What's Behind Mellon's Massive Dance-Related Give to Reed College?

At the time of this writing, the National Football League is deciding whether to move a franchise or two to Los Angeles. The discussion underscores the bizarre reality that the NFL doesn't have a footprint in the country's second-largest media outlet. Weird, right?

This occurred to me when coming across news out of the Pacific Northwest, where I discovered that, as of March 2015, no colleges in the Portland area offer a dance major.

Now, I admit perhaps the analogy could be more compelling, but hopefully you get the point. Liberal arts institutions find themselves in a perilous position, but how is it possible that kids in PortlandPortland, of all places!can't major in dance?

Before you plunge into an existential vortex, fear not. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (as always, it seems) will right this wrong. The philanthropy world's fairy godfather of liberal arts education recently awarded Reed College an $800,000 grant to strengthen its dance program with more classes, more workshops, artists in residence, and the addition of a part-time professor.

The dance department will also gain additional faculty in the fall of 2015, effectively bringing the number of members to 2.5, which will substantively increase course offerings and set the stage for a dance major. If approved, Reed would be the only college in Portland to offer a dance major.

Two things jump out at us here. First, as we all know, foundations respond to success. This lesson is particularly pervasive in the nonprofit arts sector. Work hard, create compelling programming, run a tight financial ship, and foundations will reward you — so the logic goes. Yet this logic isn't as prevalent in the university arts space. And that's because, more often than not, foundations have to take the lead in creating demand. The formula is like this: A university lacks some important liberal arts thing and presto! The foundation provides it.

Mellon's gift to Reed strays from this script. The school's press release notes state, "Interest in dance among Reed students is as strong as ever. In spring 2014, more than 150 Reed students (more than 10 percent) enrolled in dance courses." Mellon saw this and said, "Hey, there's no need to create demand here. Let's take it to the next level instead."

Secondly, the gift underscores Mellon's balanced approach toward funding its vision for a 21st-century liberal arts education. On one hand, you have this gift, a classic case of pure, good old-fashioned dance funding. From my vantage point, there doesn't seem to be any post-college "career-oriented" strings or considerations attached. It's simply rooted in a passion for dance. Will it make kids rich after they graduate? Who cares?

Yet Mellon understands that liberal arts majors will be crippled with student debt and will need to find a job, which is why they're also funding projects that equip them with marketable "real-world digital skills." For an example of the latter, you don't have to look very far. Mellon recently awarded an $800,000 grant aimed at "transforming undergraduate student research in the digital age."

The lucky recipient? Why, that would be Reed College, of course.