Threats to Rare Resource for Humanists

U. of Illinois grant program, which gives 200-plus professors awards up to $25,000 a year, could face the budget axe.

March 15, 2007

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s unique “Campus Research Board” has distributed about $3.2 million a year for at least the past five years to faculty members who apply for the peer-reviewed, competitive institutional grants. The maximum grant is $25,000, the average award $15,000 -- which means that each year about 213 Illinois instructors walked away with some significant seed money to begin a pilot study, hire a research assistant to help analyze data, or travel to a research site far, far away.

And, of course, those (approximately) 1,065 awards represent only those most recently bestowed by the longstanding and beloved institution within an institution: James P. Warfield, for one, a UIUC professor emeritus of design, literally traveled around the world studying vernacular architecture on 11 Research Board grants, the first dating to 1975, the last to 2002.

“It’s such an emotional attachment that I think most of us have to the Research Board and the funding opportunities,” said Vernon Burton, the president of Illinois's Faculty Senate and director of the Illinois Center for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (and a historian). “It’s particularly important to the humanities and arts and social sciences, where there are so few outside funding agencies.... Those small amounts of money, to help you photocopy some archival material, or travel to look at some archival material, or to hire a graduate assistant -- these things are critical to the humanities.”

Imagine the dismay, then, of humanities faculty as rumors have circulated around campus that the Research Board could be ripe for elimination. Charles Zukoski, the vice chancellor for research, confirmed that a Faculty Senate-appointed Research Policy Committee has been charged with, among other things, evaluating the possibility of cutting or eliminating funding for the board. "One of the things we are looking at is indeed the size of the Research Board and the magnitude of its budget and whether it's sustainable given the current funding climate," he said Wednesday.

“We could keep it the same, or reduce it to zero,” said Zukoski, who added that the board’s budget already suffered a 25 percent cut this year.

The board, which distributes money relatively equally across the university’s disciplines, including the sciences, is funded in part by an endowment. But most of the funds are institutional monies (including a very small percentage of indirect cost reimbursements paid to the university by funding agencies  for the administrative and facilities costs of externally funded research, primarily in the sciences, that’s diverted to the Zukoski's office to be distributed across the various disciplines by the Research Board). And -- as is no secret in higher education -- the growth in the proportion of indirect costs covered by grants and the growth in public support more generally has been, in many cases, flat as an Illinois farm field.

“My ability to do this cost-shifting is disappearing, which is why I have to ask the question of whether I have the funds available for seed funds for research,” Zukoski said. He has not made any recommendation to the faculty committee, he said, but expects any decision to be made about the future of the Research Board -- as well as a number of office programs in his office being evaluated by the faculty committee -- by the end of the semester.

Zukoski acknowledged that while all faculty are eligible for the grants -- which primarily cover research assistantships, but can also fund equipment, “extraordinary supplies and other research expenses,” publication subventions and travel to research sites -- professors in fields where external support is hard to come by have been particularly big fans of the board. “Faculty members in the humanities are simply terrified by what would happen if the Research Board were to shut down. I can understand their terror. What is so interesting to me is that the Research Board is so unique,” even though other institutions, too, have strong humanities, arts and social sciences programs, Zukoski said. “How does it work at other institutions?”

Generally speaking, systematic support of humanities research is not the norm, leaving professors to compete over relatively small pots of money or fund their projects out of their own pockets -- and making Stanford University’s recent announcement that it would provide all humanities professors $5,000 annually for research purposes major news in academe.

“The idea that we can just go out and get grants to do it -- well, I don’t think the [National Institutes of Health] is going to fund my research in modern poetry,” said Cary Nelson, an Illinois professor of English and president of the national American Association of University Professors. Nelson's first computer, a $13,000 model with a dot matrix printer, was purchased with Research Board funds back in 1981. “I'm worried about the de-funding of humanities research.... You’d rather see our Research Board be emulated in other places, rather than being closed down. It’s also been a tremendous boon in recruiting new faculty members; we don’t have mountain ranges, oceans, access to a large metropolitan area, but we can say, ‘Come here, you’re going to have opportunities for support.’”

Warfield, for one, said that without a doubt, he never would have gotten tenure at UIUC without the grants, which put him in position for a Fulbright in the 1970s and enabled his worldwide research of vernacular, or locally grounded, architecture. Warfield -- who traveled to Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and Mali on one Research Board grant, Papua New Guinea and the Australian Outback on another, and too many other places to name here with the 11 total grants he received over the course of his career -- is completing a 500-page book, Roads Less Traveled, with photos and travel sketches showcasing vernacular architecture in 40 different cultures.

“More than once they told me this was the last time they were going to fund my work,” Warfield said with a laugh. But only twice were his proposals rejected -- while so many external sources remained closed to architects, considered to be too artsy for the science grants, Warfield said, and too technical for the arts awards.

“It’s one of those things where I never wanted to write letters telling them how much I appreciated it, because I didn’t want them to think I was cuddling up to them because I was asking for more money again,” Warfield said. “I’ve wanted over the years to thank them.”


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