The Business of Government Hour


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The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

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William R. Ferris interview

Friday, June 15th, 2001 - 20:00
William R. Ferris
Radio show date: 
Sat, 06/16/2001
Intro text: 
William R. Ferris
Magazine profile: 
Complete transcript: 

Arlington, Virginia

Monday, April 30, 2001

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and a co-chair of The Endowment for The Business of Government. We created the Endowment in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. Find out more about our research by visiting us on the web at

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Our conversation today is with William R. Ferris, chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities. Welcome, Bill.

Mr. Ferris: Thank you. It's great to be with you, Paul.

Mr. Lawrence: A lot of people know about the National Endowment for the Humanities. But I bet they don't know all the things it does. Could you describe its activities for us?

Mr. Ferris: Well, the National Endowment for the Humanities is the nation's largest supporter of the humanities and in so doing, we support public television, radio series like the Ken Burns series on the Civil War and his recent series on jazz. We support programs in local libraries and museums. We support classroom teaching, websites that help teachers and summer institutes for teachers. We also support research -- scholars, the preservation of presidential papers. And we increasingly are reaching out to all American people to try to make the humanities a household word, in initiatives like family history website, called "My History is America's History" that allows anyone to put their stories and genealogy online, and to connect through that with American history. So we have a broad, wide web of relationships and support that we bring to our nation on behalf of the humanities.

Mr. Lawrence: How big is it? How many people work there? And what type people are they?

Mr. Ferris: Well, by Washington standards, we're very small. We have a 170 staff, an annual budget of $120 million. And the staff I think of as a university. These are many PhDs, who speak many languages. The diversity of expertise is really extraordinary, not unlike the National Science Foundation.

We vet an extraordinary range of programs from international research to the history of American culture. We often have to draw on different languages, different periods of history to vet our projects. And we have scholars in house who are fully equipped to do that.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, tell us about your career.

Mr. Ferris: Well, I grew up on a farm in Mississippi. And studied English and later folklore. In terms of the South, my interests have focused on the Deep South traditions like blues. I did a book on a storyteller, a mule trader called You Live and Learn, Then You Die and Forget It All. And I think of that as a sense of urgency in my work as a folklorist.

I've also been privileged to direct for 18 years before coming here, a Center for Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. And we produced an encyclopedia of Southern culture that looks at one of the nation's great regions in great detail.

And all of that work has in various ways shaped important initiatives that we're now doing here at the Endowment.

Mr. Lawrence: How did you get out of academia and come to the Endowment?

Mr. Ferris: Well, I was invited. To be offered the position that I have, I think of as the highest honor an academic can ever have. I've worked for many years over my life with the humanities, and have been blessed with support, both as a scholar and as an administrator from NEH.

So, to come here and to return that favor by leading and supporting the initiatives that NEH is doing was something that I never dreamed would be a part of my life. And so when I was offered that opportunity three and a half years ago, it was certainly an easy choice to make.

Mr. Lawrence: It's interesting that you describe the position as both a scholar and an administrator. Which jobs in your career best prepared you for both of those functions?

Mr. Ferris: I think they both did because I was on the other side of the fence before coming here, requesting support for scholarly research and teaching, and also for administrative work -- the renovation of an antebellum observatory, the creation of new curriculum on the South. All of which happened because of NEH.

So I know, in a very personal way, a lot about our programs because I've been a part of them for probably 22 years before coming here.

So I feel as though I am knowledgeable advocate for the humanities. In speaking to the White House and to Congress and to the American people on behalf of our agency, I can call on personal experience in saying how powerfully important this work is for the whole nation.

Mr. Lawrence: How would you contrast the cultures of academia versus the public sector?

Mr. Ferris: Well, I think in many ways they're similar, in that you are responsible to the public, both at a university and at the Endowment.

But there are differences. Within the university, you respond to a department chair or to a university president. Here, I'm responsible to the White House, to Congress and to the American people.

And I think all three of those entities are equally important. You have to respect and be accountable to all of them. There are new ways of walking here, in the sense that you have ethical restrictions that normally would not apply in a private world within a university.

But ultimately it's following your heart, trying to be as honest and clear in what you are doing and want to do as possible. And when I first came here I was very intimidated by the thought of going into the White House, or going into a Senator or a Congressional office and speaking with people that I had read about and admired enormously.

But to go in and actually talk about your business was something I had never thought would be possible. But you quickly realize that you're dealing with other people who share values and once they understand that the work we're doing is improving and enriching the lives of people they represent, it becomes a clear choice of, I think, supporting this agency.

The increased support that we've had from Congress over the last two years reflects, I think, the confidence that they have in our work.

