Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

25th Anniversary

Volume XXV Number 1
Fall 2002

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Bruce Cole
Bruce Cole
Photo courtesy National Endowment for the Humanities

Humanities As Homeland Defense

A Conversation with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole

by Elizabeth Peterson

Last December, Indiana University Bloomington Distinguished Professor Bruce Cole headed to Washington, D.C., where he was sworn in by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Cole, an Italian Renaissance art historian, was chairman of IUB's Department of Art History for seven years before taking up his new post. He was also a professor of fine arts and comparative literature. In Spring 2002, he talked with writer Elizabeth Peterson about his new role.

Flash back to fall 2000. The biggest news around Indiana University was Bobby Knight's swan song. The biggest news in the nation was the Bush/Gore presidential race. Now it's history: Texas got IU's Knight, and the nation got Texas's Bush. In the midst of it all, during his 2000 State of the University address, IU President Myles Brand talked about a topic of longtime concern among academics--the "humanities in crisis."

Brand's speech came at a time when the university faced tough criticism for what some considered kid-glove treatment of Knight at the expense of "real" scholarship. A group of IU's best and brightest professors, members of the Alliance of Distinguished and Titled Rank Professors, publicly commented on what they considered IU's faltering academic performance, including in the arts and humanities.

Who knew that an art historian from that group, Bruce Cole, would soon pack his academic standards and follow George W. Bush to Washington? Cole now heads the National Endowment for the Humanities--bringing his principles into practice not just for IU, but for the nation.

Cole, who by all accounts was respected and well-liked by colleagues and students alike during his 30 years at IU, was finally appointed NEH chairman literally on the brink of disaster. Although he was nominated during spring 2001, his position was not confirmed by the Senate until September 14--mere days after the nation and world had spiraled into the stark shock of the events of September 11.

While the idea of the humanities in crisis is nothing new (it's been a recurring topic in academia for at least a few decades), this could be the first time that collective America has faced such a critical blow to its fundamental values. If ever there was a time to uphold the humanities, it is now, Cole believes.

"Given the world situation today, the American people have a strong desire for knowledge about history, cultures, religions, and other humanities subjects," he says. "In a time when our democracy is under attack, I think there is a heightened awareness of the need to educate ourselves about American history, values, and institutions. Understanding these things is a vital part of our homeland defense."

It is with this idea in mind that the NEH, under Cole's direction, initiated the "We the People" program. In his 2003 budget request address, Cole described the initiative as a return to the "core programs" of the NEH--something he classifies as a priority during his term as chairman. The goal of the program, he says, is to foster better understanding of American history, culture, and institutions, bringing a renewed focus to the NEH's function in education, scholarship, preservation, and public programming. Cole encourages applications on subjects related to the new initiative--with the caveat that all applications are subject to the "rigors of the agency's peer review process."

That process is very familiar to many humanities scholars, the NEH being one of the few sources of funding for general scholarship. With a success rate of only 17 percent for all of the applications received each year, competition for NEH dollars is stiff. The agency's approximately $125 million budget is a pittance compared to other government agencies--like the approximately $330 billion defense budget, or even the National Science Foundation's $5 billion annual budget.

Each NEH proposal first goes through a panel of peer reviewers, Cole explains, who offer grades and comments. The NEH staff then synthesizes the panel's findings and makes its own recommendations. The National Council on the Humanities, the NEH's 26-member advisory board, discusses all pending applications, which are then sent to Cole for final approval. Cole consults with his staff before making a final decision. On his staff, serving as assistant chairman for programs, is Cole's IU Bloomington colleague Julia Bondanella, professor of French and Italian, who for several years taught a popular course with Cole on Renaissance Florence.

The concerns Cole had for the success of the humanities at IU carry over to his philosophy for the NEH. "I've expressed some worries about the trend toward research hyperspecialization and the increasing impenetrability of academic jargon. These factors endanger the influence and accessibility of humanities scholarship," he says.

"Also, colleges and universities face pressures to take resources away from the humanities and transfer them to supposedly more remunerative areas like professional training," Cole continues. "It's worrying that so many disciplines with timeless lessons to impart have to defend themselves on vocational grounds." Cole adds that he is also concerned about recent "ethical lapses that seem to have plagued the academic profession."

In his own career, Cole has strived to eliminate the intellectual wall that all too often separates academics from the world at large. Likewise, the NEH has the goal of making the humanities accessible to scholars and teachers as well as to the public.

"I see scholarship and excellence as the most important values underlying all the NEH's work," Cole says. "While ensuring a place for traditional scholarship, we will also nurture fresh new approaches to the humanities."

Cole's credentials mark him as a highly qualified scholar, but in a position that spans the academic and political realms, it's not surprising that Cole has a long-standing relationship with the current U.S. administration. He was a panelist in NEH's peer-review system for several years before being named in 1992 by the previous President Bush to the National Council on the Humanities. At the time, Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, was the NEH chair. Arguably the most well-remembered NEH chair to date, Lynne Cheney has publicly applauded the decision to appoint Cole and has complimented his ability to talk about the humanities in the a way that the general public understands.

Yet despite his prior administrative and NEH experience, Cole's new life and calling is unrehearsed-- according to Cole, "it's pretty much sui generis. The management environment is different from an academic department, and the city itself is very different from Bloomington. From the leafy neighborhoods of Northwest Washington, I take the Metro to the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, an impressive historic structure with commanding views of downtown D.C.

"In addition to a steady stream of meetings," he continues, "I try to attend peer review panels to hear about applications that are being considered. I have been speaking at a lot of academic meetings and at humanities organizations."

Sheer numbers figure in to Cole's new world as well: the NEH staff has 165 members, compared to fewer than 30 in Cole's IU department.

"Still," he says, reflecting on his past and present posts, "I am in the company of a professional staff that is as erudite as any university faculty. There is the same desire to meet high standards."

Elizabeth Peterson is a freelance writer. She is completing her Ph.D. in linguistics.