When IAS (the institute for Advanced Study), the research center that takes pride in having housed Einstein, told the National Endowment for the Humanities last December to take its money and shove it, the New York Times responded with a front-page, four column headline: “Endowment Embattled Over Academic Freedom.” But it appears there was much less there than meets the eye, because nothing much has happened since then, except IAS ended up threequarters of a million dollars poorer, and somebody else got the money instead.
What persuaded the institute to give up a quarter of a million federal dollars and jeopardize an application for another half million—and that’s just for this year!—is new federal regulations that apply to regrant agencies the same procedures that for a quarter of a century have governed the endowment’s own granting program.
Specifically, these regulations have always defined that when you apply for an NEH (or a National Endowment for the Arts) grant, your application goes for evaluation to a panel of experts, with a program officer of NEH present for the discussion. If the panel recommends, then the program officer reports to the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory council of NEH, and the council recommends to the chairman appropriate action.
The fiasco of last summer, when the National Endowment for the Arts (on the council of which I sit) found that a regrant agency had funded as art a jar of urine containing a plastic figure of Christ on the Cross, led Congress to ask, “Who’s in charge?” And the answer turned out to be, on regrants, nobody. While applicants for direct funding by NEH or NEA undergo the process of panel and council review, applicants to agents funded by NEH or NEA do not. Those regrant agencies do pretty much whatever they please and, up to now, have been answerable to nobody.
Congress likes nothing less than unregulated spending of tax money, and rightly so. So in addressing the uproar of the Serrano scandal. Congress simply legislated that the same procedures that govern the two endowments when they make grants will now apply to regrant agencies as well. That means a program officer attends meetings that divvy up federal funds and the councils of the two endowments review the recommendations, just as they would the endowments’ own panels.
Regrant agencies like nothing less than undergoing supervision in their use of tax money, and, in the academic world, the code-language for “no, no, no,” is “academic freedom.” And this is where the Institute for Advanced Study lept to the barricade, threw back the federal funds already appropriated, refused to conform to the congressional mandate, and expected to lead a national campaign against the NEH rule.
What happened then? Well, not very much. In fact, nothing. It turns out that, among the hundreds of regrant agencies in both the arts and the humanities, not a single one followed IAS. Everybody else took the money, spent it in accord with the procedures Congress had legislated—and applied for more. So much for academic freedom.
But “academic freedom” means different things to different people. Just now, in the Pennsylvania tenure case, the U.S. Supreme Court laughed at the claim that having to tell people in your own name, not anonymously, just what you said in a tenure letter somehow violates your “academic freedom.” The Court could not understand why losing your license anonymously to defame abridges some freedom you used to have. And now, when the question is one of dollars and cents, a great many agencies managed to find reasons to accept procedures that IAS represented as a violation of its “academic freedom.” Do they care less than IAS, and is IAS these days more “free” than anybody else? Few think so.
IAS Director Marvin L. Goldberger described the new procedures as “unwarranted, unreasonable, and largely unmanageable intrusion on fundamental matters of academic autonomy and integrity.” Precisely why he invoked all these “uns” he did not specify. NEH did not tell IAS, “choose this one, not that one,” nor did it even say, “this subject, not that subject,” let alone, “this opinion, not that.” All it said is. Congress wants regrant agencies to follow precisely the same procedures that apply to the endowments themselves. If individual and institutional applicants to NEH or NEA find the same procedure—panel and council review—quite warranted, quite reasonable, and quite manageable, why the regrant agencies should be exempt no one could explain.
How about a grant on political metaphors—Chicken Little against the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf, for instance? One of the institute professors recently gave a paper on “the rhetoric of reaction,” with the point that reactionaries always reply to left-wing proposals with the same sort of answer, like, “it won’t work,” or “it’s too expensive.” When a mathematician asked, “Well, maybe sometimes it’s not mere rhetoric because they might be right?” everybody laughed him down, and the professor didn’t deign to reply.
This time around the rhetoric of the left invoked its cliche: academic freedom. The skies didn’t fall. And nobody ran out to protect the sheep. All that happened is that to try to embarrass the endowments and the (Democratic) Congress that made the rules, the IAS threw away three-quarters of a million dollars on behalf of an academic freedom many thought not awfully different from mere self-indulgent privilege: the right to do whatever we want and never to have to answer why. To which a medievalist member of IAS with a long memory replied, “Who takes the king’s shilling becomes the king’s man.