Mr. Lawrence: How about the differences in management styles?

Mr. Ferris: Well, the differences in management style at the basic level I don't think have changed. I'm the same person I was before. But the scale of management is far greater.

I mean, I was directing a Center for Study of Southern culture, managing about 18 people. Here, there are 170, and it's far more complex.

So, I had a steep learning curve. I'm still learning every day. But as a result of trying to understand an agency that I already felt I knew, but was quickly able to see that there was far more there than anyone really understood, we created over the last three years four working papers as a way to look in great depth at our programs, with international programs, with regional programs, science, technology and the humanities and teaching and lifelong learning.

And these are all on our website, a very impressive upgraded website. We are making ourselves much more visible to the American people and to our own staff. I mean, the range of projects and activities within this single agency is very impressive. And it helps to be able to also pull up a 35-year time line on our website, and look at the distinguished work that has taken place under every president and every chair since our creation 35 years ago.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, since you're an expert in Southern culture, I'm curious to know how would you contrast Washington, D.C. with the rest of the South?

Mr. Ferris: First of all, I have to say very proudly that I would consider Washington a part of the South. In our Encyclopedia of Southern Culture we include Washington. And from the very earliest colonial period Southern leaders like Thomas Jefferson played a significant role in the city.

So as a Southerner coming here, having worked on the South for 30 years, I found myself very comfortable here.

Mr. Lawrence: This is The Business of Government Hour. We'll re-join our conversation in just a few minutes.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and today's conversation is with William R. Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Could you tell us about the development of the Rediscovering America program?

Mr. Ferris: Yes. Our real initiative at the Endowment is to connect the humanities to every American. And to do that, we are reaching out to American families and communities with a number of initiatives that are making a significant difference.

Mr. Lawrence: We know that you're planning ten regional centers as part of this program. What will these centers do?

Mr. Ferris: Well, these centers will be housed within major universities in 10 five-state areas that roughly correspond to the areas we think of as New England, the Deep South, the Southwest, the Midwest.

They will offer the B.A. and M.A. interdisciplinary degrees on the history and culture of their region. They will support research projects like encyclopedias on each region. And they'll do public programs -- television, radio, exhibitions.

And they'll link over the five-state area the infrastructure of education and culture: religious groups, civic groups, national parks, universities, colleges, K through 12, arts and humanities councils.

Groups that normally don't talk to each other will be gathered together at a common table so that when an initiative like an exhibition on the California Gold Rush is being developed all of these groups will have a chance to take part in it and to help make it a stronger initiative.

Mr. Lawrence: What are the management challenges of running these centers?

Mr. Ferris: Well, the centers will all be run by the universities in which they're housed. They're actually built on already existing work, in some cases; programs that have been focused on the region for 20 and 30 years.

And what we are issuing is a challenge grant over five years that will offer each university a million dollars a year. And they in turn will match it with a three to one match.

And we are turning to Congress for only four of the six. The other six we are raising support from private sources for -- we recently received a two and a half million dollar gift from the Knight Foundation which is the largest single gift in the 35 year history of our agency.

So I think Congress and the private sector are very excited about the ways that this will deepen our knowledge of what American culture is all about.

Mr. Lawrence: We know that you spearheaded an effort to put statewide cultural encyclopedias online. Could you tell us what this is and what the biggest hurdle to doing this is?

Mr. Ferris: Prior to coming here, I was co-editor of an encyclopedia of Southern culture, which the NEH funded. And I saw firsthand how powerfully important that was in helping people understand about their own history and culture. And we have already seen in the last few years a growing number of state-based encyclopedias, mostly print encyclopedias.

So we've decided to create an online encyclopedia in every state through our state humanities councils. There is one that we funded earlier, which is up and running: The Handbook of Texas, which is an enormously successful project. And it's a prototype for what will be available in every state over the next five to 10 years.

It allows teachers and students to develop new curriculum. It has an impact on economic growth through cultural tourism. They have a tremendously important role in the life of the individual state. And they virtually cover the globe in the ability they offer to learn more about Texas, for example.

We have recently funded 17 states and we'll fund another round of states this summer with $50,000 planning grants to get the process started. And then we'll come back with $450,000 implementation grants to help put it all together.

Mr. Lawrence: What's the Schools for the New Millennium program?

Mr. Ferris: The Schools for the New Millennium is a very exciting approach to looking at the entire school and reshaping curriculum by developing technology and bringing together not only the students and faculty but parents and the administration. We partner that entire group of the school's leadership with a local museum and a university. For example, the Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee is partnered with the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and with Northeastern University in Boston developing a new curriculum on the civil rights movement.

