History Gains Momentum through 2016
Editor’s note: Portions of this column were adapted from updates available at the National Coalition for History’s website.
Looking back on 2016, the National Coalition for History is pleased to report several successes. As we continue to advocate for history both in Washington and outside the Beltway, we hope you’ll follow our efforts and advances.
In July, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) informed the NCH that the history office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Johnson Space Center (JSC) was likely to be defunded and closed at the end of the 2016 fiscal year, on September 30. One historian in the three-person office at JSC had already been terminated. This situation was especially disconcerting because of the vital work of the JSC office in preserving the oral histories of astronauts and engineers, scientists, technicians, and agency managers who blazed our nation’s trail into space.
The JSC history office received the OAH’s 2016 Friend of History Award. The prize “recognizes an institution or organization, or an individual working primarily outside college or university settings, for outstanding support of historical research, the public presentation of American history, or the work of the OAH.” It was imperative that the NCH take action to help.
Under the current structure, each of NASA’s 11 centers across the country has its own history office. Each is autonomous and operates under the purview of that center’s assistant administrator. The JSC historians are not federal employees but work for a contractor; thus, they could be let go without the usual restrictive federal personnel rules applying.
On August 15, the NCH sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., urging him to provide the funding necessary to keep the JSC office open with the resources it needs to be fully staffed and maintain the same excellent level of service to the historical community and the public that it has provided in the past. The OAH and the AHA each communicated to NASA the same concerns regarding the imperative of continued funding for this work.
On September 23, the NCH received a highly favorable reply from NASA’s chief historian, William P. Barry. Stating that the NCH’s “letter was both timely and impactful,” he reported that the history office was being restructured within the JSC under the management of a civil service employee and that the contractor staff was being retained with plans to add an additional person in the future. Assuring the AHA that “the attention of the very top management has been turned to the history program,” Barry also told OAH president Nancy Cott that Administrator Bolden places “a high priority on having a strong history program at NASA” and that steps are being taken to strengthen the program, “including placing the office under the purview of the Chief Knowledge Officer.”
The outcome was the direct result of the NCH working collaboratively with the OAH, the AHA, and the Society for History in the Federal Government to achieve this common goal.
Meanwhile, last July, Congress passed legislation (Public Law 114-196) establishing the US Semiquincentennial Commission to begin planning for the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026. The 32-member body will comprise 8 members of Congress, 16 private citizens, and 8 federal officials. It will develop a report with recommendations to the president and Congress within two years of its formation. It will observe and commemorate the Revolution, as well as the history of the United States leading into the 250th anniversary. The NCH recognizes the importance of ensuring that qualified historians with expertise in the field are appointed to some of the slots, so watching the progress of the commission will be a priority in the future.
Last March, the NCH reported on allocations for history and civics education as part of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by President Obama in December 2015. The US Department of Education recently held a competition as provided under ESSA to award a grant to develop and run a “Presidential Academy” to provide professional development to teachers of American history and civics, and a “Congressional Academy” to provide high-quality history and civics learning to students. The grant awardee is the Kentucky Educational Development Cooperative, with partners including the Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement and the National Constitution Center. This is the first civics/history funding awarded under ESSA.
With the interests of historians of government in mind, the NCH has been closely monitoring the actions of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) with regard to the Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) Rule. CUI is information that, while sensitive, does not meet the higher level of security restrictions needed to qualify as classified. NARA issued the rule on September 14, establishing consistent practices and procedures for safeguarding, disseminating, controlling, and marking CUI across executive branch departments and agencies. Some estimate that agencies use more than 100 different markings to designate CUI. The new rule is an attempt to provide a uniform, government-wide process for managing CUI by creating four broad categories. It went into effect on November 13, 2016.
Finally, the NCH is glad to report that the Department of Education announced that it will award over $71 million in HEA-Title VI and Fulbright-Hays Programs. The new and noncompeting continuation grants will help strengthen the capacity and performance of American education in world languages, cultural understanding, area and international studies, and research. The grants are under the Fulbright-Hays Act and Title VI of the Higher Education Act.
There is much more to come in 2017. Watch this column for continuing information on our advocacy for history.
Lee White is executive director of the National Coalition for History.
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