Small Grants, Lots of Goodwill

U. of South Carolina's top two administrators, from engineering and public health, start program to offer funds to playwrights, musicians, big dreamers.
February 19, 2010

Shortly after the University of South Carolina named a new provost last year, President Harris Pastides said he wanted to send a clear message. Pastides had spent his career in epidemiology and public health, and his incoming provost, Michael Amiridis, was an engineer. There wasn’t anyone atop the administrative pyramid from the arts or humanities, and Pastides wanted to show those disciplines some love -- quickly.

“I said ‘Michael, I think you need to do something right off the bat,’ ” Pastides recalled in a recent interview. “It would be unfair to say I wasn’t thinking about the politics of the situation.”

It was no coincidence, therefore, that one of Amiridis’s first initiatives was to introduce a competitive grant program for South Carolina faculty in arts and humanities. Seldom if ever offered much in the way of institutional research dollars, the faculty proved hungry. Indeed, about 90 professors – about one-third of faculty in these disciplines – have submitted proposals thus far.

South Carolina’s total pool of $300,000 would be considered minuscule in the hard sciences – the university would probably shell out $500,000 in start-up costs just to hire a single new chemistry professor. But for faculty in theater or music, the awards of $5,000 to $20,000 can mean the completion of a new play or composition – major career milestones in the lives of many professors.

“There are not enough external funding sources for them to be able to get the relatively modest amount of money they need to do their scholarship,” Amiridis said. “They need relatively small amounts (of money) to buy some time out, to do some travel -- but the sources are very limited.”

It is the frequent lament of faculty outside the hard sciences that research universities tend to fund projects that will garner outside support from federal agencies or potentially generate revenue through technology transfer. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for the next great book on Chekhov. While South Carolina administrators aren’t claiming to have dumped a huge portion of the university’s research dollars into projects that are unlikely to produce financial returns, they do argue that the grant competition is a concrete step toward showing unfunded research still has value.

“I think it’s important for Research I institutions to send a message to all of their constituencies that all types of scholarship matter,” Amiridis said. “It is important for the institution; it is valued by the institution. And while some folks can bring in external funds, some folks need internal funds or some combination thereof.”

Sending that message, however, comes at a difficult time financially for the university. South Carolina has lost more than 30 percent of its state budget in the last 18 months, and those constraints always have art and humanities professors on edge, says Thorne Compton, interim chair of South Carolina’s department of art.

“I have found this [competition] to be an enormously bright spot in a period of time that looks pretty dark with all the budget cuts in the country, and in the state and in higher education,” said Compton, who is among the faculty reviewing proposals for funding. “I’ve watched a lot of my friends in arts organizations and theaters and museums whose budgets are shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. To have something like this happen has really kick-started our morale in the arts and humanities.”

The proposals submitted for funding run the gamut from theater faculty who want time to work on original plays to performers who want to hire additional musicians for recording.

While appreciative of the new initiative, South Carolina faculty are careful not to suggest that this is the university’s first sign of support for the arts and humanities. But Jim Hunter, chair of the department of theater and dance, notes that the grants provide a concrete example for faculty to point toward as evidence of that support.

“I think [administrators] are solidifying the support with these very visible things like the humanities and arts grants,” he said.

The grant awardees are expected to be named by March, and approximately 25 proposals will ultimately be funded, Amiridis said. The interest has been so significant, he added, that South Carolina is starting a similar program for the social sciences.

“I understood with our backgrounds, me being in engineering and Harris being in public health, there may be some questions from faculty in other areas who ask ‘Do they understand us?'," he said. "This was a sign to say ‘I heard you. We understand what it takes.’ ”


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