the NEA Operation Homecoming Program, and Editor at Mercer University Press. He has lectured at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, the University of Virginia, and others; and has taught courses in literature and history at community college. Peede received a bachelor’s degree in English from Vanderbilt University and holds a master’s in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is an independent agency of the U.S. government established in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, dedicated to supporting research, preservation, education, and public programs in the humanities.

CJLPP: The purpose of this interview will be to get into the weeds of public policy as regards NEH, but before that I’d like to ask a few questions about NEH and the humanities in general. Can you express the importance of NEH? What kinds of services does the agency provide for the American people and for others abroad?

Peede: Our focus is on the American people. The way we serve people abroad is by having cultural assets—books, museums—that help tell our story. So, while we serve the American people, and we serve them through museums, through libraries, through scholars, through books, certainly we give the world beyond our borders a deeper appreciation for our nation, its culture, and its achievements.

In terms of the charge of this agency, we have seven funding divisions. That means we fund Education projects—which can be K-12 all the way through community college, 4-year institutions, graduate schools—; we have Public Programs, so that is anywhere from Ken Burns films to public programming at museums and cultural centers. We have Research, and that is—in many ways—our largest, our anchor division, and that is where scholarly publishing happens. And when we say publishing, we don’t just mean books; it can be podcasts, digital projects, and individual scholars. The important part about individual scholars under Research is that those scholars are determining what their projects are. It’s not the federal government saying ‘these are the only topics we are interest in;’ it’s the scholars pursuing their own intellectual pursuits.

Preservation and Access is another division we have, and that is just as it sounds like: great historical documents, the training of conservatories and preservationists across the country, historic preservation—this is something that that office focuses on. We have the Challenge office—that is a term that isn’t necessarily transparent to an outsider intuitively in the way the others are, and that is where we fund cultural institutions and universities through their endowments historically, or now through infrastructure grants. This is, again, these organizations identifying a need, whether it’s extending a library’s wing or digital assets, or sharing of collections. The last division is Fed-State, and that’s where approximately 40 percent of our grant-making budget goes to the 50 states and five territories. Those are the groups we fund, at a level of about $120 million per year.

 

CJLPP: What roles do the humanities play in influencing public policy? More specifically, in what ways can NEH influence policy inside and outside of the government?

Peede: I’ll say two things here: We do not fund projects that advocate for a change in federal policy, or state or local laws. Political advocacy is prohibited in our guidelines and is clearly stated as such. However, that does not mean that these projects don’t have an impact on public policy decision-making. For example, for the Supreme Court to come to some of its decisions, justices may go back to primary sources—to the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, to any number of sources—that we help preserve. We help to annotate them and we fund scholars to interpret them. Our preservation of early American legal documents, including the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and most importantly the interpretation of these documents over centuries is a vital way we’ve that’s influenced public policy.

Another way, for example, is if we have a scholar that writes about the history of, say, the Mississippi River—the settlement of towns, the years of floods—and you are at the Army Corps of Engineers and you want to have an understanding of historically how that river worked. If you wanted to understand, historically, the level of navigation of merchandise down our rivers, you may need the work of that historian just as much as you need a reporter’s notes from last year’s floods. So the through-line here is that current policy is always being shaped by an understanding of the history of our nation, its people, and our traditions.

 

CJLPP: Let’s move further into your role in directing the agency’s policy: now that you’re Chairman of NEH, what kinds of authority do you have? What mechanisms do you have access to, to steer the agency toward your priorities?

Peede: In consultation with the White House and with Congress, I have the full authority to create our grant lines for funding. For example, in 2026, our nation will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of our founding. I have the authority, and will be enacting, a new series of grant guidelines that focus on that: so that we can preserve historic sites; so that we can more fully tell the stories of remarkable Americans, whether that’s Frederick Douglass, or next year, for example, we have a focus on the Suffrage movement because of the 100-year anniversary of that movement and legislation. As a Chairman, I can, with our funding and our grant guidelines, identify priorities—priorities for the agency and in many ways priorities for the nation—and then we can enact those grant guidelines.

