Bruce Cole: A Tribute

Steve Balch

Come January, Bruce Cole will depart the National Endowment for the Humanities where he’s been chairman since 2001. His next assignment, the presidency of the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge, is an ideal venue for a repeat of his greatest NEH success, fostering scholarship and teaching that rekindles national memory. We have no doubt that Bruce’s performance in Washington’s encampment will be as inspired as it was in the General’s city. 

After eight years of trivialization and drift, Bruce restored the Endowment to its original mission, enrichment of the humanities as a source of national strength. For Bruce this was no rhetorical bromide. It was a pulse of intellectual energy he sent coursing through every program newly undertaken or continued. It also guided his recruitment of senior staff, each of whom shared his commitment to the humanities as an indelible constituent of the common good. The special strength of Bruce’s leadership lay in its understanding of the importance of this institutionalization of purpose, taking it beyond solitary voice, and deep into the grain of agency culture. Toward this end he stoutly persevered and ultimately won through. The vicissitudes of politics notwithstanding, his NEH legacy will have real staying power.

The “We the People Initiative” was both the centerpiece and emblem of the Endowment’s functional recovery, making a renewed understanding of America’s legacy a pervading organizational priority. Here a clear convergence with the NAS’s work emerged. Many of the programmatic sprouts we’ve been planting throughout academe, emphasizing the Founding and study of freedom, received abundant nourishment at the Initiative’s hands, in some cases via endowment-generating challenge grants of very substantial magnitude. Fledgling though most of them still are, these programs have a catalytic potential for reshaping campus climates. Bruce recognized this and brought the Endowment to their aid.

Bruce came to the NEH a distinguished art historian. Since none of his critics could credibly impeach his commitment to excellence, he encountered far fewer than did his predecessors and easily breasted such opposition as they contrived. But this was not just a matter of resume. Bruce also displayed consistent political savvy. Orchestrating much of the Endowment’s programming around the “We the People” theme was a particularly masterful stroke. Though not one apt to win applause in every academic quarter, “We the People” was an immediate hit on the Hill.

Bruce’s ability to do major academic good with solid bipartisan support reflected a combination of intellectual high-mindedness and well-honed street-smarts rarely seen. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be a long while before it’s witnessed at the Endowment again. Dr. Coles come to Washington but seldom.

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