William Adams is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency that awards grants to researchers and cultural institutions to preserve America’s heritage. Adams was previously president of Bucknell University and Colby College, taught political philosophy at Santa Clara University and the University of North Carolina, and coordinated the Great Works in Western Culture program at Stanford University.
In an interview with Tom Fox, Adams discussed his mission at NEH and his views on leading his federal organization. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership, a vice president at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and head of the organization’s Center for Government Leadership. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What is your approach to promoting the humanities and leading your government workforce?
A. A lot of my time is spent traveling around the country talking about the state of the humanities now and about the future direction. With respect to the agency, it really has to do with engaging the people who work here in the fullest articulation of our vision and its execution. A critical part of leadership for me is hiring good people and then setting them loose with guidance and encouragement. Our 150-member NEH staff works all year to provide funding that is the lifeblood behind many of the museum exhibitions, library programs and documentary films that encourage and enrich our nation's cultural dialogue.
Q. How do you manage the agency given that you have a fairly busy travel schedule?
A. It takes a lot of time going to places, and also thinking about what I want to say to the humanities community. Therefore, I need someone who understands all of the administrative areas. I have a very good deputy who is tremendously strong when it comes to the financial, organizational, personnel and information technology issues. You need someone like that who can really be the chief operating officer of the organization and provide strategic guidance and oversight, because I need to spend a lot of time thinking about this bigger external role, which is what people want to hear from the NEH chairman.
Q. How has the experience of serving as a university president helped you in your current leadership position?
A. It has been a great help. Universities are mission-oriented institutions that deal with ideas and with culture, just like this one. It was also helpful because I know my way around running big organizations. I also can have conversations with scholars and people from organizations across the country without having to leave a place of comfort and understanding.
Q. What accomplishment are you most proud of at NEH?
A. I am most proud of the way in which the agency has moved from a fairly narrowly aimed organization into a much broader array of activities. The work of the agency through its grant-making activities has been enormously impressive and extremely diverse. This is evident when you look across the horizon of academic institutions, museums, libraries, cultural organizations, radio productions, documentaries, scholarships and, increasingly, digital and technological issues. I’m focused on expanding and energizing that publicly focused activity.
One sector of higher education we haven’t served very well is community colleges. That’s where more than 60 percent of all students now are being educated in the United States. So making sure that community colleges have robust programs in the humanities is very important. Therefore, we are expanding our commitment to community colleges.
Q. What advice do you wish you had received before becoming chairman?
A. I wish I had been told more about working in the federal government. For example, I have found that getting the career civil servants and the political appointees to understand each other and work together can be very difficult. However, in order to have a more effective and productive agency, you have to join these two groups together.
Q. What mistakes have you made in your leadership roles, and what did you learn from these experiences?
A. The biggest mistakes I’ve made involved not listening carefully enough and not taking the time to fully understand an issue. A related source of mistakes has involved not paying close enough attention to things that I should have recognized as potentially problematic. So it’s a certain quality of attention. You can’t be riding so high that you are not paying attention to the things that can really come back and bite you, or riding so low in a way that gets you too involved in the minutia.
Q. What's your favorite book?
A. My two favorite pieces of fiction that have been most moving and powerful to me are Virginia Wolfe’s To the Lighthouse and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. To the Lighthouse is really about how complicated and demanding life’s relationships are and how difficult it is to make a life of integrity and balance. Madame Bovary is about finding beauty in not just the mundane, but maybe even in the profanely human—or the ugly, in another sense.
Q. Is there something people would be surprised to know about you?
A. I am an ardent fan of Tom Waits, the singer-songwriter and composer.