The other way the authority of the Chairmanship is beyond just grant-making is that it is about being the public face to start a conversation, or to move a conversation in a new direction: through giving speeches, through writing op-eds, the Chairman of the agency has the ability to bring forth topics that he or she believes should be addressed.

 

CJLPP: What authorities do you have as Chairman now that you did not before you were confirmed?

Peede: As Senior Deputy Chairman and the designated head of the agency, I had the full authority to award all grants—and that has not changed. What has changed is that now the US Senate has confirmed me. It has formally approved my role here, and that’s vital. On a more practical level, I was filling the number one and number two positions at the agency, and that is not realistic in the long-term. So now I can hire a number two to help advise me. Having someone else to help represent the agency is of strategic importance. But it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Senate’s right of review and consent, and so we have now fulfilled what is rooted in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in terms of articulating the Senate’s role. As someone who cares a lot about history and a tradition of governance, that’s more than symbolically important.

 

CJLPP: Now that you have the mandate as Chairman of the NEH, what are your plans for the agency? Are there specific priorities that you plan to highlight or programs that you plan to expand?

Peede: One thing that I think is vitally important is the public humanities. I use that in the singular, but the public humanities really does encompass a great deal of things. What it means is to think about the humanities as more than academic disciplines; to think about the value of the humanities being recognized in our communities, not just on our campuses. And that’s vital I think not only for the humanities and for our communities, but also for higher education. For example, having worked in my career at the NEA and the NEH, I don’t think of the arts and the humanities as separate in many ways. I don’t think that today I’m going to see a play, and that that’s my arts experience and then I’m going to go to a museum and see 17th century French paintings, and that’s my humanities experience. I think that in our universities, we have to divide into classes and into departments and divisions, but that’s not how an actual citizen lives his or her life. So I am going to be spending a great deal of time and a great deal of focus on the public humanities, on the idea that to fulfill our charge means to be truly national: to be in small towns, not just in large cities; to be in small historic centers, not just at the major museums; and to make sure that our panels reflect that, and to encourage applications from institutions of all sizes.

 

CJLPP: One of the lesser-known services NEH provides is its rigorous application review process that provides a lot of feedback to applicants. Can you talk briefly about what that process is its significance?

Peede: Absolutely. The peer review panel is the backbone of the agency’s grant-making. For applications we advertise guidelines and their category. Organizations decide whether they want to apply, then they apply; and then, the wonderful thing we do here is we bring in peers from other non-profit organizations, from universities, and they review applications that they have no conflict of interest with and they rank them. Our staff guides them in that review process, but the ranking, the scoring, and all that is the individual panelists’ decision. The staff brings that information together and then make a recommendation. Sometimes the staff says not to fund the three highest-ranked organizations and that there’s a reason the fifth or sixth applicant is one that we believe will fulfill our mission in a different or better way. They recommend that to me and to the National Council for the Humanities.

The National Council is twenty-six members, appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate. Those are six-year terms, so they don’t always—in fact rarely—overlap with the President, so you have people from different political parties serving together. We will have simultaneously Bush, Obama, and Trump appointees, probably, serving together on that council. Then, they recommend to me which projects should be funded in their view. So the peer review system, the staff review, the council review, and then it goes to the Chairman, and the Chairman is the only person in power to actually award a grant at this agency. So for me, to award thousands of grants a year—it all begins with this peer review process, and that process has existed for more than fifty years, has deep integrity, and has collectively shaped the field of the humanities through these individual acts of these tens of thousands of panelists over half a century.

 

CJLPP: As the person who makes the final decisions on awards, can you tell me about your decision-making process? How does the Chairman’s process differ from that of the peer review panels, staff recommendations, and National Council?

Peede: Initially you might think that there is no difference between what a panelist has to think about versus a staff member, councilmember, or chairman. But actually, the focus does change. If you are a panelist, then you have twenty-five or forty applications in front of you and you’re going to recommend and score them, and the top four or five might be recommended by staff. As a panelist, you’re not necessarily thinking about geographic gaps or subject matter gaps or priorities of the agency. That’s not your charge; your charge is to recommend the best of what’s been given to you.

