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Ronald Berman, humanities endowment chairman, dies at 91

Ronald S. Berman, a Shakespeare scholar whose chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1970s brought blockbuster museum exhibitions and innovative public programming to an audience of millions and who also found himself in a political showdown with a powerful senator, died May 17 at his home in San Diego. He was 91.

The cause was cancer, said his daughter Julia Grossman.

Dr. Berman, who spent much of his career teaching English literature at the University of California San Diego, was a specialist in Renaissance and Restoration drama. But he also was engaged in the political culture of his own era, sometimes combatively so.

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A lifelong Republican, he practiced an intellectual and political conservatism that was shaped in part by his hardscrabble Brooklyn upbringing in the 1930s and '40s. As the first member of his Russian-Jewish immigrant family to attend college, he helped pay for tuition at Harvard and Yale with scholarships as well as jobs as diverse as a bibliography: deckhand in the Merchant Marine, highway laborer in Alaska and Navy Reserve officer.

His 1968 book, "America in the Sixties," stoked alarm about the rise of the New Left in academia. In an acid-tipped social critique, he bemoaned the "disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life" fostered, in his description, by left-wing radicals on campuses. He lambasted the polymathic Bertrand Russell and Marxian philosopher Herbert Marcuse - darlings of liberal social activists - as "the Abbott and Costello of political philosophy."

At UCSD, Dr. Berman was a well-regarded teacher who once ran a college-prep program for Black and Chicano students who, like himself, came from disadvantaged backgrounds. He fashioned himself in the mold of his hero, political philosopher Sidney Hook, by engaging with pupils with whom he disagreed on politics in the spirit of “intellectual tolerance.”

After President Nixon named him chairman of the NEH - an agency tasked with administering grants on humanities education and research, in fields ranging from linguistics to literature to archaeology - Dr. Berman insisted at his confirmation hearing in 1971 that he would “consider all applicants to this institution equally competent, equally deserving” to receive grants based on merit.

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He also pledged to democratize the humanities by expanding grant-making to secondary education and blue-collar and minority communities historically excluded from the field.

In addition to initiating K-12 programming and workshops for teachers across the country, he supported wildly popular museum tours, including the ancient Egyptian "Treasures of Tutankhamen," and the 13-part public-television miniseries "The Adams Chronicles" (1976), which featured George Grizzard as the future president John Adams and laid the groundwork for later historical TV dramas.

During his tenure, the NEH's budget soared from more than $29 million to nearly $100 million, a figure dwarfing the independent agency's present day appropriations if adjusted for inflation.

"Everyone was surprised," said Richard Ekman, a former NEH program officer and division director. "Here's this conservative, but a scholarly conservative, not an ideologue, who was able to get the respect of everybody and cooperation of everybody and help the NEH grow like this."

Dr. Berman earned bipartisan support in his early years at the NEH, but he was not without critics. He faced an early leadership crisis when he vetoed a request to fund college classes exploring the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the Beatles as well as another examining the writings of Charles Reich, author of the best-selling counterculture book “The Greening of America.”

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Dr. Berman said critics of his decision conflated “the humanities for humanitarianism.” He also argued that the courses fell short by focusing entirely on the lyrics and book, rather than using them as starting points for the exploration of scholarly ideas. He was at times cast as an elitist, a charge he vehemently disputed.

"You can be accused of elitism if you confine [education] to the elite," he said at the time, "but you can't be accused of elitism if you bring the best to the most."

His chief antagonist and wielder of the elitism cudgel was Sen. Claiborne Pell, a flinty and influential Rhode Island Democrat fond of saying "I always let the other fellow have my way." Pell was the legislative father of the NEH, which had been created by the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965.

Pell, who said too many grants were flowing to East Coast academics and universities, wanted the NEH to follow the pattern of the agency’s more publicly prominent twin, the National Endowment for the Arts, which channeled funds to state-level arts councils. State humanities committees were first established in 1971 and arrived in all 50 states within a few years of Dr. Berman’s appointment.

While the committees began their work administering local grants focused on state history, Pell pushed for the committees to have greater autonomy and status as permanent councils as well as to hand over 20% of the NEH's budget to state governors.

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Dr. Berman opposed the move, arguing that decentralizing the review process would make the quality of grant-making uneven across the states. Pell countered by labeling him an elitist and highlighting past grants issued by the NEH that he hoped would embarrass Dr. Berman ($35,000 to Harvard for a catalogue of 4,000 byzantine seals), and stood in the way of his renomination by President Gerald Ford in 1977.

Pell prevailed on the matter of state committees, which became permanent councils with the ability to independently administer grants and apply annually for NEH support. Presently, the councils receive approximately 40% of the agency's funding.

Timothy Gunn, a program coordinator and officer at the NEH in the 1970s, said Dr. Berman “broadened the scope of the endowment in so many interesting and fruitful ways. ... For somebody who had gone to the most prestigious of Ivy League schools, it was his emphasis and impetus to reach large audiences by not watering down the humanities, by not at all diminishing the quality of what was offered.”

Ronald Stanley Berman was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 15, 1930. His parents divorced when he was 5. He was raised mostly by his mother, his grandmother and other female relatives who primarily spoke Yiddish. He was a teenager when his mother, a civil servant, remarried; he did not stay in touch with his father.

He developed an early fascination with literature. "I started reading the 'Odyssey' at 7," he told the New York Times. "I was a bookworm. Mother had to throw me out of the house" to play. He soon excelled outdoors, as well, winning multiple running championships.

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He received a bachelor's degree in sociology from Harvard in 1952. He never took an English class as an undergraduate, for fear of exposing his thick Brooklyn accent and impoverished background to ridicule by classmates. Even so, he was accepted to Yale's graduate English program in 1956 after submitting hundreds of pages in which he critiqued works of literature he had read and admired.

"Immediately Professor Maynard Mack said, 'You're in, of course, come,' " said essayist and author Roger Rosenblatt, a friend and former NEH director of education, referring to one of Yale's most distinguished professors of literature.

After receiving his doctorate in English literature from Yale in 1959, Dr. Berman taught at Columbia University and Kenyon College in Ohio before joining the UCSD faculty in 1965. Following his term with the NEH, he returned to San Diego, wrote books about political culture and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and offered commentary about what he regarded as wasteful spending in the arts.

His wife of 60 years, the former Barbara Barr, died in 2013. In addition to his daughter, of Silver Spring, Md., survivors include two other children, Katherine Berman of San Diego and Andrew Berman of St. Petersburg, Fla.; and three grandchildren.

Dr. Berman taught until retiring in 2009 and expressed at times a sense that the atmosphere he cultivated in the classroom - a stimulating interplay between student and teacher - was his most important legacy.

The art of teaching is “pretty nearly as extinct as the art of making stained glass,” he told the Times. “It takes a lot of patience with people - working hard, in close, like body punching. It’s not just standing up at a lectern for an hour and looking good.”