A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author has stepped away from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, citing “the broader movement of the organization away from its founding mission.”
Doug Blackmon, the longtime host of former center program “American Forum,” is the third high-profile scholar to leave the center since the appointment of Marc Short, a former aide to President Donald Trump, to a fellowship. Three members also have left the center’s Governing Council in the past year over alleged harassment complaints.
Blackmon said, though, that Short’s arrival was not his last straw; rather, he said, echoing other concerns, he had longstanding questions about the center’s focus and commitment to civil discourse.
“American Forum,” in which Blackmon interviewed prominent politicians, scholars and historians, ended in March after budget issues. Blackmon took a yearlong fellowship to wrap up some ties in Charlottesville while transitioning to full-time life and work in Atlanta. But he decided Tuesday to decline the fellowship, set to begin this month.
“The Marc Short appointment was a factor, but more so it was the broader movement of the organization away from it founding mission around problem solving on major national issues, promoting civil discourse and preserving its autonomy within the university,” Blackmon said in an email. “The workplace climate issues that have recently gotten attention, and how they have been handled in the past, were also long-term concerns of mine.”
In his resignation letter, Blackmon, who won a Pulitzer in 2009 for his book “Slavery by Another Name,” outlined his reasons for leaving. Even though financial duress led to the cancellation of “American Forum,” he wrote, he still believed in the center’s ability to improve civic discourse and help members of the public to participate in democracy.
But Blackmon said concerns about the center’s lack of scholarly focus, lack of cooperation and lack of engagement made him realize he had to leave.
“Rather than a blossoming of new ideas, the termination of the Forum program also appears to have marked a significant withdrawal from the mission to encourage civil and informed discourse among national leaders, policy makers, scholars and an engaged public,” he wrote to the center’s director, Bill Antholis. “More broadly, your direction for the Center appears to be one that departs substantially from the founding doctrines of problem-solving on great national problems, encouraging public engagement and discourse, and financial independence designed to preserve ‘maximum autonomy’ within the structure of the University of Virginia.”
“Thank you for your note. Your contributions to the Center have been truly significant ones,” Antholis responded in an email provided to The Daily Progress. “Clearly, we have differed on a number of issues. While I believe we are headed in a sound direction programmatically and fiscally, I have valued our differences of opinion because I know how much you care about the Center.”
On Thursday, Howard Witt, the center’s spokesman, flipped through a stack of papers detailing the center’s events in the past six months since the show’s cancellation.
“There’s been no drop off in the number of human beings who come to attend events,” Witt said, adding that the center also has added ambitious projects aimed at better involving UVa and members of the public, such as the Democracy Initiative.
“It’s not just scholarship, but will produce solutions-oriented research about helping America help other democracies,” Witt said.
Questions about the center’s mission and focus didn’t begin with Short’s appointment.
Will Hitchcock, a professor of history and policy, resigned an appointment with the center in June, but said the Short appointment was only the latest example of a debate between historians and policymakers about the center’s role.
In a letter sent in January to Gene Fife, former chairman of the center’s Governing Council, Hitchcock criticized what he called the center’s “lack of clarity of mission.” The center had become bloated, had failed long-term programs and had too broad a research focus, Hitchcock wrote.
“The Council has not done enough to impose discipline on the organization. Its strategic planning exercises have been well-meaning but unproductive. Its fiscal oversight has been inadequate, resulting in prolonged budget deficits. Programs that deliver intellectual substance have suffered while the cost of staff and communications personnel has ballooned,” he wrote.
“The Council would like the Center to become the nation’s leading think-tank that deals with public affairs, public policy, and the U.S. presidency. But on a $7 million annual budget, the Center could not possibly achieve such a lofty ambition. The competition is much too powerful.”
Instead, Hitchcock suggested, the center should model itself after academic centers and think tanks that focus on more specific areas of policy and history, such as Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. These institutions have a more streamlined focus and so can better recruit high-level researchers and connect with audiences, he said.
In an email response, Fife said, “I’m on the run but wanted you to know I have received your memo and agree totally with [your] assessment of the dilemma the [center] faces — and I also agree that the only party that can fix the situation is the Governing Council.”
“He really agreed with the points that I made,” Hitchcock said in an interview. “But then, it went dead.”
Melvyn Leffler, a professor of history and policy and the former dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, also resigned his center appointment in June, saying he still respected the center’s leadership but fundamentally disagreed with Short’s ability to offer impartial insight into Trump’s policies.
When asked about critiques that the center’s programming and research are too broad, Witt pointed to the Democracy Initiative, the First Year Project and the center’s programming about the 2008 financial crisis, saying the events were aimed both at leveraging existing expertise at the center and at providing useful answers to current crises.
He also provided financial information to combat rumors of shaky financials. While information about first-quarter donations — those made since the announcement of Short’s fellowship — aren’t yet available, Witt said the amount of significant one-time gifts and grants, as well as small-dollar donations, all increased in fiscal year 2018 from the previous year.
The center’s operating loss, which hovered around $2 million in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, was cut to $82,675 in fiscal year 2018, according to the balance sheet, though it still has to deal with a long-term lease in Washington, D.C.
The decision to end “American Forum” and to ramp up fundraising have helped right-size the center, Witt said. He said it was a shame that the program was canceled, that he admired Blackmon and that he wishes him the best, but that he believes the center is on the right path.
“This all illustrates a long struggle within the Miller Center,” Witt said. “What Bill [Antholis] has laid out is a solutions-driven mission. Not everyone likes it.”