Behind a Big Campus Humanities Gift: A Belief in the Power of Interdisciplinary Work

With all of the money lavished by funders on STEM projects, it is noteworthy when someone gives big for a project related to the humanities or the social sciences. So we were cheered when a University of Chicago alumnus did just that.

Why? Because we tend to agree with columnist and CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, who argues in his latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, that a broad-based approach to higher educationone that exposes students to studies in both the liberal arts and the scienceshas set the U.S. apart from other nations in a good way, making us stronger. 

A $10 million gift from Steven Stevanovich, who completed both his undergraduate and MBA degrees at the University of Chicago, will help his alma mater establish an interdisciplinary center dedicated to the study of knowledge, known within the field of philosophy as epistemology. The new Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge will provide a means by which scholars from different disciplines can examine the social, historical, and intellectual circumstances from which different types of knowledge arise, as well as how this knowledge has shaped the modern world.

For Stevanovich, establishing this new institute is an extension of his intellectual interests, shaped during his time as a student at Chicago during the 1980s. Stevanovich, who studied under the late Karl Weintraub, the renowned historian whose courses were among the university’s most popular, called intellectual history a touchstone of his education at U. of Chicago and hopes the new center will be a valuable resource for scholars in the social sciences and humanities.

This is not Stevanovich’s first gift to the university. A 2006 gift of $7 million led to the renaming of what is now known as the Stevanovich Center for Financial Mathematics. That gift was quite interesting in its own way, bolstering what was then described as the "only research center in the nation, if not the world, devoted to financial mathematics."

The effort Stevanovich is backing this time is also being described as totally unique. “There is no institute like the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge currently in existence at any university,” said Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, a professor who'll be its initial faculty director.

Stevanovich is founder of an asset management firm and is a University of Chicago trustee. One lesson of this gift is that successful finance guys can have surprisingly broad interests. Sure, plenty such alums just write checks for business schools or scholarships. And others step forward to bankroll medical research that they've become invested in for personal reasons.

But we've also seen quite a few who are deeply intrigued by the arts and humanities. Perhaps most notably, the hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner has given heavily in this area. 

One other thing: Any donor committed to a university these days has to know that the humanities need shoring up, and we'll be interested to see whether this area draws more money as concerns rise that too much emphasis is being placed on STEM.