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State of New York State History

The New York State Historian Position: Creating the New York State History Advisory Coalition

The investigation into the hiring of Devin Lander, former executive director of MANY and legislative aide to Assemblyman Engelbright continues by drilling down the state bureaucracy. In the previous post, the position of the Commissioner of Education was reviewed. Mary Ellen Elia had received an open letter from two prominent state historians about the state historian position. In this post, we consider what happened next.

The Commissioner did not respond directly to the letter.  The letter called for reinstating the Office of State Historian as an independent position, reporting directly to the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education. If the Commissioner of Education did not wish to respond, she had every right to delegate it to the Commissioner of Cultural Education.

In case you are not clear on exactly what that position is, there is an Office of Cultural Education. The name itself does not provide a clear indication of its areas of responsibilities. According to its website this department consists of the self-explanatory

New York State Archives
New York State Library
New York State museum which includes the state historian

and the less obvious

Office of Educational Television and Public Broadcasting which asks on the website “Are you surprised to find that your public television and radio stations are directly connected with the State Education Department?”

New York State Summer School of the Arts (NYSSSA) comprised of seven residential schools that offer four-week training in the specific disciplines of ballet, choral studies, dance, media arts, orchestral studies, theatre and visual arts at college campuses.

Only the website of the Library resembles that of the Office of Cultural Education itself and one may reasonably conclude that these entities have had a varied history before being lumped together here.

There is a Committee on Cultural Education within the Board of Regents. The Chair is Roger Tilles of Long Island. His contact information is Regent.Tilles@nysed.gov. He has spoken at MANY and attended the History Roundtable held by Assemblyman Engelbright on May 29, 2014, regarding the proposed NYS History Committee. I was at both events and have had some innocuous email exchanges with him. He definitely is someone for the History Community to contact regarding the position of the State Historian as well as the status of history in general in the state.

JudithJohnson from Westchester is another person on the committee to consider contacting (Regent.Johnson@nysed.gov). She was a superintendent in the Peekskill school system. While there, she spoke at an Underground Railroad conference held in Peekskill. When a tree on the campus of the high school used in the Revolution to hang spies finally died, she mourned the loss as part of the heritage of the community. These actions are suggestive of someone who has an interest in history and how to bring local history to students.

The other members are:

Christine Cea, Staten Island (Regent.Cea@nysed.gov)
James Cottrell, member at large, Brooklyn (Regent.Cottrell@nysed.gov)
Judith Chin, Queens (Regent.Chin@nysed.gov) who is identified as a lifelong educator and was supervising superintendent in the NYC school system with an interest in immigration based on her own family history
Beverly Ouderkirk, North Country (Regent.Ouderkirk@nysed.gov) who is identified as having been a teacher, principal, and superintendent in a variety of locations throughout the state.

I have had no contact with any of them. This committee should not be ignored in the effort to strengthen the status of state and local history in the schools and communities of the state as well as in the state bureaucracy.

As for the position of the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Cultural Education, it is vacant at present. The proposed Office of New York State Historian probably would report to this person parallel with the Archives, Library, and Museum as Judy Wellman and Carol Kammen suggested in their correspondence. They recommended that decisions about the state historian position be deferred until this position was filled. However, as it turned out there were regulatory constraints best known to those inside the Albany bubble requiring filling the state historian position by May 19 and that deadline took priority.

This meant if Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia wanted to delegate responding to the letter from Carol and Judy, there effectively was no one to delegate it to. The request being made was to elevate the present position of the state historian to the position reporting directly to the presently-vacant Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education. For Mary Ellen to delegate the response to Mark Schaming, the Director of the State Museum was inappropriate. Even if he agrees whole heartedly with the request, he does not have the authority to comply with it: he can not elevate a position to his own level or to direct reporting to the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education. Presumably that individual could once hired if so inclined but Mark can not.

Why then did Mary Ellen delegate the response to someone who lacks the authority to act on it? Did she not understand what was being asked? Did a staff assistant who screens the mail to her simply tell her the subject was the state historian position so she delegated it without reading it? Did she read and understand the request, reject it, and delegate it to Mark to write the brushoff? There is insufficient information available to me to make this determination but no matter which of the three it is, it reflects poorly on her.

As for Mark’s response, much of it is standard blather jargon thanking you for writing without engaging the actual letter. There is nothing personal in this, it is simply standard operating procedure within the government especially if you are asking someone to do something different.

Mark’s response to Judy and Carol contributed to a post by former State Historian Bob Weible on New York History Blog on May 10,  What’sNext for the New York State Historian? In his post, he characterized the response rather harshly:

His inept and condescending response simply thanked Kammen and Wellman for their interest and clumsily assured them that things were being handled appropriately. He never answered the question of why the department chose to ignore its 2011 Regents-approved strategic plan to “reinvent” the Office of State History.

To be fair to Mark, he has no authority to reinvent that Office. He never should have been charged with responding to the letter in the first place. The responsibility belongs higher up with the Commissioner of Education who delegated when she should have taken charge. The tone of Bob’s comment also sheds light on the background of his abrupt departure last summer immediately after the New York State History Conference. It is reasonable to conclude that these two people had come to a parting of the ways perhaps even about the very position of the state historian.

