by David Lionel Smith

In the spring of 1998, MFH President Gail Leftwich became Director of the Federation of State Humanities Councils. I, in turn, became the President of the MFH board. This was a sobering moment for me, because I was in the midst of a challenging term as the Dean of Faculty at Williams College, and the MFH was facing difficult challenges and transitions of its own.

The MFH had weathered an external political crisis soon after I joined the board in 1994. Attacks on the NEA and NEH culminated in Congressional efforts to defund both agencies. The NEH was, of course, our primary source of funds. The board began a vexed discussion about how to survive without federal money.

The members had all been chosen as humanists, and few of us had much experience with fundraising. Conflicts developed in our discussions about which projects to support. Some members contended that we become more strategic in our grant-making. Others insisted that our primary goal should be to support projects for underserved audiences— i.e., poor and minority communities and small towns distant from the state’s major cultural institutions.

Our able Executive Director David Tebaldi worked with the board to consolidate support for the MFH in the legislature. We successfully negotiated an increase in our state support, which comes through the Massachusetts Cultural Council. After much controversy, Congress in 1996 agreed to continue funding both Endowments (albeit at drastically reduced levels). We survived our brush with extinction, but the tension over how to fulfill our mission was never fully resolved.

In 2000, the MFH came due for a periodic reassessment by the NEH. We used the process to develop strategies for survival in a world where federal and state funding could not be taken for granted. This entailed recruiting different kinds of expertise to the board and a new division of responsibilities. One major change: the evaluation of proposals would no longer be the primary function of all board members. Others of us would concentrate our energies on helping the MFH become financially secure.

Having made this necessary transition, the MFH will now undoubtedly face a new challenge: How can it continue to bring strong humanities programs to all the people of Massachusetts, while at the same time becoming less reliant on government funding? These are quite different agendas, yet to fulfill its true mission, the MFH must succeed at both.

David Lionel Smith is the John W. Chandler Professor of English at Williams College. He was appointed to the Foundation board by Governor William Weld in 1994 and served as Chairman 1998-2000.

©2003 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2003