Penn’s professors, libraries and museums have received millions of dollars of funding from the federal government over the last few decades — all of which could disappear under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget.
Trump recently announced funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. For a large research institution like Penn that has received funding from the federal government for humanities research, this policy could drastically change many of the University’s current programs.
Since 1977, Penn researchers have received approximately $23 million from NEH awards: $9.2 million in the 1980s, $8 million in the 1990s and $5.9 million from 2000 to date, a Penn administrator said, who asked to remain anonymous. The NEA has also granted Penn researchers approximately $3.6 million since 1982: $1.8 million in the 1980s, $1.1 million in the 1990s and $683,000 from 2000 to date.
Bonnie Gibson, the vice president for budget and management analysis, said in 2016, Penn received $30,000 from the NEA and $50,400 from the NEH. She added that the awards fluctuate annually. Over the past six years, the largest amount that the NEH has awarded Penn in one year was $800,000 and the lowest was $50,000.
With so much at stake, professors and administrators have been working to advocate against these potential budget cuts.
Religious Studies professor Steven Weitzman recently co-wrote a faculty signed by 191 Penn faculty from various departments. He said that the loss in funding would be a “real blow to the humanities at Penn and to the larger community that Penn serves.”
The Penn administration also last month expressing concern about the budget proposal. The statement was signed by Penn President Amy Gutmann, Provost Vincent Price, Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli and Executive Vice President of the Penn Health System and Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine Larry Jameson.
According to the statement, Penn’s Office of Government and Community Affairs is engaged in direct meetings with the office of Penn’s local Congressional delegation to “[advance] Penn’s interests.”
Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Steven Fluharty also released a statement acknowledging the direct and indirect support Penn receives from the NEH. This statement also writes that SAS has been in contact with Penn’s governmental affairs office in Washington D.C. and will “ramp up our efforts in the coming weeks.” The statement added that Penn is a member of the National Humanities Alliance, which has been engaged in its own advocacy efforts.
English professor Jim English, another co-writer of the faculty petition and the faculty director of Penn Humanities Forum and PriceLab for the Digital Humanities, said the NEA and NEH are able to fund “fairly long-term, multi-year, [and] not very glamorous projects” — meaning it is harder to find funding for them through private donors.
He added that the greatest impact of these budget cuts will be seen in “smaller cultural heritage institutions” rather than research institutions, but they could still mean fewer opportunities for Penn students studying the humanities.
“It will shrink the range of opportunities, especially for humanities majors,” English said. “Things will start to disappear.”
NEH and NEA are critical in funding professors’ research — and resources would be reduced under Trump’s budget proposal.
Weitzman said it is already difficult to make progress in research while teaching. Knight added that an “astounding” number of professors apply for NEH grants and private foundations cannot substitute for funding. This funding enables professors to take paid time away from teaching to work on their personal research.
“For faculty to write books or create exhibitions or undertake special research projects, they usually need some time away to travel to the country that they’re studying or visit archives or take the time they need to write,” Weitzman said. “The research productivity of scholars in the humanities will really be impacted by the loss of that kind of time and opportunity.”
He added that Penn faculty intend to work with the University to advocate for the importance of the NEH and NEA.
“It will have an impact on the research quality of the University and that will have an effect on the kind of faculty the University can draw, which will eventually have an impact on students in the classroom,” Weitzman said.
Timothy Powell, a religious studies professor and director of Educational Partnerships with Indigenous Communities, has received six NEH grants over the past 10 years totaling more than $1 million. His work involves making digital copies of indigenous documents, photographs and audio recordings, which he then sends back to the indigenous communities that they came from.
Powell wrote in an email that the digitized copies helped save otherwise endangered languages and traditions for over 150 indigenous communities throughout North and Central America.
“Songs, languages, and stories we thought were lost forever, are coming back to life because of NEH grants like the ones I’ve received,” Powell said.
Over the past 10 years, the NEH has awarded the University libraries over $1 million, said William Noel, the director of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscript.
With the help of the NEH, Penn’s libraries have been able to digitize their collections to make the information more globally available in a way that was impossible before, said Noel.
The Kislak Center has received two active grants from the NEH: one for a project to digitize a collection of manuscripts in the Indic language and another for a project to rebuild the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, a database of publicly accessible medieval manuscripts from before 1600.