Bob also referred to a letter from the New York Academy of History (NYAH) to Governor Cuomo advocating for a more vigorous effort on behalf of New York State history. I had the good fortune of having lunch with Ken Jackson, the founder and president of the organization, and Lisa Keller, a board member, at the annual meeting of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network last October when he delivered the keynote address. I’d like to think given our discussion that I played some role in the generation of the letter to Cuomo which also seems to have gone nowhere…and this from the person who gave the opening address when the Path through History project was rolled out on August 28, 2012 (as to what he said about the project three years later in his keynote at the GHHN is best left unreported!).

What then should the history community do now? One of the suggestions to Cuomo was the creation of an Advisory Board consisting of professional historians. According to the website of NYAH its own advisory board consists of:

Kenneth T. Jackson (Committee Chair), Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University
Carol Berkin, Distinguished Professor of History Emerita, Baruch College
Laurence Hauptman, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History
Lisa Keller, Professor of History, Purchase College SUNY
Susan Lewis, Associate Professor, Deputy Chair and Graduate Advisor, Department of History, SUNY New Paltz
Dr. Dennis J. Maika, New Netherland Institute.

Expanding on that list of concerned historians, the open letter of Carol and Judy was sent to:

State
Rose Harvey, Commissioner, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
Thomas J. Ruller, Archivist, New York State Archives
Gavin Landry, Director, I Love New York

Private
Amie Alden, Executive Chair, Government Appointed Historians of Western New York
Paul D’Ambrosio, President and CEO, New York State Historical Association
Jay DeLorenzo, Executive Director, Preservation League of New York State
Carol Faulkner, President, Upstate New York Women’s History Group
Peter Feinman, Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education (blogger)
Lynn (Spike) Herzing, Director, New York Cultural and Heritage Tourism Network
Carol Kammen, Historian, Tompkins CountyLisa Keller, New York Academy of History
Devin Lander, Executive Director, Museum Association of New York [now the State historian]
Sara Ogger, New York Humanities Council
Gerry Smith, President, Association of Public Historians, New York State
John Warren, New York History Blog
Judith Wellman Director, Historical New York Research Associates.

Some additional individuals in the private sector with a statewide perspective to be considered for an advisory board are

Robert E. Bullock, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government
Bruce Dearstyne, former archivist and author/blogger/columnist
John McEneny, former municipal historian and state legislator
Bob Weible, former state historian

and representatives from the New York State Archaeological Association/New York Archaeological Council and New York State Council of Social Studies among others.

Carol and Judy had to write an open letter because there is no venue through which to express their concerns. There is no state-wide organization advocating on behalf of the history community. I recommend that the history community take it upon itself to form such an advisory group rather than wait for the Governor’s permission to do. The New York State History Advisory Coalition consist of state-minded representatives of the history committee who meet on a quarterly basis in Albany to discuss, develop, and advocate with the State legislature, State Education Department, Board of Regents, NYSOPRHP as appropriate in support of a history agenda in New York State. Topics for consideration by such a group include but are not limited to:

1. The position of the State Historian including staff, resources, and funding

2. The duties and responsibilities of the municipal historians including training, funding, and revised guidelines

3. The place of state and local history in the k-12 curriculum and the training, certification, and professional development of teachers accordingly

4. The development and promotion of the history heritage of the state for cultural heritage tourism so for example people watching AMC’s “Turn” about Washington’s spy ring in Long Island don’t just see ads for “Virginia is for Lovers” but are directed to real New York Paths through History about the State’s role in the American Revolution

5. Establishing funding sources through the REDC process for anniversaries, state heritage areas, and Paths through History that encourage cooperation and collaboration so they aren’t merely jargon buzz words but the State puts its money where its mouth is.

6.  Connecting the residents of the state to their local and state history as a matter of civics to enhance the social fabric so we can live with each other as fellow New Yorkers.

7. Maintaining a database of the academic publications related to state history and supporting the conferences, symposia, and history weekends which are held throughout the state.

Suggestions welcomed. Comments appreciated. Who is willing to host the first meeting? Who would attend?

3 thoughts on “The New York State Historian Position: Creating the New York State History Advisory Coalition

  1. Big Burly says:
    June 27, 2016 at 7:05 am

    In addition to the preliminary list of next steps i wonder if reinstating the requirement for at least a couple of courses in NYS history be necessary for matriculation. An easy decision by Regents? Hopefully as easy as removing the requirement for history studies a short time prior to the Path through History announcement by our Gov.

  2. My father – now age 90 – moved to NYS from Boston in 1948 and knows NY State – from Jamestown to Lake Placid – better than most. I chuckle when I recall his description of State govt as 120,000 people doing the work of 60,000. Like him, I increasingly regard govt as tangential, irrelevant and at times genuinely in the way of progress when it come to culture and even tourism. Most of NY state’s 100s of museums – most small – have never had a dime of pubic support from the state – and wouldn’t get it if they knew where to ask. Maybe its best to underscore the importance of self-reliance and pray that something finally triggers a slimming down of the leviathan that is state and federal govt. Its not working for most of the heritage players and that’s not likely to change

  3. There is some overlap here with NY State advocates for public education. Parent advocates encounter similar non-responses from the Commissioner of Education and the Department of Education. They have also learned that some Regents board members are more open than others to new ideas, transparency and communication. As it happens, several of the Cultural Education committee members are of the “breath of fresh air” variety. As the state creates social studies standards, allies in the historians community are needed to ensure that any new standards imposed are research based, grade appropriate, and developed with teacher input and expertise.

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