Boost for the Humanities

Defying trends, Mellon Foundation puts up $10 million to get the state of Wisconsin to do the same for its flagship university.
December 22, 2010

Tyche, the Greek goddess of chance, smiled on the University of Wisconsin at Madison this week.

The university announced Monday that it had received a $20 million grant -- $10 million of which will come from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with the remainder matched by the state of Wisconsin over much of the next decade. The money will allow Wisconsin to hire new faculty members and support postdoctoral and graduate students in the humanities. None of the disciplines within the humanities have been specifically designated to receive money, save one: a $2.5 million endowed chair in ancient Greek philosophy.

"Philosophy and history are at the core of the cultural legacy that makes us, in part, who we are," said Biddy Martin, chancellor at Madison, who added that the grant will allow the university to do what is fundamentally most important: teaching students to think critically, communicate and engage in scholarship.

About $12 million of the combined Mellon-state grant will be used to fund a still-to-be-determined number of tenure-track faculty hires, who will overlap with and eventually replace retiring faculty members in the humanities. The positions will be identified and filled as needs are identified and as professors retire. Madison will use another portion of the money to fund approximately 65 two-year fellowships for graduate students in the humanities who are in the proposal and writing stages of their dissertations.

The Mellon grant is far from the largest gift ever made to the humanities or higher education -- nor is it even the biggest one made this week to a university (that distinction most likely belongs to the $50 million given to Yale's school of management by an alumnus). But it is unusual for state and private philanthropic money to join forces at this scale and for this purpose, said Don Randel, president of Mellon, which has long been known to support the humanities, including by making large grants at research universities. Randel said he approached Martin, who he knew had worked successfully with Gov. Jim Doyle in the past, with the idea of asking the state to match Mellon's money. Though the pitch succeeded, in what Randel termed an "experiment," he said he was unsure the idea could be replicated elsewhere.

The timing of the grant is unusual, as it takes place in an era of austerity and cutbacks to public universities. These institutions saw state support dip 6.7 percent in the past year alone, according to research unveiled last month by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. In such an environment, the humanities are often among the first targets, as with foreign languages at the State University of New York at Albany. These disciplines are not immune from budgetary pressures at private institutions, either, as demonstrated by the fate of the classics department at Centenary College in Louisiana.

The state of Wisconsin also has budget troubles of its own. The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute earlier this year forecast a $2.2 billion structural deficit in the state's budget over the next two years. Martin said it was her understanding that the state's match for the money came from money already earmarked for the universities in the state's system, though this could not be confirmed because Doyle's office did not respond to requests for comment. Doyle, a two-term Democrat who is leaving office next month, announced last year that he would not seek a third term.

But other factors aligned to make the grant possible. Two key figures in sealing the deal were Randel and Martin, both of whom are doctorally trained humanists -- Randel in musicology and Martin in German literature. In separate interviews with Inside Higher Ed, both advocated unequivocally for the importance of the humanities. Randel argued that the study of ancient Greek philosophy, for example, better prepares future scientists, engineers and business leaders for life and careers than do more career-driven majors -- an assertion challenged by the continuing popularity of the business major.

“I think it’s a terrible mistake when young people and their parents believe they must pursue an undergraduate education that leads directly to a job with a title out of school,” said Randel. "I have no hesitation and do not apologize for encouraging young people to study these things -- even in times of economic stress."

In prepared remarks delivered Monday, Martin likened an education without the humanities to living without the benefit of memory, or of imagination. "We are, by nature, cultural beings. We are learners. Our cultural environment shapes us," she said. "If we fail to understand how it shapes us, we forfeit our freedom and our responsibility to think about what we learn and who we are."


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