Arkansas history is facing a great challenge. The director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, Stacy Hurst, continues to purge the department--the most recent provoked resignation being that of state historian and director of the State Archives Dr. Lisa Speer.
Dr. Speer was hired almost five years ago when the State Archives was known as the Arkansas History Commission, the state agency which had worked for more than a century to preserve our heritage. Speer, who has a doctorate in American history as well as a degree in library science, implemented many improvements at her agency. Thus it came as a surprise in May 2016 when a bill was introduced in a special legislative session to transfer the History Commission from the Department of Parks and Tourism to the Department of Heritage.
The bill which transferred the History Commission was drawn up in secret by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Stacy Hurst. No hearings were held. Not a single member of the history community was consulted by Hutchinson or Hurst in drafting the bill. It was released to the public on the same day it was introduced. The bill not only transferred the History Commission, but it also put all powers formerly held by the seven-member commission in the hands of Stacy Hurst. This means that a single state employee--who, by the way, has absolutely no expertise nor background in history--has total control over our heritage as a people. A colleague referred to Hurst as the "Czarina of Arkansas Heritage."
The first major program manager to be coerced into resigning was the director of the Arkansas Arts Council. Next came the director of the Delta Cultural Center, who was forced out and replaced by a man who had claimed to be a prophet. Bob Scoggin, the archaeologist on the staff of the Historic Preservation Program, was forced out for trying to document remnants of the old Little Rock trolley car barn which were being destroyed for a parking lot for the Department of Heritage. Scoggin was released just before Christmas 2016.
Missy McSwain, longtime director of the Historic Preservation Program, was coerced into resigning in January of last year. Patricia Blick, McSwain's deputy, also resigned when her boss was forced out.
Another tragic and especially repugnant personnel debacle involved Marian Boyd, the veteran Heritage employee whom Hurst named interim head of Historic Preservation, upon filling the position to which she had applied at the Arts Council. Among other disagreements which led to Boyd's resignation, Hurst told Boyd that the National Register of Historic Places staff at AHPP was too aggressive, trying to do too much. According to a former staff member, she said, "It's only Arkansas."
While all this was unfolding, Lisa Speer was busy transitioning the History Commission--operating under the new name of Arkansas State Archives--to its new parent agency. Stacy Hurst did not make it easy.
Incredibly, Hurst never attended a single public program sponsored by the State Archives. She tried to defund the two regional facilities operated by the State Archives, the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives at Washington near Hope and the Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives in Powhatan, close to Walnut Ridge.
Hurst was unable to close the regional facilities due to the efforts of a new group established to support and protect the State Archives, the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives. While Hurst might be the darling of Gov. Hutchinson, her support in the General Assembly is tenuous.
Stacy Hurst orchestrated the reclassification of the director of the State Archives, downgrading the position. And she did not bother to tell the incumbent, with Dr. Speer finding out months after the fact.
One of Hurst's primary criticisms of Dr. Speer was that she did not do enough to control the Black History Commission of Arkansas, an advisory board of the State Archives. Judging from her frequent complaints, Hurst was never keen on the Black History Commission. (She was also less than pleased with the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, which Hurst reportedly believed should change its name "to be more inclusive.") Hurst actually put Dr. Speer on probation because of Hurst's displeasure with her supervision of the Black History Commission.
Another reason Dr. Speer resigned was the toxic culture at the Department of Heritage. Morale is very low, with veteran employees counting the days to retirement and younger staff members job hunting. Dr. Speer addressed this issue in her letter of resignation: "The mass defections of staff over the last several years clearly illustrate the failure of leadership, as does the need to bring in outside consulting firms to conduct staff surveys and focus groups to diagnose the causes of internal dysfunction."
Some people have said the Stacy Hurst problems are simply the result of a Republican governor being elected. However, until Hutchinson the History Commission has always been above partisan politics. For example, Cathy Matthews was named director of the Heritage Department by Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, but she continued to serve under Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe until her retirement. The late Dr. John L. Ferguson served as state historian under eight governors. Even Orval Faubus did not politicize Arkansas history.
The Friends of the Arkansas State Archives are mounting a campaign asking the governor and Legislature to take concrete steps to protect our heritage. A statewide meeting is being organized to bring together all the history, genealogy, and museum groups to devise a strategy for dealing with the current impasse.
As I was composing this column, I learned that Stacy Hurst is advertising for a new director of the State Archives--and the minimum qualifications have been reduced from a Ph.D. in American history (plus archival experience) to "the formal education equivalent of a bachelor's degree in public administration, business administration, or a related area ..."
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 02/25/2018
Print Headline: An ill-considered transfer of power