Fee-for-service issues at public history centers

by Leslie on April 9, 2011

Yesterday I took part in a working group on public history centers at the National Conference on Public History.  (For now–but I’m not sure for how long into the future–you can download the case statements from participants.)  For the purposes of our discussion, a public history center is an organization, often connected with a university, that makes consultants (faculty, students, or professional staff) available to members of the public, businesses, and government agencies for assistance with their projects.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but I found most interesting our discussion about charging for work done by these centers–especially since the work is frequently performed by graduate students.

I wanted to share a number of considerations, from our conversation and my thoughts afterwards, in no particular order:

Whenever funds are available or potentially available (define “potentially available” as narrowly or broadly as you wish), graduate students should be recompensed for their work, particularly if the center for which they work is charging for their services.  These students are developing professionally, and they should be paid for what amounts to on-the-job training.  I’m also a fan of paying students—undergraduate or graduate—for internships at nonprofits (or elsewhere), especially if the student (a) brings significant existing skills to the internship or (b) will be doing a good deal of “grunt work” (e.g. simple digitization, photocopying, filing).  If the student is getting course credit for the internship, I think employers should pay at least the cost of the tuition covering those internship credit hours.  These aren’t hard-and-fast rules for me, and I’m not about to deny a student an excellent internship opportunity because it’s unpaid, but I have seen too many enthusiastic interns taken advantage of by their supervising organizations–so much so that the interns burn out.

In our working group’s conversation, it became clear that some folks always ask for payment for center services, while some would rather not charge at all.  Still others struggle to balance their faculty and departmental responsibility to perform public service through civic engagement with a desire to charge for certain kinds of work–or to charge certain types of clients.

I’m hoping eventually to establish a public history center, and this is exactly the kind of ethical quagmire that paralyzes me.  So, for example, I can see myself agreeing to provide assistance in interpreting the history of Idaho’s wolf management for a (hypothetical, here) local environmental nonprofit  that has a tiny budget.  But when the local Rotary club came knocking for assistance with an organizational history, I might be less enthusiastic about providing services to businesspeople whose ability to pay might be significantly larger than those of locally unpopular, scrappy environmental activists.  Note: I’m not saying one group is objectively more deserving of such funds—just that I myself am likely to favor helping small organizations with a lack of funds, and in whose history and issues I’m more interested.  I need to be aware of such biases, and if I do found a public history center, I need to be very clear in what cases the center charges for work, and under what circumstances that work might be provided pro bono.

One member of the working group pointed out that she didn’t want to make her public history center a free alternative to local historical consulting firms, many of which are founded by her program’s alumni and employ students and recent graduates.

One person in the audience floated the idea of getting sponsorships from local businesses so that the public history centers could work assist community groups free of charge.  Some faculty on the panel said they would like to see such sponsorships, but university development offices require faculty soliciting funds to run their requests through their units, in case the development officers are already working on an alternative solicitation to a prospective donor.

Someone else at the session asked about the utility of “friends of” groups in supporting centers.  The consensus seemed to be that the work required to establish a 501(c)3 and manage the relationships inherent in such a group might not generate sufficient financial return on the investment of staff time.  If you’ve surmounted this obstacle and established a successful, cordial friends group, I’d love to hear about it.

Working group participants seemed uniformly enthusiastic about the suggestion that public history centers should be emphasizing the value—both cultural and economic—of public history work, and that those doing that work should be recompensed when they apply their skills and expertise.

The conversation ended with a brief discussion of how the typical faculty member directing a public history center frequently lacks any kind of administrative or managerial training, and that the learning curve can be steep and bruising.  The question became, then, how to develop such skills in our students, especially since many public history students eventually end up running nonprofits or historical consulting firms.  Students and faculty need to develop leadership, mediation, and collaboration skills, but it wasn’t clear how such skills might be cultivated in the classroom–or how the development of such skills in students might be assessed or evaluated during program reviews.  One solution, I pointed out, is to offer public history students the option recently added to the museum studies program at John F. Kennedy University; students there can get a joint M.A. in Museum Studies/M.B.A.  Many students find that option attractive, and students complete the dual-degree track in three years.

What are your thoughts or concerns about public history centers?  Do you have any successes or cautionary tales to share?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nicole April 11, 2011 at 11:53 pm

This would be a great thing to take up with the American Historical Association. An association like the AHA can be useful in setting guidelines for professional conduct. The American Medical Association acts similarly, putting out guidelines for physicians that go beyond the purview of an individual hospital or practice.

On a related note, taking inspiration from care professionals, might a sliding scale be the answer?

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