Winning research support is tough for faculty members in all disciplines -- and makes or breaks careers, especially at research universities. For those in the sciences, competition from many federal agencies has grown more intense in recent years, but there are still billions given out annually and even relatively junior professors can hope to land grants of significant size.
For humanities professors -- who must do research and publish to earn tenure or promotion -- the sources of funds are far fewer and they don't have deep pockets. Stories abound of humanities professors, even at top universities, who end up paying for many of their own expenses on research trips or who must compete with departmental colleagues for relatively small pots of money to support research.
In a move that is attracting praise, Stanford University announced this month that it is starting a new program in which every faculty member in the humanities -- pre- or post-tenure -- will receive $5,000 a year to spend on any research-related need. Faculty members will be able to use the funds for travel to scholarly conferences or archives, to hire research assistants for bibliographic work, or for any related reason. Visiting professors and adjuncts will not be eligible, but Stanford has relatively few people in such positions. (Stanford will continue to have various funds for research support to which faculty members can apply, so $5,000 is the new floor, not a ceiling.)
To those receiving large biomedical research grants, $5,000 might seem like small change. But data from Stanford show how different the picture is for humanities scholars. At Stanford -- one of the most prestigious and wealthiest universities in the world -- most humanities faculty members have not received more than $1,000 a year in research support from the university, and most of that had to be applied for. Stanford's previous policy -- in which humanities faculty members could apply for grants from various research support funds -- appears to be typical of most research universities. One institution that does give automatic grants to faculty members in the humanities is Columbia University, but its grants are smaller: $1,750 (with junior faculty members getting $2,000).
Stanford humanities faculty members said that they were thrilled with the new policy, but that they had not been pushing for it, and it came at the initiative of the administration. In announcing the grants, President John Hennessy cited the difficulty of humanities professors getting support at a time that "the challenges of the world will make humanities as important, if not more important, than they've ever been."
Stephanie Kalfayan, vice provost for academic affairs, said that a review by officials at Stanford confirmed that for humanities faculty members "money is just not available in the same way" as it is for those in other disciplines.
Stanford's new policy comes at a time that the Modern Language Association has issued a call for reform of the tenure and promotion process for professors in English and foreign languages. In a report,  the MLA said that universities -- which have upped expectations for research and publishing -- have rarely matched those expectations with support for research.
Pauline Yu, president of the American Council on Learned Societies, said the Stanford program struck her as "unusual" and much needed. She said that top universities are providing some funds as part of packages for new recruits, but generally nothing beyond that is automatic.
"The costs of doing research in the humanities have always been there -- buying books and materials, travel to archives, etc. -- and are rarely systematically covered by universities,' Yu said. "Not only have they risen substantially in recent years, but new forms of digital and collaborative research are even more expensive."
Yu said that she "would imagine that even $5000 per professor will not begin to cover the costs of such projects," but she added that "this is a great example for Stanford to set."