And for those students in the classes in Memphis, the civil rights movement is a part of history. It's something that took place before they were born. So it's a wonderful way of doing oral histories with parents and family and neighbors to give them a deeper sense of their local history. We have similar projects with the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, looking at their Native American myths and comparing those with the theater of Shakespeare.

In each of these schools around the country, wonderful new, innovative work is being done; again, using technology and partnerships with museums and universities that make a high school curriculum far more exciting than ever before.

Mr. Lawrence: The Endowment is encouraging Americans to write down their stories through the My History is America's History project. Could you tell us more about this project?

Mr. Ferris: This My History project is our most comprehensive effort to reach out to all Americans. It involves first of all a book that is also online at

And if one wishes, you can either get the book or you can pull down on the web all the information on it. And you can also get a copy of the book by calling 877-NEH-history.

Basically, what the book or the website does is to walk you through the ways of putting together your genealogy or gathering your family stories and then putting those online. And through those stories, and your own personal genealogy, you begin to connect in a much more exciting way with American history. We've put two copies of this wonderful book in every library in the nation. And we're working with teachers to use family history as part of their curriculum.

In states like Pennsylvania the State Humanities Councils are launching special oral history initiatives in communities all over the state. It's a project that is growing in terms of the numbers that are using it, and it's also bringing the humanities in a very powerful way into the personal life and family history of all Americans.

Mr. Lawrence: You've suggested that NEH should function as a traditional endowment where both private and public funds are added to the large pot of funding. What are the benefits of this structure?

Mr. Ferris: I think our new administration believed very strongly that there should be a private- public partnership. And our current budget of $120 million is simply not adequate to fully address the needs of the nation in the humanities areas.

So we have turned, with the encouragement of both the White House and Congress to corporations, to foundations, and to individual donors. We've had a wonderful gift of about $1.7 million from the WorldCom Foundation to create Edcitement, which is a K through 12 website that includes 105 websites, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and others.

And now, thanks to this gift and this website a teacher in Oklahoma can pull up Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King and it will sweep all these websites and give you the information.And then they can say I'm a 10th grade teacher in Tulsa. Give me a teaching unit on this subject using the Oklahoma teaching standards. So within 5 or 10 minutes, a teacher has a wonderful lesson plan on the subject they need that they carry into the classroom.

So we are very encouraged by the growing numbers of gifts for specific projects in the humanities that we are receiving. And Congress and the White House applaud this kind of entrepreneurial spirit within the humanities.

Mr. Lawrence: I'm talking with William Ferris of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This is The Business of Government Hour. We'll rejoin our conversation in just a few minutes. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and today's conversation is with William R. Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Well, you've been credited with refocusing the Endowment's mission from funding controversial projects to those that preserve America's heritage. Can you tell us about the process that you used to shift the mission of the NEH?

Mr: Ferris: As a folklorist, I think of humanities as the human story and I think of a proverb, an African proverb, that I often use in teaching my students folklore. The proverb says that when an old man or woman dies, a library burns to the ground. And I view the humanities as a work of urgency, that we need to be about preserving those stories, not only of our family, but understanding more deeply the stories of our nation's history, our literature our philosophy, our folklore. These are all fields that we study really from kindergarten on; they are the humanities and there's nothing controversial about this. It's simply getting a good education. Our founding legislation draws on the language of Thomas Jefferson, which says that a democracy must depend on an educated citizenry, and we in our democracy have to protect and nurture our education for all ages, from kindergarten through lifelong learning. And that's what the humanities is all about -- there's nothing controversial about the work that we do. It is an urgently needed necessity for our nation, to support the programs that we have.

Mr. Lawrence: NEH regularly deals with competing and sometimes conflicting interests. How do you keep all the stakeholders satisfied?

Mr. Ferris: I view the various groups within the humanities as a parent would view children. You love them all, you want to nurture them all and take care of each of them.

And that is exactly our approach. We have public programs that nurture the public television, radio, and museum worlds. We have research programs that deal with scholarly research. We have education that assists classroom teaching and develops websites. We have challenge grants that help build long term support for institutions. And we have preservation and access, which is a way of preserving historic documents and making them available to the public. All of these are part of what we think of as the pipeline of the humanities. We have to preserve the collections of papers in order that scholars can write about them and filmmakers can draw on the photography -- like Ken Burns has done. Eventually, these films and scholarly works will find their ways in to the classroom of K through 12. So in some ways, you can look at a decade-long process of preservation and making accessible resources that are then used and turned into very public and very accessible worlds. All of these steps are important. We view all each area with equal care, and we try to be as fair as possible in supporting them all.

