Humanities include the study of literature, language, writing, philosophy and religion. Funding for and enrollment in humanities programs are on the decline. Educators and commentators left and right are lamenting the "humanities crisis" and the increasing specialization of university education. That is what's motivating a lot of donors — the fear that humanities programs they found so valuable when they were students won't survive without some outside help.

Giving to humanities programs certainly doesn't reach the same level as that to business schools or athletics, but there have been a number of sizable donations over the past few years and a good number of smaller donations. 

Who’s Giving?

Individual gifts to humanities programs are smaller and fewer than those in many other areas in higher education we've covered. The vast majority of gifts came from alumni, and most of these donors graduated with degrees in an area of the humanities. Of course, most humanities-focused students do not end up pursuing big-money careers in fields like finance or engineering, so fundraisers don't have the same wealthy alumni base to draw from that a business school might. 

With that said, there have been a few multi-million dollar gifts to humanities programs over the past few years. Many of these donors are alumni and most have wealth from the business world. They often give to humanities programs because they credit a liberal arts education for their business success. 

In early 2016, Yale University received a $50 million anonymous donation to upgrade its Hall of Graduate Studies and make it a campus hub for the humanities. Some $30 million of the funds will used for the rehabilitation of the circa-1930s building. 

Joseph and Morton Mandel via their Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation recently gave $10 million to Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio to create and endow the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Humanities Center, which will be a home for lectures, seminars and events. The brothers founded the Premier Industrial Corporation in 1940.  

A large recent gift came from Helen Zell, the wife of billionaire investor Sam Zell. Through her family's foundation, Helen gave the University of Michigan's creative writing program $50 million in August of 2013. This is by far the largest gift received by a humanities program over the past few years and is the largest single gift ever to Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Both Helen and Sam Zell attended Michigan, where Helen majored in English. The gift will permanently fund scholarships and stipends for 22 Master of Fine Arts creative writing students. Helen Zell has a long history of giving to Michigan's English department, including the creation of the Zell Vising Writers Series. In recognition of her $50 million gift, the creative writing program will be named the Helen Zell Writer's Program.

Milton and Laurie Boniuk are in second place, with their $28.5 million gift to Rice University to establish the Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance. Milton is an opthamologist, long time faculty member at the Baylor College of Medicine, and a prominent Houston philanthropist. The Boniuk institute will conduct interdisciplinary research aimed at better understanding and promoting religious tolerance. Drawing mainly on faculty and resources from Rice's religious studies department, the Institute will also consist of faculty from other humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Commenting on the gift, the president of Rice described today's world as one of growing religious misunderstanding and tension. With their gift, the Boniuks hope to create an academic center for research devoted to easing religious conflict and increasing inter-faith understanding. 

Back in 2011, Boston University alumnus Rajen Kilachand gave a record breaking gift of $25 million to BU's Honors College, with its mission "to offer a challenging liberal arts education grounded in exploration, discovery, and the real-world application of knowledge. The university renamed the college in Kilachand's honor. 

As chair and president of the Dodsal group, Kilachand manages billions of dollars of global assets, from Pizza Hut franchises to mining operations in Tanzania. He has a personal net worth of $900 million. He's also a major philanthropist, giving tens of millions of dollars to education and global medical aid. Born in India, Kilachand attended Boston University and graduated from BU's business school in 1974. He now serves on BU's board.

So why did this global business magnate decide to give back to a humanities-centric liberal arts school? For the same reason many wealthy donors chose to support the humanities: fears about declining interest and financial support for the humanities. Kilachand sees declining interest in the humanities and the reluctance of students to pursue a liberal arts education as a major problem for future generations. "For people to be future leaders, you need a focused approach to humanities, the fine arts, so that you have a well-rounded personality," he said. Kilachand went on to note that education has become too specialized, and as a global businessman he's had to at times be part engineer, part political scientist, and part anthropologist to succeed. 

Who’s Getting?

Universities are by far the biggest recipients of major gifts toward the humanities.

Major Universities

Unlike other areas we've covered — such as business and public policy schools — it's not just elite universities receiving big gifts. Some smaller, lesser known, and less prestigious universities have also received large donations to support the humanities. 

The largest gifts of the past few years did indeed go to well-known schools. Yale University, Rice University in Texas, Boston University, and the University of Michigan were the only schools whose humanity programs received gifts of over $25 million. You can read more about these major gifts and the donors attached to them above. 

Other large schools that received big gifts include Indiana University, Penn State, UCLA, and Loyola.

Some lesser known universities that received $1 million-plus gifts to support the humanities include Saginaw State University in Michigan, Oklahoma Christian University, Wake Forest in Illinois, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. 


