There was yet another shakeup in staff at the Department of Arkansas Heritage last week, prompting a former DAH director to call for the resignation of Director Stacy Hurst and causing members of the Black History Commission to wonder if they’re next on Hurst’s chopping block.
State Historian Lisa Speer, director of the Arkansas Archives, resigned Feb. 6. “I felt like I had come to a point in my position where I was not able to function effectively as the leader anymore,” she told the Times. “I was not sure I had the confidence of the administration at Heritage to carry out my responsibilities without question and intervention and a lot of oversight.
She said much the same thing in her letter of resignation to the department. “You cannot need and use people for the benefit of the department, while disrespecting and questioning their judgment at every turn,” she wrote Hurst and Deputy Director Rebecca Burkes. “With the 2016 transition to the Department of Heritage, there has been no guidance, no mentoring, and no support that ultimately did not benefit the agenda of promoting the Department of Heritage at the expense of the ‘divisions’ within it. 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.”
In a response to the letter released to the press, Hurst wrote, “I regret that Dr. Speer chose to abandon her post and her staff with no notice and in such an acrimonious way.” Hurst noted that the DAH had “experienced a great deal of change over the past three years including a new administration, a move to new offices after 25 years in one location, a new focus on managing for efficiencies, and the addition of a division. … Changes have been made to centralize administrative management in order to perform more efficiently. We have experienced typical staff turnover like any other agency, but also enjoy many long-term, fantastic employees who are passionate about their work.”
When Speer was hired in 2013, the Arkansas Archives operated as the Arkansas History Commission, under the aegis of the Department of Parks and Tourism. It was overseen by an independent commission, which hired Speer. (Like the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the agency itself was both titled a commission and governed by a commission). But in 2016, at the bidding of Governor Hutchinson, the agency was moved to the DAH and the History Commission was stripped of its authority. The move came under fire from historians who were concerned about the effect the move would be on the archives, housed in special facilities in the Big Mac building behind the Capitol. The DAH’s new office building, which it moved into in 2017, was not designed to accommodate the archives.
Hurst said last week that because the archives were now at the DAH, it was getting conservation tax revenue it had not previously received. However, as an agency of the Department of Parks and Tourism, it would also have been supported by the conservation tax, a 1/8 cent divided by the DAH (9 percent), Parks and Tourism (45 percent), Game and Fish (45 percent) and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission (1 percent). Also, the archives did not receive conservation funding for fiscal year 2018, though the DAH did direct funds to a record salvage operation in Howard County. Department spokeswoman Melissa Whitfield said the DAH would ask the legislature for $200,000 in conservation funds for the archives in the coming fiscal year.
Tom Dillard, the retired head of special collections at the University of Arkansas and a former director of the heritage department, said he wanted to meet with others in the history community to discuss the archives situation and was calling for Hurst to resign. “Stacy Hurst has never enunciated any guiding principles about how she sees her job or what her goals are for the future,” Dillard said. “I think we’ve seen enough of Stacy Hurst. … If the governor will not ask for her resignation, then we need legislation to transfer the History Commission back to Parks and Tourism.”
The University of Arkansas’s history listserv has been buzzing with criticism of the move and the job advertisement for Speer’s successor. When Speer was hired, the Commission required that the State Historian “must demonstrate extensive knowledge of Arkansas history, archival management, principles, modern archival/curatorial processes … . Requires earned doctorate in history from accredited higher education institution or equivalent as determined by the commission.” Speer has a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Mississippi, where she was curator of the Mississippi Collection in the archives and special collections. As the state historian, she was paid $89,636. The advertisement for Speer’s replacement lists no archival experience and says only that a doctorate in history is “preferred” but the only required degree is a bachelor’s in public administration, business administration or a related area and five years’ experience in those areas. Knowledge and skills required are fiscal, management of personnel and fund-raising. The pay is listed as $62,531 to $90,670 a year.
Speer is the most recent in a number of employees who have left under Hurst’s management. The DAH has also lost longtime Historic Preservation Director Missy McSwain; McSwain’s successor, Interim Director Marian Boyd, who had worked at the DAH for 25 years; Historic Preservation Deputy Director Patricia Blick; archeologist Bob Scoggin, who ran afoul of Hurst while working on an archeological site now beneath the DAH parking lot; Delta Cultural Center Director Katie Harrington; Mosaic Templars Cultural Center Director Sericia Cole; and former deputy DAH directors Kathy Holt and Marynell Branch. Most had worked under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Members of the Black History Commission — an independent commission with a small budget that works with the state archives, awards grants under the Curtis H. Sykes Memorial Grant Program and hosts events — have been concerned that, like the Arkansas History Commission, they face a downgrade. Chairman Carla Coleman asked to meet with Governor Hutchinson last week to “let him know we are trying to be good stewards. We are not just an advisory board,” she said, though that is how Hurst has characterized the commission in talks with Coleman.
Coleman and the commission have butt heads with Hurst twice: first, when Coleman complained that the DAH ordered the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, which is overseen by the agency, to stop selling #blacklivesmatter T-shirts, and more recently, when Coleman took issue with the fact that Hurst insisted the Black History Commission logo be removed from the advertisement of a Feb. 3 workshop, “African Americans in Arkansas’s Rural History,” at Mosaic Templars. According to Coleman, Hurst said the logo made the poster too busy.
It is perhaps telling of Hurst’s management style that she chose to be involved with an advertisement for a one-time event sponsored by the commission. It was at the Feb. 3 event that Coleman was told that Hurst was “coming after y’all; you need to pay attention,” Coleman said. Hurst told Coleman that was not the case after their meeting with the governor.