As it goes up the line, by the time it finally reaches the Chairman, my job is to award $120 million dollars. My job is to fulfill the mandate of being a national endowment. If all the funding went to five or six topics to ten or twelve states, to one or two fields—if we woke up one day and 30 percent of the funding was to philosophy and none to religion, literature, or history—that’s not within the control of a panelist; their charge is not that broad, nor is the staff’s, and it starts to approach the council’s review. It may be, for example, my charge, to make sure that we’re not merely awarding good grant-writing, but we are funding projects that will be meaningful, impactful, and more lasting. I need to do that, but I also need to think about trying to serve the humanities more broadly, the nation more broadly; to be catalytic in our vision; to not fund mere activities, but to fund transformational outcomes.

 

CJLPP: That’s a very large responsibility. So let’s imagine that the National Council’s meeting has just concluded, and now it’s your responsibility to make those final decisions. What do you do?

Peede: The first thing I would say is that the recommendations of the staff and the council are so thoughtful and well-reasoned that there are not a number of occasions when a Chairman disagrees. Sometimes it’s a matter of saying that they recommend an excellent endeavor, and I have another endeavor that I want to fund, and we simply do not have enough money to fund both. And so, rather than fund the two projects modestly, I am only going to fund one of them, to ensure a level of absolute success for the project.

Our National Council divides into seven subcommittees for each of our seven divisions, and if you’re overseeing the education portfolio for example, you may be recommending the 40th best project for funding, and that’s what you do for your subcommittee. I have to think about whether I should give more money to the 10th best digital humanities project as opposed to the 40th best education one. So my charge is more broad than everyone else’s, and if I cannot fund both of those, then maybe I disagree with the council and decide not to fund the 40th best education project. Instead, I put an extra $100,000 into the 10th best digital humanities.

 

CJLPP: I notice that in your senior year at Vanderbilt, you switched your major from pre-med to English. What brought you to this change? Do you see your sciences training sprinkling in sometimes and influencing the way you look at the humanities? And can you talk on a broader level about what NEH is doing in regard to intersections with STEM?

Peede: I was raised in the sciences. My father was a surgeon and my mother was a director of medical records. I worked in a surgery ward as an intern in high school, I worked at a lab at Vanderbilt, I took a shocking amount of science classes, I worked at a VA hospital (my first federal service, a summer job in college), I worked in a funeral home in Florida to just be around the dead—I mean I was very immersed. But I was not going to be a particularly good doctor. I loved the idea of hearing a patient’s history. I loved the idea of the humanities, of the history of science, the progression of science. When I read about the Civil War battles, my mind moved to battlefield care and recovery, and indeed, at the National Endowment for the Arts, I spent seven years going to military hospitals, to military bases, spending a lot of time talking with troops about therapeutic writing as a way to come through their wartime experiences. I cannot imagine myself in the world of the humanities without that baseline experience in the sciences.

It’s more than the fact that I simply wasn’t a particularly good pre-med student (but that was a fact). The reason I switched from chemistry and biology to English in my senior year was that the best way to express my interests was in English, ultimately as an editor and as a grant-maker. So what has been deeply enriching for me as a grant-maker is that the digital humanities are an area where you are finding five-hundred-year-old manuscripts of medicine manuscripts of medicine now being reintroduced, re-learned; annotated, meta-tagged. And at the same time, if you want to look at a growth area of the humanities as an academic discipline, it is the medical humanities. We are seeing that repeatedly; Rita Charon has started at Columbia Medical School a department that is the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics. And we’re seeing this across the country; and masters-levels in the UK—I believe it’s now a doctoral level study for the medical humanities. So we’re seeing that as a re-emergence of ethics.

