Conservatives sway funding for NEH grants, critics claim


Under the direction of the Republican appointee Lynne V. Cheney, political considerations have become a deciding factor in research funding decisions at the leading federal agency that supports work in the humanities, according to researchers, lawmakers and former staff members.

In a significant percentage of cases, they said, Ms. Cheney and her staff at the National Endowment for the Humanities -- who yesterday announced the names of the recipients of the annual $5,000 Charles Frankel Prize -- weed out proposals they consider too liberal, too feminist or too full of what conservatives deride as "political correctness."

With this strategy Ms. Cheney has been able to avoid the political storm that burst over her companion agency, the National Endowment for the Arts. Its chairman, John E. Frohnmayer, resigned last March amid conservatives' complaints that the agency was spending taxpayers' money on projects they considered anti-religious or pro-homosexual.

"There's been a slow process at the NEH of granting the far right ideological veto power," said Rep. Chester G. Atkins, D-Mass., who sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees its budget. It is a departure, he said, from the endowment's "history of being isolated from political considerations and supporting scholarship, whether it is scholarship from the left, right or center."

Ms. Cheney, through an aide, denied any effort to politicize grant-making. "With all due respect to the congressman, he's wrong," said Claire del Real, communications policy director. She said the complaints come from discontented academics who lost in the agency's competitive process, where just one application in five receives funding.

But former NEH staff members who have gone on to other jobs acknowledge that as many as one in 10 applications may be "flagged," for political content, "and that's too many," said one. Top staff members are making decisions that are "tactical instead of intellectual," one said.

Ms. Cheney, said another, has "run this agency with a clear policy point of view. It's the policy of the administration that was elected. That is not corruption, but it is bad policy."

As a result, there is a widespread perception among academics that the endowment has a bias against certain types of research.

The director of research at a Massachusetts university recently told the head of the women's studies department that a feminist research proposal would "never fly" before the NEH and helped the professor seek other funding. The official asked that the school's name not be used for fear of retaliation.

The endowment's policies are critical because it funds most research in languages, literature, history, philosophy and related disciplines. Last year the endowment provided $150 million for 2,171 projects nationwide. Last week, the Senate passed a 1993 appropriation of more than $181 million for NEH.

"It's hard for somebody on the outside to appreciate, but the endowment is the most important funder in the humanities and is likely to get more important as corporate support is cut back," said Stanley M. Katz, president of the National Council of Learned Societies.

When it gets an application, the endowment uses peer reviewers, experienced scholars in particular fields, to grade the proposal from "excellent" to "poor." Ms. Cheney and the council then review the grades and make a final decision.

Critics said a conservative is assigned to each panel of reviewers, and in a competitive environment, one negative can blackball an application.

The pattern of rejection was pointed to by several academics as evidence of bias.

* A summer teachers' workshop on how women are treated in different cultures was proposed by Northeastern University anthropologist Christine Gailey and was turned down with one reviewer's "not for us." Ms. Gailey said, "Four reviewers had graded me 'excellent,' and their comments were insightful and helpful. One had one line: 'Not for us.' I thought that was disturbing and ominous. How do you revise something in the light of 'not for us'?"

At a meeting of feminist scholars earlier this year, at least a dozen reported receiving similar rejections, said one participant, Lynn Perry, a literature professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

* A public television series illustrating different approaches to the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage was given planning funds but then denied money for production.

When the historians planning the series appealed, Ms. Cheney told them during a September 1990 meeting that the project was "European-bashing and Columbus-bashing" and would offend Hispanic-Americans and Italian-Americans, said Nancy L. Roelker of Brown University, one of the historians.

The endowment did fund $19 million in other Columbus quincentennial projects.

* A travel grant involving Shakespearean studies was rejected because it had a feminist tinge, said a Dartmouth College English professor. An endowment staff member, the professor said, noted privately that it "had been marked because it was political."

* A series of seminars examining the great books of the Western world at Boston College was rejected because one of five reviewers thought some of the critics invited to participate were liberals, said Rev. Joseph A. Appleyard, head of the B.C. honors program. The four other reviewers ranked his plan "excellent," he said.

Defending the endowment's record, Ms. del Real listed hundreds of 1991 grants that were approved, including a travel grant on Renaissance feminism, a travel grant to study Afro-American medicine at Harvard, and the publication of Latin American poet Pablo Neruda.

"We have a stellar record of funding a wide variety of applicants," she said. "Every application and proposal that comes in is looked at fresh, and new, and is looked at and read on its merits."

Two advisory council members also defended the process, saying they saw no evidence of manipulation. "I have never been on any committee that's as objective as this council is," said one member, Duke University literature professor Kenny Williams.

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