Bill Ferris

William R. Ferris, Ph.D., describes himself as an independent. His appointment last fall to chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, succeeding former Penn President Sheldon Hackney, was viewed by many as a continuation of a move away from ideological, partisan players in the office.

In an era of budget slashing in arts and humanities programs, Ferris is taking on his new role with enthusiasm and nothing short of sheer optimism for the future of the humanities.

As NEH chairman, Ferris commands an annual budget just upward of $100 million, a far cry from his Penn days in the late 1960s, when he was pursuing a doctorate in folklore and making independent films.

The Penn alum and recently sworn-in NEH chairman is dousing the bonfire of the humanities.

Photo by Neshan H. Naltchayan

The position as head of the federal agency most engaged in intellectual scholarship, providing grants in philosophy, history and related disciplines, also gives him the opportunity to further propel an educational model he started in 1979 with the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture. In addition to heaping much praise on Hackney's NEH reign, he hinted that Penn could be in line to take advantage of his vision.

Q. What was the most pressing task awaiting you when you stepped into your new office?
The most pressing thing was to learn the various pieces ... 165 staff, four major divisions of funding and simply to learn the process in detail and deal with enormous amount of correspondence and e-mail.

It's exciting and very challenging -- following in Sheldon Hackney's footsteps. They're not easy to fill; he did such a great job.

Q. Is there a theme developing with Penn alums in this office?
Well, I would hope so. I think Penn deserves everything it gets. Both Sheldon and I believe strongly in Penn.

Q. You and Sheldon Hackney have also been compared as non-partisan choices for the office. Are there similarities in your styles?
I think that's true. I have always admired Sheldon enormously, his vision as a scholar, and administrator has served our nation well for many years. We are old and dear friends as well.

Q. What is the overall climate surrounding the NEH? Are there financial fears of more cutbacks?
I think there's a lot of excitement. The endowment, as you know, was cut by 40 percent. Its budget and staff were dramatically reduced. Under Sheldon's able hands, those resources have been redefined and focused in ways that are going to be very exciting in coming years.

My task will be to rebuild budget and staff to draw both public and private support to the humanities in ways that hopefully we'll be able to do in coming years. I think our staff is very excited about that. They understand the programs that are being put in place and they're being very supportive and enthusiastic about this process.

Q. What kinds of new ways, new programs?
One vision is "Rediscovering America: Humanities in the Millennium." It will create 10 regional humanities centers throughout the nation that will work as a hub for humanities activities -- B.A. and M.A. degrees and courses teaching the history of cultures, many research tools and encyclopedias and symposia and lectures on a regular basis. There will also be a link with cultural tourism initiatives that will create electronic triptychs so that if you're traveling from Philadelphia to Chicago and you have a week, and you're studying Revolutionary and Civil Wars or Ben Franklin, you can quickly generate a travel itinerary and places to eat or sleep and things that are tailored to your interests.

So there will be both an economic and an educational scholarly agenda with this initiative. And that will be part of our answer to significant increases in funding and the scope of projects that have been here over the past three decades.

Q. Sort of a national version of the Southern Culture Center?
It's in many ways influenced by that. The center succeeded in so many ways -- in large part due to endowment support. So, I've seen a process that works and benefits everyone. I think a similar experience, on a more ambitious scale, can have a tremendous impact.

Q. And Philadelphia sounds like a natural for something such as that.
It is -- I think somewhere around the Ben Franklin statue would be a good place for it.

Q. What kind time frame do you have in mind for the initiative?
We're hoping to secure in the upcoming budget $5 million for the purpose of finding grants that would go to three or four institutions in each region.

The following year, we'll select one institution from each region, and that institution will proceed over the next five years at $1 million each year, and the host institution will be required to match three-to-one the endowment's gift.

So, at the end of the fifth year, there will be a $20 million package in place that will essentially be endowed for a permanent institution. And it will all be linked electronically to smart classrooms, and linked region to region.

Q. How has the NEH's overall budget suffered?
Our budget is $110 million, down from $176 million. The president is requesting $136 million as part of his balanced budget and we'd be delighted with that. It would allow us to rebuild significant levels all over, including core programs and our initiative, and to fund an increased level of state councils, which are an important part of our work here.

Q. What were some of the accomplishments of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture?
It offers the nation's only B.A. and M.A. degrees in interdisciplinary programs on the American South. We created the world's largest blues archive and a folklore library. We also have major collections on race relations, the writings of William Faulkner and others, and they do annual public programs on Southern history ... We did two on Elvis.

Q. And you are a filmmaker?
I do documentary films. That all started at Penn, when I was a graduate student in folklore. I've done about 15 films -- one of which I was associate producer on, "Mississippi Delta Blues," [which did well at Cannes Film Festival]. It still plays around the country and it's available on videotape.

Q. What other projects are in the works?
There is a lot of exciting technology work in the endowment. We're launching a project called "Ed-Sitement," that we're co-producing with MCI ... that will allow for many resources to be connected to a series of humanities Web sites that teachers and students will be able to access quickly. Some other initiatives will also allow teachers more access to technology and humanities


Q. So you're liking the new job?
The job is challenging and I think very rewarding. We have a great staff here. Congressional support is exciting -- Congress is very interested in our initiatives and they care deeply for the endowment.

Q. Was that always the case?
I think it was. With budget cuts, the endowment took more than its share. But it has never been under the attacks other institutions have. Our programs have never been singled out for criticism, like the NEA, and people appreciate that.

I think the endowment is just an under-appreciated story that most people don't even know -- the Ken Burns films on the Civil War, and baseball and the West were produced in part because of the endowment. [The public] enjoys many of the things we help produce without even knowing we had a role in them.

Q. But you'll change that?
We're going to try to make visibility part of our role here, to let people know what we do has an impact on their lives in a very positive way.

Originally published on April 30, 1998