Dr. Lisa Speer has resigned as state historian and director of the state archives, a job she’d held since 2013.
I wrote originally that I was tipped to the story by a source who said she’d been fired. That’s not the case, though her resignation follows tension with Stacy Hurst, director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.
Melissa Whitfield, a spokesman for the Department of Heritage, responded initially:
She was not fired. She resigned at the end of the day yesterday and made it effective immediately.
I later reached Speer, who said:
I did resign. I was not asked to resign. It was my choice. I felt like I had come to a point in my position where I was not able to function effectively as the leader anymore.
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.
I loved my job. I’m passionate about preserving Arkansas history and the staff there is amazing. Leaving is one of the hardest decisions I had to make.
But if my leaving allows them to bring in someone they have more confidence in then that is the best thing I can do for the state archives.
The History Commission, previously an independent agency, was brought under the Department of Arkansas Heritage in the administration of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who took office in January 2014.
The History Commission serves as the state archives, with research facilities in Little Rock, Powhatan, and Washington, Arkansas.
The commission has managed to spur controversy from time to time over the years in part because the users and supporters of the archives tend to be extremely dedicated and value the materials in the collection.
Last year, public conflict emerged over the size and conditions of state archives. The new boss of the History Commission, the Heritage Department, has a new building, but it didn’t include archives space. Questions arose about the future of the commission’s archives on the Capitol grounds. The History Commission learned it had to vacate those premises within two years. A group called Friends of the Arkansas Archives emerged with questions. It said in a letter at the time:
Those quarters were built especially for an Archive with a temperature controlled fireproof vault, a microfilm vault, extra storage area, a conservation lab, office space, and room for processing documents and collections. No funding for the required move has been discussed nor is there any mention of building new quarters. There has been talk of moving our precious historical documents and artifacts into a totally inappropriate warehouse. The documentary history of our state is unappreciated and at serious risk.?
Funding for the Archives has been flat for some time and now there is talk of eliminating the two regional archives that serve northeast and southwest Arkansas. A position is frozen at each of the satellite archives, NEARA in Powhatan and SARA at Washington, leaving those wonderful regional archives with only one employee each. You can imagine that this situation does not lend itself to the security or the function of those archives. We are asking the Governor to unfreeze those positions so the two regional archives can resume serving their patrons with security and full functionality.?
I’ve received indications today that personnel issues, and administrative intervention in personnel issues, likely outweighed the lingering question about the future location of archives, still unresolved.
Stacy Hurst, appointed by Hutchinson to head the Heritage Department, has followed the governor’s aim to reduce state spending by the elimination of staff and other cuts. She’s also intervened directly in many other aspects of the agency. The archives
Speer brought deep qualifications to the job. From a release when she was hired:
Born in Fayetteville, Dr. Speer grew up near Malvern, graduated from Glen Rose High School and then from Ouachita Baptist University in 1988 with a degree in History. She earned an MA and PhD in American History from the University of Mississippi, where she worked as Curator of the Mississippi Collection in the University’s Archives and Special Collections. She then earned an MA in Library and Information Studies with archival certification from the University of Alabama, where she worked as an archival technician. For just over a dozen years, Dr. Speer has directed the Special Collections and Archives at Southeast Missouri State University.
Hurst got her job after losing a state legislative race as a Republican in 2014. She oversaw the governor’s inaugural festivities and was a key player in the governor’s takeover of management of the Governor’s Mansion from an independent commission. She and her husband own a flower shop.
Speer posted on her Facebook page yesterday a clip from the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” She said, with a clip of Jones on the brink of a precipice, “Particularly poignant today.”
The film clip is paired with the quote: “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.”
Speer was paid $89,636. She’ll depart with accumulated leave and holiday pay. Archival manager Tim Schultz will lead the office in the interim and the job will be advertised soon, Whitfield at Heritage said.
Whitfield said there are no immediate plans for moving the archive, but more room will eventually be needed. Work continues with the governor and building services to find a solution.
UPDATE: Next up in the Hurst saga: Her effort to take over the Black History Commission. Legislators are scheduled to join a meeting this week with the governor on this hot topic. Hurst wants to move its archives to the Mosaic Templars and perhaps reduce the commission to figurehead status, as was done to the History Commission.
Unhappiness with Hurst’s decision is spreading. Retired archivist and historian Tom Dillard, who formerly headed special collections at the University of Arkansas and writes a newspaper column on Arkansas history, says an “emergency meeting” is planned of the substantial history community around the state. “I’m calling on her to resign,” he said. He said Hurst had no understanding of the mission of the agency or plans for the future. He noted that she overrode historic preservationists to get undistinguished high-rise apartment buildings added to the historic register to financially help a redevelopment scheme. He said she’d fought Speer at every turn, though Speer had done an “A-plus” job in administering the archives. He said morale in the department is at rock bottom, with employees either looking for other work or counting days until retirement.
“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.”
Dillard said Hurst had stood in the way of “every conceivable thing Lisa came up with.” He added: “We have just begun to fight.”
PS: Hurst issued a prepared response to a question from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about Dillard’s criticism and suggestion that Parks and Tourism again supervise the archives:
Over 30 years ago, from 1981 to 1986, Tom Dillard was the director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, and he clearly still has thoughts on how things should be run. But the reality is that DAH is stronger than ever before, as is the Arkansas State Archives. Since joining DAH in 2016, the Archives has access to resources that it has not enjoyed before, such as conservation tax revenue. DAH has helped ASA market and promote its services and programming to a broader audience. ASA has worked with other DAH divisions, such as Historic Arkansas Museum, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and Old State House Museum, in presenting public programming. The Archives is becoming a more accessible resource for all Arkansans.