The president of the University of...


July 01, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SHELDON HACKNEY, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, is being opposed for chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities for the wrong reason.

His critics cite his conduct in the case of the black students at Penn who confiscated the student newspaper because they objected to a conservative columnist's views. Hackney tut-tutted this Nazi-like behavior as just a case of two equally important values -- "diversity and freedom of expression" -- being in conflict.

That is obviously a vile and craven attitude for a university president. But for the manager of a bureaucracy like the NEH it's just the thing. His job is to parcel out money to a diverse group of individuals and groups in a way that will not prompt the right or the left or any congressional district to feel unappreciated.

The correct reason to oppose Hackney to head the NEH is that there shouldn't be an NEH. Not now, anyway. Every day we hear from Washington that unless the deficit is brought under control, extraordinarily dire things will happen to our society. Taxes are already going up for almost all citizens. Tens of thousands of defense workers and uniformed members of the services are already being laid off. Some services, including such vital ones as Medicaid and Medicare, will be cut or will cost more pretty soon. The national debt could spiral out of control, provoking depression or worse.

And Sheldon Hackney is going to spend well over half a billion dollars in the next four years on such things as grants to writers for books there is no market for, or to educators for research on topics that, while interesting, are hardly urgent.

Then there are such things as this: "The Howard County Public Library has received a $120,000 NEH grant to fund reading, viewing, listening and discussion groups to celebrate the humanities" (News item, Oct. 10, 1992). And "The Howard County Public Library has received an $85,000 NEH grant to pay for community lectures on the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe" (News item, June 12, 1992).

Even if we were not in a budget crunch, I'd wonder about our priorities. For $205,000, Baltimore City could put a few more cops on the street or a few more teachers in the schools. Those are the mean streets and failing schools many of the people who will enjoy those free NEH lectures and discussions in Howard County fled from in the first place.

Had Howard's middle class folk stayed in the city here where they belong, paid their real estate taxes, supported the Enoch Pratt Free Library, joined the PTA and so forth, maybe this city wouldn't be going down the drain.

Meanwhile, they go to slide shows about the pyramids along the Nile at taxpayer expense.

I'm all for continuing education and gainful moonlighting for professors, etc. But we can't afford it at the moment. The NEH is a minor offender in re the deficits, but it is an offender, and it is expendable.

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