Mr. Lawrence: Money is often an issue and has been in the past has been somewhat of a struggle. You testified after the budget cuts of 1996 that NEH was forced to close down many of its core grant programs, lay off a quarter of its employees, and downsize many of its functions. How did you prioritize what would continue to receive funding in this period?

Mr. Ferris: Actually, that all happened before I became Chairman. It was several years after those deep cuts that I came on board. It clearly had a terrible effect on the agency. All of our younger staff that had just come on fairly recently had to be let go. Many of our programs that people depended on in a variety of areas were reduced or cut. It's been my challenge to rebuild those programs through Congressional or White House support or through private support; to seek additional funding for these programs. And I'm delighted to say that we're on the right course, both with Congress and the White House and the private sector. Private support also is flowing in ways that I think will steadily increase in the coming years.

Mr. Lawrence: NEH was able to increase its budget in the past year. What lessons would pass on to other leaders navigating the budget process?

Mr. Ferris: I'm very proud that we've had a five million dollar increase over each of the last two years and that was after flat funding for a number of years. My sense is that there are no shortcuts to this process, it's a process of learning to understand and respect the Congressional and White House leadership and over time -- over a number of years-- explaining about your programs, and why there're important, and how they affect to the American people. The bottom line here is that we are a democracy and the Endowment exists because of the generosity of the American people and their elected officials. We are responsible to those people and to the degree that our programs enrich and support their lives in every part of the nation, then I think we will thrive and grow. That's what we're doing. The growth in our budgets and in other areas of the agency represent our work.

Mr. Lawrence: In 1999, the NEH was criticized for inviting President Clinton to deliver the Endowment's annual Jefferson Lecture. What lessons can you pass along to other leaders faced with this level of controversy?

Mr. Ferris: Our idea was -- and I think it continues to be a valid idea -- that every sitting president should have an opportunity at the end of their term to reflect on the humanities and their role on of history in their leadership during their four year period. Regardless of who the president might be, I think that would be a significant resource for the nation. If we had such a resource on every president from George Washington to the present, it would be a treasure trove. I continue to think that this is an idea that is very important. We certainly are open to seeing this be made a part of the future of humanities if the leadership in the White House and Congress feel that it is important.

Mr. Lawrence: In an era where all government agencies are being asked to produce results, and track performance, how does NEH track and communicate performance information?

Mr. Ferris: Well we increasingly are using our website and electronic reporting of information from grantees and from audience participation and programs to monitor and track the results of our projects.

We've also responded to the Government Performance and Results Act in creating what is called a Performance Plan for all of our projects. It establishes goals and sets forth a series of indicators that help us understand how our various grants are succeeding. And we in turn report that to Congress and the White House.

I think technology is in our favor in that our website and our ability to use technology to move data quickly and to sort data is increasingly giving us a clear picture of how successful our projects are. And they are enormously successful. We can begin to see a summer institute for a high school teacher gives that teacher a much firmer knowledge of the subjects they teach.

And then you can only imagine for the next 10, 20, maybe 40 or 50 years that teacher, year after year, is a better teacher for hundreds and thousands of students who will then go forth and be better citizens.

So you multiply that one teacher by hundreds of teachers at the secondary and college level, and then you multiply the numbers of students whose lives they touch. And you begin to see it's like a pebble dropped in the water and the ripples go out. That is but one example of how our programs make our nation far stronger and far richer.

Mr. Lawrence: It's time for a break. We'll be back with more of The Business of Government Hour and our conversation with William R. Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and today's conversation is with William R. Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

One of the toughest challenges that many employers are facing now is recruiting and retaining new employees. Does NEH have this problem?

Mr. Ferris: I would say we have a problem with retaining employees. But our problem, like many federal agencies, is that we have a graying workforce, which is particularly acute in our situation, because so many of our younger staff were cut when the 40 percent budget reductions came through a few years earlier. But we are slowly and steadily rebuilding this workforce. As our staff retires, then we are bringing in wonderful young leadership within the humanities, and many of whom are PhDs in various fields.

And there's a great love for the Endowment across the nation. And I think it's going to be exciting and easy to recruit highly professional trained scholars who are interested in helping through the Endowment to build the humanities all over the nation.

Mr. Lawrence: Will they come for a job that will last a career, or will they be moving back and forth to, say, academia?

Mr. Ferris: Well, one can do both. But I think in most cases we will be bringing in people to work for a career. But it's also possible to come into the government for a year or two and to have that experience, and then to go back into the university. But most of the examples that I'm familiar with within the agency indicate that once staff is there, they do not leave until they retire. Because it's an extraordinarily and moving experience to see institutions and individuals grow and flourish. Because -- and I'm the best example. I mean, my whole career as a teacher and scholar and administrator would not have been possible without the NEH support.

