Can Humanities Grants to Universities Be a Bridge to Something Bigger?

Photo:   Delpixel /shutterstock

Photo:  Delpixel/shutterstock

The humanities are on a roll.

Perhaps it's some perverse byproduct of the Trump effect, but recent developments suggest that funders increasingly view the humanities as something that's not simply relegated to the hallowed halls of academia, but a concept that can benefit individual communities, job seekers and society as a whole.

This isn't news to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Sure, much of its work in the humanities space aims to redefine the field across university campuses. That type of work, as we'll soon see, continues. But Mellon has always intended for its work to reach the larger population.

Take news out of Maine. "At a time of deep division in the country," said Kate McCormick of the Morning Sentinel, "some institutions are turning to the arts and humanities to bring people together in conversation about the fundamental qualities—and questions—that make us human."

That's the underlying premise behind the University of Maine at Farmington's digital commons project comprising programming and discussion around 24 works of art, literature, film, video games or other forms of creation identified by Mainers as "particularly meaningful at this moment in history." The project received a $500,000 grant from Mellon.

Now, let me step back for a brief moment.

I recently spoke with VIA Art Fund President Bridgitt Evans about the specter of public funding cuts to the arts. She cited three challenges for organizations moving forward into an uncertain future.

First, the need to increase support for the arts at the "grassroots level." Second, the need for institutions to stay relevant without resorting to "continuous expansions" and "blockbuster exhibitions." And third, the need for more locally oriented projects and programs to "diversify away from a heavy concentration of thought leadership and philanthropic capital in just a few cities."

The University of Maine's digital commons project accomplishes all three goals. Commenting on the project, its director, English professor Kristin Case, said, “It’s bottom-up rather than top-down. It’s not a university dictating, it’s a community deciding together."

What's more, the project can be replicated elsewhere, an attribute that undoubtedly appealed to Mellon. "The creation of a statewide digital ‘commons’ of artistic, cinematic, historical, literary, and musical work has the potential to become a national model for public liberal arts colleges and state humanities councils who create, share, and disseminate knowledge in behalf of the common good," said Eugene Tobin, a senior program officer for Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities at the Mellon Foundation.

I admit I never thought I'd say this, but keep an eye on rural Maine. This Farmington gift comes on the heels of this piece, which reports that the Portland-based Libra Foundation expects to spend as much as $10 million to revitalize the Maine town of Monson through arts-based development. Some interesting stuff is happening up there.

Ultimately, Mellon's support for UM envisions universities not as walled-off compounds full of introverted Ph.D.s, or—to quote Evans again, "elites"—but as organizations that can connect with ordinary people around the arts, an aggregator collecting and transmitting cultural experiences from the community. 

In related news, around the same time, Mellon awarded a four-year, $1.5 million grant to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for an initiative, dubbed Humanities for the Public Good, designed to "integrate the humanities into UNC's broader curriculum and foster new humanities-related avenues of public engagement," particularly among diverse communities.

Which brings me to another big priority for Mellon: equipping liberal arts students with the skills to excel in the modern workforce. This month, it awarded Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania a $300,000 grant to support a proposed program called “Confronting Challenges with Confidence: Humanities for Our World Today.”

“Our students will hone the humanities skillset that many employers, when surveyed, have highlighted as essential,” said Kristi Kneas, the college’s dean for academic affairs and faculty development. “While integrating that humanistic perspective with technical expertise gained in other disciplines, they will better be able to address important, real-world questions."

This gift comes a few months after Mellon awarded $2.145 million in grants to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and the University of San Francisco for a new transfer program to help underserved and underrepresented students earn four-year degrees in the humanities. 

By this point, you may notice a common theme in Mellon's gifts to the University of Maine and Elizabethtown College. In each case, the humanities are a bridge to something bigger or deeper. In the former, it's a gateway to larger community discussions on place, creativity, and a grassroots appreciation of the humanities. In the latter, it paves the way toward meaningful post-graduation employment.

Does that mean Mellon isn't concerning itself with the more administrative machinations of the university humanities experience? Of course not.

A recent piece by Isaac Kaplan in Artsy claims "The Way We Judge Humanities Professors Is Broken—This Initiative Could Fix It." The initiative in question, HuMetricsHSS, is the brainchild of a team of academics and researchers. By this point, you can probably guess where it's getting some of its funding.

The initiative aims to fix a specific problem in academia. According to Kaplan, professors of the humanities are evaluated according to criteria generally developed for the hard sciences. Yet, these criteria don't ascribe meaningful value to published work.

Here's an example.

A professor publishes work. Currently, one of the metrics that most impacts an academic’s institutional standing is the number of citations the work receives, creating the false impression that "more citations" equals greater value. As Kaplan notes, an academic may simply publish an "extremely provocative" piece rather than one that is truly valuable.

And so HuMetricsHSS wants to develop a metrics framework from values. These values include equity, openness, collegiality, quality and community. While I won't go much further into the nuts and bolts of their approach, I would like to underscore two related points.

First, we see this challenge in the arts world as organizations attempt to measure engagement. It can be a subjective thing, and measurement for measurement's sake doesn't always convey the true scope and depth of an arts experience. The folks behind HuMetricsHSS are aware of this, which brings me to my second point.

Their task won't be easy. The current measurement system is deeply ingrained across academia, and change, as we know, is hard. And yet I'd argue that this is precisely why Mellon helped to fund the project in the first place. 

Step back and view these recent gifts from a higher altitude, and Mellon's larger, more holistic approach toward the humanities comes into focus. Whether using the humanities to engage communities or re-imagining how humanities professors are assessed, each seemingly stand-alone initiative fits into a larger and interconnected framework.

I even went so far as to give it a name last year: Mellon's "Humanities Vision Wheel." It didn't catch on.