Mellon's CPR for Humanities at Small Colleges

In a recent post we talked about a self-perpetuating cycle plaguing liberal arts departments at the university level and it goes like this: less and less students opt for liberal arts degrees, choosing instead more seemingly lucrative career paths. Universities react accordingly and dial back liberal arts funding, resulting in less humanities professors. And less humanities teaching positions means less career opportunities for liberal arts students. Which bring us full circle—less students opting for liberal arts degrees.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is acutely aware of this problem, as evidenced by their recent $565,000 grant to Ripon College, a small liberal arts school in Ripon, Wisconsin. The funding will support four new faculty appointments in the humanities and incorporate non-Western subject matter into the curriculum across the academic years 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The gift addresses the aforementioned self-perpetuating cycle through the lens of "supply and demand." Because after all, there can't be a "supply" of qualified liberal arts students if the "demand" for professors—real, actual teaching positions—isn't there. Further compounding this problem is the fact that even when there is demand, the supply is often excessively high.

For example—and we admit, this is anecdotal evidence only—when I attended a public liberal arts university there was an opening for a philosophy position. The university subsequently received 400 applications—a good 80 percent of which were PhDs, many from Ivy League schools—for this single position in our sleepy mountain town in the mid-Atlantic. And this was in 1999. In the wake of the Great Recession, this phenomenon is even more stark and far-reaching. So, the foundation's gift to Ripon stimulates demand by creating four "meaningful opportunities for new hires and senior faculty to pursue their research and teaching."

As previously noted, this grant perfectly aligns with one of the Mellon Foundation's primary missions: funding liberal arts programs across the country. In fact, the foundation's Liberal Arts College Program has funded more than 125 liberal arts colleges since its inception. The program has four sub-categories that reflect the foundation's priorities in this area: Faculty Career Enhancement, Libraries and Information Technology, Curricular Development and Educational Effectiveness, and Presidential Support. Universities, however, should wait before making a proverbial cold call to the foundation. The program issues grants after formally inviting colleges to engage in "preliminary exchanges."