Smaller colleges are often thought of as important hubs for humanities and the liberal arts. There is a large cohort of elite liberal arts colleges — such as Oberlin, Reed, Grinell, Hampshire, Sarah Lawrence, and Swarthmore — that pride themselves on producing well rounded liberal arts students. But these schools don't seem to rely on a lot of large individual gifts, or at least haven't received many in the past few years. It's likely most of these smaller schools simply don't have an alumni base of hedge fund billionaires, but instead rely on a lot of smaller donations from committed alumni. 

Georgetown University recently received a $4 million gift from alumnus J. Patrick Lannan and the Lannan Foundation to endow the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. Joseph and Morton Mandel's $10 million gift to Cuyahoga Community College stands out. The gift is the largest in the community college's history. The Mandel brothers' foundation has steadily supported the community college over the past decade and has been a long-term partner through the Mandel Leadership Development Program for faculty and staff.

What are the Gifts For?

Individual gifts to humanities programs went to support a range of different areas. The largest gifts went either toward the creation of new humanities programs, such as the Boniuk's $28.5 million for the Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, or toward the longterm support of existing programs, such as Helen Zell's historic $50 million gift to Michigan's creative writing program and Rajen Kilachand's $25 million to support BU's Honors College. Maxine Lynn, a graduate of the University of Virginia, also chose to support an existing program when she donated $3 million to UVA's Women's Center. 

The rest of the major gifts went toward either the creation of smaller programs within existing humanities programs, or the endowment of professorships.

Program Creation

  • $1 million from Janet M. Botz to create the Botz Liberal Arts Fellowship Program at Saginaw Valley State University. This is the University's largest gift from an alumna, and came as part of a $25 million fundraising campaign at SVSU.
  • $1 million from Virginia and John Chapel to establish a liberal arts internship program for undergraduates at Virginia's alma mater, Penn State University.
  • $5 million from Jude Laspa in honor of Eileen Laspa to establish the Laspa Center for Leadership at Scripps College. Both Jude and Eileen are alumni of The Claremont Colleges, a consortium of schools that includes Scripps, and the center will be devoted to studying and fostering women in leadership positions.

Endowments for Professorships

  • $2.5 million from Maria Stata to create the Maria Stata Professorship in Classical Greek Studies at Boston University, her alma mater. 
  • $1.7 million from Paula and Benton Baugh to endow the Benton and Paula Baugh Chair of Gospel Preaching at Oklahoma Christian University, Benton's alma mater. 
  • $1.25 million from Nirmal Mattoo to create the Chair in Classical Indic Humanities at SUNY at Stony Brook.

How the Gifts Happen

Larger gifts typically involve a much longer back-and-forth process between donor and school. This is the case with the three largest individual gifts to humanities programs from the past few years.

Helen Zell, whose record-breaking $50 million gift to Michigan's creative writing program is the largest we reviewed, has a history of involvement with Michigan's English department. She continues to fund the ongoing Zell Visiting Writers Series, which brings prominent fiction writers and poets to read their work on Michigan's campus — readings Helen Zell often attends herself. 

Milton and Laurie Boniuk's $28.5 million gift to Rice University can likely be credited to the school's location. Though neither Milton nor Laurie are alumni of Rice, they have a history of giving to causes and institutions in the Houston area. The school's location and strong humanities faculty likely motivated the Boniuks to set up the Boniuk Institute at Rice.

The $25 million gift by Rajen Kilachand, a Boston University alumnus and board member, was likely closely negotiated with the administration at BU.

Many of the smaller donations, such as Botz's $1 million to Saginaw Valley State University and the Chapels' gift to Penn State University, were surprise announcements and part of larger fundraising drives at these universities.  

What Strings are Attached?

Besides Kilachand's $25 million gift to BU, which will go into the Honors College's general fund, all of the donations had pretty specific purposes. The endowed of chairs were all centered around specific subfields within the humanities. 

Naming seems to be a major component of gifts to humanities programs. Whether the gift is going toward the creation of an institute or simply the endowment of a professorial chair, these gifts bought donors naming rights. 

Insights and Tips

There are alumni willing to cut big checks to humanities programs, even if it's not in a subject they studied much as a student, which is a good thing for humanities programs that have experienced funding cuts--and many have. Reaching out to alumni is certainly the first group to tap, but non-alumni give to, especially when they have a history of giving exclusively to one area, such as the Boniuks in Houston or Mary Catherine Bunting in Chicago, where she focuses her philanthropic efforts, which include a $1.75 million donation to Loyola University.  

If humanities programs can make it known that they're struggling, and reach out to those alumni in lucrative fields who still deeply value a liberal arts education, the gifts will keep coming.