I can tell you for example, on public policy, people can spend the next couple of decades talking a great deal about artificial intelligence. And if there is a corporation involved in AI that does not see its senior suite of leaders including someone formally trained in ethics, that company will ultimately fail. I do truly believe their vision will fail, if not the company. You need to have an understanding, the same way that hospitals have review boards that include chaplains or ethics officers; not merely engineers, lawyers, or accountants. And so for me, it’s a bedrock field, and what we’re seeing organically coming through our applications is—through our education department, when people ask for curriculum changes—they’re not necessarily just saying ‘we want to bring up an arts studies minor’ or ‘we want to do museum studies.’ Repeatedly, they’re saying, ‘we want the medical humanities.’

We are hearing this from medical schools too, the idea of embedding an understanding of poetry; the idea of getting us back to the medical world that I was raised in, which had a deep sense of empathy embedded in it. And I think for all the growth and technology, and our ability to diagnostically pinpoint disease, we have lost sight quite often of the patient. One thing about the humanities is it makes you understand that first and foremost, you are in service to a human person and they come with a history, they have a family, and they have a future they desire. The humanities puts the patient at the first of that, and keeps the science as a tool, but not the end in itself.

 

CJLPP: I think this next question is important to touch on because it is one that’s played very often in the media, and a lot of people have worried about it: that NEH might be defunded in accordance with the President’s budget proposals. Thankfully, the President’s FY 2018 recommendation for closure of the agency was not upheld by the senate; instead, NEH received $3 million more than it asked for. However, the President’s FY 2019 budget request similarly marks the agency for closure. Should people be worried?

Peede: The Trump Administration’s FY19 budget for our agency was a sufficient amount of funds for the closure of the agency, and that proposal’s been put forth for two years. Both years, Congress looked at that, Congress ended up in a different place than the Office of Management and Budget, and so what I can say is that President Trump has signed into law budget increases both of the years that there have been budgets before him, and so our budget is $153 million. That is the highest budget for the NEH in six years. In addition, the President has recommended me to the Senate, and I have been confirmed as Chairman.

What the President has said is that the agency is not a domestic spending priority. However, if it is to exist, then he wants it led by someone who is seasoned, is experienced, and has spent his career in the arts and humanities. I am humbled to lead the agency, and I have found continual support from the White House for what my colleagues and I are doing with the tax dollars.

 

CJLPP: Thank you. To close, what are some NEH-funded projects that have influenced the way you think?

Peede: What I like is the long-term investment of a lot of quiet projects that don’t always gather one’s attention, as well as some transformative projects. So in terms of transformative projects, for those of us who are kind of middle-aged—people from all across the country went to various American cities to see the King Tut exhibition, as it was commonly known. That was something that the NEH funded, and that was an engagement with world culture. That was something that resonated for so many people. I happened to stand in line for hours in New Orleans as a small boy and meet other people who were roughly my age now—you know, late 40s, 50—and they had little kids going to Chicago to the Field museum. And that’s an example where the beginning of these large blockbuster shows that now every major museum seems to have in the country—that’s essentially where a lot of that started, and that was an example of the agency wanting to introduce world culture to the country.

Sometimes we have a situation where we have a lot of great historical records and they’re spread everywhere, and no one really has an understanding of the larger matrix. That’s an example of our funding of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Database. That’s been an essential endeavor. It helps us understand the impact—the sheer numbers—of enslaved people leaving the continent to Africa, to North America, Central America, South America. And that’s an example of where our federal dollars made a difference that no other individual university might do; that private dollars from foundations and private donors can be introduced to it, but our lead role makes a difference in those kinds of projects.

Then there are individual scholars, such as Drew Faust—that people now know is the president of Harvard and will be retiring, and is a great scholar—but it’s the investment of that person when she was a little-known scholar and she was coming up, and the support of one’s career at various vital places. So those are examples of quietly investing in a scholar. And sometimes yes, they become a nationally-known educational leader. But in some cases they don’t; they go about in a wonderful way, transforming classroom experience teaching AP English in Iowa, and they quietly—twenty students by twenty students by twenty students—embed learning and a love of this nation, and a love of learning and of libraries and of histories and of English into young minds. And that’s never going to be in the newspapers, but that is just as vital a part of our role.

 

CJLPP: Thank you very much for your time and for the interview, Chairman Peede.

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