So, I know full well that the kinds of advantages the Endowment offers individuals are in direct relationship to the leadership we have at our agency. These are leaders who become very personally involved and they have a chance to watch over several decades, sometimes, a small institution grow and flourish, or an individual scholar who's totally unknown, a young Ken Burns get help for his first film on Huey Long, and then become one of the nation's greatest filmmakers.

There are many examples like that. Ralph Applebaum, who designed the Holocaust Museum began his career as an unknown designer for museums with NEH support. The examples that one can cite are many. And to bring staff in and to give them a chance literally to shape the nation for the better I think is very appealing. And I look forward to seeing the growth and the development of young staff as they increasingly come to our agency.

Mr. Lawrence: What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in a career at NEH?

Mr. Ferris: Well, I always tell young people to follow their hearts. Life is too short to do otherwise. And do what you love. And if you love the humanities, and want to come to the NEH, then look at those positions that appeal to you most.

In some cases, it might be working with research, in others with public programs. A person who has a strong background in film or radio would be much more challenged and excited by the public program sector. If you've done research and published books and so on, then the research division would be a more likely venue.

But there's a wide range of wonderful opportunities within our agency. And each summer we bring in summer fellows who are college students. And they bring a wonderful new energy for the summer into the agency. And many of those are inspired and have indicated that they would like to come back, you know, after they finish their education and join our staff full-time.

And so there is a process here that clearly is exciting to the public. And we are never without wonderful choices when we're seeking to hire new staff.

Mr. Lawrence: Is there a key characteristic, from your observation, that separates the really excellent researchers or filmmakers from the other ones you see -- the Ken Burns, for example, from the other filmmakers?

Mr. Ferris: Well, I think there are really no filmmakers who are not good. I mean, I'm a filmmaker myself. And I know a lot of what separates one filmmaker from another is simply the access to resources. And Ken Burns really is unique in his ability to raise support and to build institutions around the subjects he's done, such as the Civil War and jazz.

And we seek not only to help the blockbuster productions, but to help the unknown filmmakers who are just beginning their career. We're launching support for filmmakers who are coming to us for the first time. And maybe $10,000 spread over 50 filmmakers -- of 10,000 each -- will yield a handful of truly significant filmmakers over the next 50 years who will be household names in the ways that Ken Burns' name is today.

So I think no one can distinguish between good, better, best. In scholarship, in filmmaking we simply can't judge what a decade or two from now will be viewed as a very powerful and important grant. And many of our smallest grants have had this effect. We funded a perhaps about $10,000 or $12,000 to a scholar to do a research project and a book on the Amistad incident about 25 years ago. Well, that book was one of the key resources for Steven Spielberg's wonderful film.

We can point to many examples where we gave an archeologist a modest amount of money to do work in Peru that led to the discovery eventually of the Ice Maiden. So, our work moves in wonderful and mysterious ways. And I think these are all God's children that we support. And they're all very beautiful and significant work in our eyes.

And I think as we look back over our 35 years, we can see the patterns of growth that have come in very unexpected ways that have blessed and enriched the lives of all Americans thanks to this great institution, the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Mr. Lawrence: What does the future hold for the National Endowment of the Humanities five, 10 years out? What do you think it will look like, and what do you think it will be doing?

Mr. Ferris: I think it will be hardly recognizable in terms of what we see now. First of all, all of our applications will be done electronically. We will have virtually every resource in our nation, presidential papers, family trees, the histories of local communities on websites that will all be linked so that a student in the 5th grade in rural Montana will have equal access to the rich worlds of the Library of Congress, as rich as anyone in the country. And we will see the agency partnered in a very intimate way with the White House, and Congress as we shape national and international policies, economic, cultural. We will have a whole new sense of pride and understanding about our nation's culture.

And that step will have been made because of NEH. I think NEH will grow and will become an essential part of all public policy. Not only education, but cultural and economic because culture is related to economic development. And we grow as a community, as a region and as a nation in direct proportion to our ability to know our history and our culture.

In our recent book on the 35-year history of the agency, there's a preface by Stephen Ambrose, in which he says, "I can't imagine an America without the NEH." And I think that will be the thought of every American in the coming years.

Mr. Lawrence: I want to thank you, Bill. I'm afraid we're out of time. I've enjoyed our conversation very much.

Mr. Ferris: Thank you very much.

Mr. Lawrence: This has been The Business of Government Hour featuring a conversation with William R. Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

To learn more about our programs and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness, visit us on the web at See you next week.

William R. Ferris interview
William R. Ferris

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