By Angela Chen

William “Bro” Adams ’72, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, took the leadership position there two years ago, on the eve of the NEH’s 50th anniversary. One of his goals is to promote the humanities as resources for daily life, and he has taken a two-pronged approach to the task.

First, he has explicitly discussed the need to promote projects that grapple with new concerns — such as cyber-surveillance — that both dominate the headlines and “share boundaries with science.” Second, he is spearheading initiatives that emphasize relevance and accessibility. The Public Scholar Program provides a total of $1.7 million in support for researchers who want to write books in a style other than the traditional academic monograph, while Humanities in the Public Square grants fund projects that directly shed light on contemporary issues.

“When I was deciding what sort of tone to set at the NEH, I decided it would be worth our while to talk about the humanities as being very closely connected to our values, our culture, our history, and our most important ideas,” says Adams. To him, it is in times of protest and turmoil that the humanities are most sorely needed. It was, after all, similarly precarious circumstances that led him to philosophy.

Adams looks like the college administrator he became after leaving Stanford University in 1988. He spent seven years at Wesleyan University before becoming president of Bucknell University and then Colby College, which he led until joining the NEH.

Colleagues from across his career emphasize his enduring engagement with research, notably a longstanding book project on French intellectual history and the relationship between the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the subject of Adams’ doctoral dissertation, and the painter Paul Cézanne.

His intellectual bent wasn’t always obvious. Adams dropped out of Colorado College after his freshman year, a decision he maintains was a good one because he “just wasn’t ready,” especially as his father had recently died. His next big decision, to enlist in the Army, led in a surprising way to his academic career.

He spent three years in the service, one of them in Vietnam. In May of 1969, 24 hours after returning home, he was caught in the crossfire of counterculture protests.

Visiting the University of California at Berkeley with a friend who was in the process of transferring, he ended up on campus during “Bloody Thursday,” when a police crackdown on student protests led to the shooting of James Rector, an onlooker. Adams was teargassed. It was clear that “the world had changed enormously from just a few years ago,” he remembers, and so he re-enrolled at Colorado College that fall, “wanting to sort out some things I felt and thought about.”

Filled with questions about the meaning of violence and how turmoil can shape a country, Adams turned to philosophy for answers after taking a course with J. Glenn Gray, himself a World War II veteran who wrote about war and violence. Adams went on to complete a doctorate in the history-of-consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he studied existentialism and phenomenology. The French existentialists, in particular, were preoccupied with questions about life in the aftermath of World War II, issues that seemed “very alive and fresh” to someone newly returning to civilian life.

“I had wrestled with questions of meaning, and these questions and answers are dead center when it comes to the humanities,” says Adams.

Echoes of this personal history show in the NEH’s Standing Together initiative, which funds projects dealing with the experience of war. It recently awarded $300,000 to the filmmaker Ric Burns to support promotion of “Debt of Honor,” his 2015 documentary about the history of disabled veterans in America. “Civilians only have the most clichéd, bareboned ideas of what the military is like,” says Burns, “and the funding helped us promote the film to tear down that wall and connect to the public.”

Just as Adams believes it takes more than knowing political science, economic policy, or military strategy to understand war, he wants the public to understand that topics like biomedicine and genomics are also worth exploring in a humanistic way: The nature of science and how to apply it can never be derived from science itself.

Take the issue of cybersecurity and surveillance. As cameras and recognition algorithms become more sophisticated, fears of the erosion of privacy, profiling, and the intrusion of the state into private life have escalated. The NEH awarded a Public Scholar grant to an associate professor of history at Wesleyan University to fund archival research abroad for a book about the history of facial-recognition technology. The algorithms may be new, but the privacy concerns harken back at least to the 19th century, when the camera was regularly used to track down criminals. Understanding this connection can make the uncertainty of the present feel less foreign.

The humanities have a PR problem, and the so-called public humanities are hardly exempt. Boosters like Adams promise that public humanities act as a gateway to widespread appreciation, but they are not universally admired.

This question — “what are the humanities, and what should be emphasized?” — has followed Adams throughout his career. As NEH chairman, he personally approves every grant, a task that raises some of the same questions of scope he had to consider decades ago as coordinator of Stanford’s Great Works in Western Culture program, when the canon wars were in full swing and students at the university made national headlines with their demands for a global, inclusive reading list.

Ultimately Adams came to believe that the selection of texts left out important voices and concerns. Though the university dropped its Western-civilization course, the debate continues: This April, Stanford’s student government voted down a referendum that would have reinstated a Western-civilization course very much like the one that was dropped.

The class is in the news again, but something important has changed: 20 years ago the value of the humanities was not up for debate, only its boundaries. “I think what’s happened since then is that people have sort of jettisoned that there should be any such requirement at all,” says Adams. “I’d rather be having arguments about what the humanities are than about the point of them.”

The NEH receives about 5,000 grant applications annually, from which the chairman selects recipients in three four-week cycles interspersed throughout the year. The applications land on his desk with scoring rubrics and comments from a panel review, and he is alerted to ones that need special scrutiny, such as borderline cases and projects whose merit elicit wildly diverging opinion.

Finding the balance of funding esoteric versus more public-facing work can be difficult but, Adams says, does not always have to be a zero-sum game. While his focus may be on making the humanities meaningful to the public, it is unlikely that the agency will ever stop supporting research that appeals mostly to specialists. NEH recently underwrote Ken Burns’ Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on the topic of race, and yet the institution’s collaborative research grants have supported archaeology projects that take place on ancient sites.

“There’s a limited audience to those kinds of projects and we know it,” says Adams, “but they’re very important because they preserve our understanding of the cultural heritage of our global civilization.”

Adams has also had to adjust to working for an institution at the mercy of Congress. At NEH, Adams has “no control over the levers.” In 1996, after nearly two decades of consistent funding, Congress cut financial support for the agency by 36 percent, to $110 million. Funding has remained around that level ever since. “You can plan what you want to do, but if you can’t get a budget that supports that, it’s impossible,” he says.


Angela Chen is a journalist based in New York City. This article was condensed for reprint in the Bulletin; the original article appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.