Noel explained that the application process to receive an NEH grant sets the “best standards across the community.” Academics and specialists, including Noel, sit on NEH panels, and arbitrate who receives the grants, creating an atmosphere of “fierce competition” that incentivizes the best practices to win a grant.
“It is a great mark of success,” he said.
Noel also emphasized the importance of the “peer-review mechanism” in acquiring funding from the NEH as well as from the administration. He said the University participates in match-grants, where it matches the amount given by the NEH, because it respects the rigorous application process.
“Without the NEH, we are going to lack the wisdom and the vetting process of the community at-large,” Noel said.
David McKnight, the director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, added that the library’s cataloguing efforts would be especially “hard to imagine ... without government funding,” citing a project that catalogued the papers of celebrated American opera singer Marian Anderson through NEH funds.
McKnight said that while the library comes up with many of its own funds, the NEH helps to pay the salaries of researchers and research assistants. The Indic manuscript project alone hired a part-time cataloguer, a part-time conservation technician and a graduate student in religious studies.
For this reason, the cuts could result in less part-time work for graduate students, he said.
The first NEH grant received by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was in 1967 for an intern program. The museum has since received funds for various excavations and temporary exhibitions, Museum Director Julian Siggers said. He noted that the museum usually has at least one NEH grant at any given time, but currently holds three: $250,000 for the new Middle East Galleries, $245,000 for associate curator Grant Frame’s research and $400,000 for a traveling museum exhibit.
Siggers said the one project that comes to his mind when thinking about the NEH’s impact on the museum is the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary — “the only dictionary in the world of the world’s earliest writings.” The museum has over 30,000 clay tablets inscribed with Sumerian, the world’s oldest written language.
“NEH money was really instrumental in helping us set up this huge project that is going to be the first [Sumerian] dictionary,” Siggers said.
According to Pam Kosty, the public relations director of the Penn Museum, the NEH has also provided funding for multiple permanent galleries including Mummies: Secrets, Science Gallery, and Southwest Gallery. It granted the museum $400,000 in 2012 for the travelling exhibit, “MAYA 2012: Lords of Time.” It also granted the museum $700,000 to rehouse the collections of the Mainwaring Wing while it was under construction.
Associate curator Grant Frame’s research is in the middle of its third two-year NEH grant, each one totaling approximately $250,000. His current grant lasts until the end of April, and he has also applied for one more grant to finish out the nine-year long project. His project aims to preserve Iraqi heritage through royal inscriptions from the Neo-Assyrian Empire over 2,600 years ago.
Frame said NEH funding is “vital” for many important projects to advance knowledge, noting that Penn has a “great tradition” of receiving grants. He added that its “abolition would be very sad” because the selectivity of the NEH grants advances U.S. scholarship.
“The NEH is a very important program for people carrying out research and scholarship in the humanities,” Frame said. “They fund so many important projects from the ancient world to modern times to access in museums to educational programs for learning about local history.”
The NEA has also funded Penn programs on campus, in places like the Penn Museum and the Annenberg Center.
Most recently, the Penn Museum was given $20,000 in 2015 for “Unpacking the Past” — a program that allows middle schoolers in Philadelphia studying ancient Egypt or Rome access to collections at the Penn Museum.
The NEA awarded the museum a grant from 2009-2013 for publication on an archaeological illustrator of Mayan pottery, as well as a residency for cataloguing and publication preparation from 2008-2010 for a collection of traditionally woven indigenous baskets.
In addition to the museum, Christopher Gruits, the executive and artistic director of the Annenberg Center, said the center also receives some federal funding, mostly through the Mid Atlantic Foundation, which receives funding from the NEA. Currently their blues series and jazz program are funded by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and next year their film series and some of the world music will be subsidized by the Mid Atlantic Foundation as well.
Gruits added that NEA funding serves as a way to “mitigate risk” for arts and culture organizations because with the funding, they can take risks on artists that they wouldn’t be able to feature otherwise.
“[The loss of the NEA] will have a negative effect nationally because it is going to reduce these key programs,” Gruits said. “It’s really a quality of life issue ... It has been proven time and time again that if arts and culture are in cities or rural areas, they are typically enriching those communities for the better.”
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