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Apr 15, 2009 11:54 pm

How Many Czars Does a Republic Need?

The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses Obama administration plans for an arts and humanities “czar.” Former NEH chairman William J. Ivey thinks that we will end up with only a few “mini-czars.”

Of course, the question is not whether there should be one humanities czar or many humanities czars, but whether the federal government should be involved in the humanities business at all. The article title, after all, is “Humanities Endowment Should Get Back to Basics, Scholars Say.” What could be more basic than reading the Constitution?

Ivey is a perfect example of the problem. He is the author of Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. How did government subsidies for the humanities become a “right”?

As I have tried to explain in an earlier post, it is not a right at all, but an entitlement—like education, health care, or housing.

Congress has ignored this distinction since the New Deal, as it has expanded its powers beyond those enumerated in the Constitution.

At the newly-opened National Capitol Visitors Center, Congress claims that such programs are one of the Constitution’s enumerated ends and purposes that it calls “exploration.”

The text of the Constitution that they use to support this is Article One, Section Eight’s grant of “power… to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”

Let’s be charitable and assume that this is constitutional illiteracy rather than deliberate deviousness. For following that clause is “by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

In most cases, the Constitution gives Congress discretion as to the means it employs to achieve the enumerated end. But in this case, the means are specified—this is commonly referred to as the “patents and copyrights clause.”

So: Congress has taken one of the more restrictive clauses of the Constitution and turned it into one of the most permissive. We should get back to basics, indeed.

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Dr. James Ottavio Castagnera - 2/22/2009

This is only a toehold, so far as Uncle Sam's incursions onto our college campuses are concerned. Other significant incursions include:
1. SEVIS, the computerized method for keeping track of international students and exchange scholars;
2. The Higher Education Opportunity Act, with its 100+ new reporting requirements, effective last August;
3. The Department of Education's intrusion into the accreditation process;
4. The FBI's program for protecting intellectual property in university labs.
5. The Patriot Act's provisions impacting university libraries.

As I argue in my new book, Al Qaeda Goes to College (Praeger 2009), this is not all bad. Higher Education, especially private higher education, has behaved for far too long as if it were still back in the early 19th century, if not still in the Middle Ages, when in fact it has grown up to be one of the nation's major industries. Uncle Sam has every reason to insist that our industry act as if it is, indeed, a major player in the US and global economies, and as if it has significant human and IP assets to protect.

On the other hand, as a close reading of the massive Higher Education Opportunity Act reveals, Congresspersons as a group have no deep understanding of the way higher education operates or ought to operate. Consequently, the HEOA piles an enormous new regulatory burden on already stretched administrators and staff, without any clear guarantee that the industry or the public will be any better off at the end of the day.

Given all of the above, I must share your skepticism about an arts czar.