Publication Date

October 1, 1997

At his last public appearance as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dr. Sheldon Hackney was quoted as giving his potential successors the tongue-in-cheek advice of "stay where you are!" In a recent interview with Perspectives, however, he spoke with fondness of his four years as chairman. He praised the NEH staff for their dedication and reflected that “the chance to serve the country is one every American should take.” Hackney announced in April that he would step down from his position in August 1997, leaving behind him an organization with what he hopes will be a strong future, in search of “new ways for the public to be enriched.”

Hackney's decision not to renew his term was prompted partially by a desire to return to teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had served as president before his NEH, and partially by the changing political climate, which has greatly altered the chairman's responsibilities in recent years. "The election of 1994 changed the political atmosphere," Hackney told Perspectives.” I was spending more time on politics than on program development.” He added, however, that “it has been a wonderful period for me. I’m not running away from an unpleasant situation.” Hackney laments the loss of many NEH programs to budget cuts, and the damage done to the infrastructure of the humanities in the United States. “In the long run,” he said, “it will take more money to reassemble some of these programs later than was saved by cutting them out. There will be a real loss to the public.” He was quick to point out that despite budget cuts of 38 percent during his tenure, the NEH maintained its regular core programs and individual fellowships.

Reflecting on his accomplishments as chairman, Hackney is particularly pleased with the National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity and his related book One America Indivisible. He cited President Clinton’s recent announcement of a President’s Commission on Race, chaired by historian John Hope Franklin (see Perspectives, September 1997) as a very positive step toward urging Americans to pay attention to pluralism in American culture. Upcoming NEH projects that began under his leadership include “Teaching with Technology,” a program to provide support for those creating software on the humanities for education, and EDSITEment (, a web site to be unveiled this fall. This site will serve as a guide to what an NEH merit review panel judges as the best humanities-related education sites on the Internet.

Though future funding for the NEH is always uncertain, Hackney feels that it is currently in a stable position. "We're over the hump-the levels of support from the House and the Senate have been impressive." He pointed to the recent vote of 328 to 96 against Rep. Steve Chabot's (R-Ohio) proposal to eliminate all NEH funding in 1998 as an indication that "the work of the NEH has been recognized." Hackney went on to say that, while it will be hard for the organization to grow significantly in the near future, it has the potential to grow back to the size needed to do an "adequate job."

Hackney looks forward to returning to the classroom, where his specialization is late 20th-century American history. He will teach a course on the 1960s as a watershed in history, and also hopes to build his experiences with the Conversation on American Pluralism into a course on American identity.

The president is expected to nominate William R. Ferris, Jr., an internationally renowned anthropologist and folklorist, to succeed Hackney as chair of the NEH. Ferris is currently director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. After taking his Ph.D. in folklore studies from the University of Pennsylvania, Ferris taught at Yale for several years before moving to the center. Apart from writing several books, Ferris edited (with Charles Wilson) the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, and also produced many television programs.

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