Higher Learning

For the Higher Learning program (formerly Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities), 2020 was a year of challenge, opportunity, and revision.  To align with the Foundation’s refined mission, the redesignated program clarified its priorities while responding nimbly to the unprecedented and rapidly evolving crisis conditions of a global pandemic.

Senior Program Officers Armando Bengochea and Dianne Harris led Higher Learning (HL) until October 1, when they were joined by newly appointed Program Director Phillip Brian Harper.  By then, the global community had been in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly seven months, and much of the program’s grantmaking had addressed the urgent needs within the higher education sector.  At the same time, HL shifted its overall grantmaking strategy to reflect the Foundation’s sharpened focus on social justice.  Higher Learning is now explicitly dedicated to creating equitable broader access to humanities higher learning opportunities; supporting undergraduate and graduate humanities education that builds on and centers more complete and accurate narratives; elevating the ideas and knowledge that help inspire and illuminate our shared human experience; and accelerating the demographic transformation of the academy—including the faculty and institutional leaders—to better reflect the US population.

The program’s COVID-response efforts aligned closely with its commitment to creating equitable broad access to humanities educational opportunities.  Emergency grants were made to students at sixteen Historically Black Colleges and Universities, across all City University of New York campuses, and, through a grant to the American Indian College Fund, students at Tribal Colleges and Universities.  Those who received funding in the spring were able to reenroll in the fall, ensuring their own academic progress as well as helping to secure the financial stability of their respective institutions.  Significant emergency funding was also directed to Mellon-supported programs for incarcerated students—a population particularly vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus.  

Higher Learning’s objective of broadening access to higher education was advanced significantly by the program’s non-COVID grantmaking as well.  To ease the transfer pathway from community colleges to universities, HL renewed funding for its Community College-University Partnerships initiative.  A grant to Gallaudet University will help the institution implement visually centered and American Sign Language-English bilingual learning models that are more culturally responsive to the hearing-impaired and deaf learners who comprise most of the university’s student population.  In July, the program issued an open call for innovative proposals on the Future of Higher Learning in Prison, ultimately awarding grants to seventeen organizations that are implementing visionary, humanities-centered educational practices for incarcerated students with particular emphasis on lessons stemming from the COVID crisis and on the prospects for combating anti-Black racism within the nation’s law-enforcement system.  The work of these grantees amplifies and expands the Foundation’s robust and ongoing support of programs that provide college- and university-level instruction in US prisons.

small wooden houseWashington University in St. Louis Prison Education Project students. Photo: Washington University.

Support for a new social justice institute and related major at Tougaloo College and for a new program in African American and African Diasporic cultures at Xavier University of Louisiana will help foster a deeper academic engagement with social justice concerns.  Those projects contribute to the elevation of ideas and knowledge, as do several other initiatives, including the Leading Edge Fellowships sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, through which recent humanities PhDs are granted twelve-month placements in social justice nonprofits or government organizations and thus demonstrate the value of advanced humanities training in those contexts; and the International Dissertation Research Fellowships awarded by the Social Science Research Council, which enable select US graduate students to conduct rigorous, culturally nuanced, and site-specific dissertation research abroad.

In the interest of promoting more accurate narratives within humanities pedagogy, HL supported the recovery and publicization of marginalized peoples’ suppressed place-based histories through initiatives undertaken at three different universities.  The University of Virginia will draw on the highly racialized cultural landscape it occupies and the unique special collections and assets it holds to generate a new curricular program through which undergraduates will study the university’s past and engage with its present to develop the expertise required for the creation of a more equitable future.  Through final Architecture and Urban Humanities grants to the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at Berkeley, each of these institutions will recruit undergraduates to collaborate with community organizations to produce oral histories and “thick maps” to contextualize the multilayered stories of marginalized populations in the university’s own environs.

Many of the projects that HL supported in 2020 involved intensive engagement by colleges and universities with their local communities, and such activity promises to constitute a significant area of focus for the program throughout the foreseeable future.  These initiatives, including collaboration between local correctional facilities and narrative-medicine associations (in the case of Lewis & Clark College’s Healing Social Suffering Through Narrative project) and grassroots immigrants’ rights groups working with environmentalist racial-justice organizations (in Skidmore College’s Community Collaborative Documentary Projects), comprise genuine partnerships in which the academic institutions and the community organizations are equal co-creators of knowledge—an arrangement that the HL program sees as crucial to their viability.  

Notably, such partnerships were a hallmark of the successful proposals in the Just Futures Initiative, a limited-submission competition through which sixteen college- and university-based teams were selected to implement large-scale humanities-centered projects designed to further racial justice and social equality in bold and imaginative ways.  Higher Learning will issue additional calls for proposals that align with its grantmaking strategies in the coming years, and in the meantime, it has refined its proposal invitations for its longstanding Sawyer Seminars and New Directions Fellowships so that those competitions, too, reflect its newly articulated funding priorities.

By 2020, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program—Higher Learning’s flagship initiative to diversify the professoriate—had seen nearly 1,000 students through completion of the PhD, with hundreds of fellows in tenured, tenure-track, post-doctoral, and other teaching and research positions throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.  With the adoption of its new strategic framework, HL has rededicated itself to ensuring that the US professoriate and academic leadership represent as fully as possible the broad constituencies they serve—both in social-demographic and, where applicable, academic-disciplinary terms.  Higher Learning remains committed to increasing the number of students of color who pursue humanities doctoral work and subsequently join faculty ranks, the number of men of color and women of all races among top-level academic leadership, and the number of humanities scholars serving as provosts and presidents at the nation’s research universities.  To this end, the program in 2020 funded postdoctoral fellow-to-faculty hiring programs in key academic areas at the University of Virginia and The New School; continued to underwrite the Mellon Emerging Faculty Leaders Award, administered by the nonprofit Institute for Citizens & Scholars, which supports advanced assistant professors who have demonstrated leadership in fostering diverse and inclusive campus communities; and subsidized leadership-development initiatives undertaken by Swarthmore College and Case Western Reserve University.

Because a diversified faculty is by definition one that is deeply involved in community-engaged scholarship and in other “non-traditional” forms of knowledge production and circulation, Higher Learning will work vigorously in the coming years to ensure that this work is recognized and valued in the hiring, tenuring, and promotion of humanities faculty members at higher education institutions of all types across the United States.


Top photo:  Winston Salem State University

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