Quick Refresher: Here Are Mellon's Goals for Liberal Arts Education

Readers of IP's higher education vertical know we've devoted a lot of ink to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's "big vision" for the humanities. It's interesting stuff and, more to the point, this funder is hugely important given its large footprint in higher ed grantmaking. If you're hustling for one of its many campus grants, which routinely reach into the seven figures, you better have a fix on Mellon's plans for the humanities in the 21st century.

Which is why we hope you didn't miss an important piece penned earlier this year by Mellon VP Mariët Westermann titled "Six Things to Know about the Mellon Foundation's Goals for Liberal Arts Education." She wrote it back in February, and it explains a strategic plan completed in 2015. But since we suspect that most campus development officers don't spend a lot of time rifling around in Mellon's blog, we offer a handy summary here—along with some reflections on how the plan's goals have been playing out with recent grantmaking. 

Most of the goals are strategic in nature. For example, the first goal reads more like a mission statement: 

We are doubling down on our support for the humanities and the arts in higher education and cultural organizations in the US, often in collaboration with institutions in other parts of the world... These mental sets and honed practices help instill the democratic intuition that depends on our recognition of the humanity of others, no matter how different they may be from ourselves.

Goal No. 2 pledges a commitment "specifically for the residential liberal arts model, whether in research universities or in independent liberal arts colleges," while No. 3 aims to make "a concerted effort to look at the system of higher education as an interconnected whole, and at the place of liberal education within it."

On that point of an "interconnected whole," Westermann writes: 

To be able to discern the overlapping interests of universities, four-year institutions and community colleges, we have joined our formerly autonomous programs for liberal arts colleges and for research universities and humanities scholarship.  

Among other things, this means paying closer attention to the way graduate education "may need to be reformed if doctoral students are to be prepared for teaching the students of the future in all sectors of the higher education system." To see this goal in action, check out our take on Mellon's $400,000 grant to the University of California, Davis' Humanities Institute to launch a new program that will support humanities graduate students in leading community-based research projects as well as its ongoing support for "humanities labs."

Which brings us to goal No. 4, which also doubles as one of Mellon's primary directives in the curatorial space:

Our integrated approach to the system of higher education is helping us think through new, expanded pathways for diversifying the faculty of universities and colleges so that they can become more representative of our ever more diverse nation and student population.

Goal No. 5, meanwhile, seems directed at previous and existing grant recipients who, after seeing major foundations like Ford pivot toward issues like income inequality, may need some assurance and reinforcement. "Much in our support for liberal arts education will not veer significantly from our past focus on the sector," Westermann straightforwardly states. "We will continue to emphasize faculty development and curricular and pedagogic innovation in areas identified as priorities by presidents and provosts, including digital humanities and campus diversity."


Last but not least, Mellon will continue to foster inter-institutional collaboration. "Collaborations among research universities, liberal arts colleges, and other cultural and educational institutions in their communities are a high priority for us," Westermann said.

All in all, Westermann didn't throw any major curveballs. Each goal maps to various grants we've seen over the past 12 to 24 months. That said, Westermann's piece also includes some important context that we decided to omit for the sake of brevity. And so we encourage you to read the whole thing here.