Six Things to Know about the Mellon Foundation's Goals for Liberal Arts Education

Centre College, Danville, Kentucky. Courtesy of Centre College. westermann_r.jpgMariët Westermann

About a year ago, the Mellon Foundation completed a strategic plan launched by the Foundation’s President, Earl Lewis. Mariët Westermann, Vice President of the Foundation, highlights six goals and interests for the Mellon program in Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities as they relate to liberal arts education. 

  1. 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.  We decided to do so not only because government and other funding for these disciplines has declined, but because the humanities and arts foster attitudes and skills that help us bear witness to and interpret human experience.  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.
  2. Our commitment to the humanities and arts will continue to be translated into support for liberal arts education, and specifically for the residential liberal arts model, whether in research universities or in independent liberal arts colleges.
  3. We are making a concerted effort to look at the system of higher education as an interconnected whole, and at the place of liberal education within it.  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.  This merger makes it easier for us to see, promote, and support relevant connections across institutional types.  We are paying closer attention, for example, 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.  We are also in conversation with universities and community colleges about ways in which the transfer pathway from two-year institutions to four-year liberal arts colleges may be strengthened, particularly in the humanities.
  4. 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.  Faculty diversity is a longstanding concern for the Foundation, going back three decades.  Along with the country, Mellon has made headway; along with the country, we have a lot of unfinished business.  In this area, too, our strategic plan calls for a redoubling of our efforts in diversifying the tenure-track professoriate and supporting historically underrepresented candidates in their quest for tenure.
  5. Much in our support for liberal arts education will not veer significantly from our past focus on the sector.  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.  Our joint interests in strengthening liberal arts education and in ensuring that it becomes a model of inclusive excellence led to the conclusion that we should broaden the range of liberal arts colleges we support.  Over the past year, Senior Program Officer Gene Tobin and his team have developed an initiative to offer modest support to small liberal arts colleges that are not well-endowed, but that are making determined efforts to serve talented students of widely varying backgrounds by any measure of diversity. Although the new liberal arts college initiative will reach only a limited set of colleges, and although grant amounts are on the level of the potentially catalytic rather than the transformative, we hope that the initiative will offer us lessons that could be applied at different scales through consortia.
  6. The Mellon Foundation 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.  Collaboration is not a goal in its own right, but a modality of grantmaking and interaction that facilitates our work on overarching objectives, such as strengthening the future of liberal arts education, or the development of practices that transform numerical diversity into genuinely inclusive campus environments.  For the Foundation, collaboration of two or more partners that benefit from the hard work of going at a problem together is often preferable to the single shot infusion in an institution. The most obvious reasons are that our dollars may go further and reach more institutions, and that shared resources may help them streamline administrative structures or control cost.  These aims are not easily realized even though some of the regional associations of colleges are seeing success around the development of shared services.  

    But financial efficiencies are not the main reason for the Mellon Foundation to encourage collaboration.  The real point is the lesson of the lab: together, diverse institutions and complementary talents are more likely to come up with creative solutions to shared problems and grand challenge questions and they will often do so more quickly.  All sorts of research projects have proved this, from the creation of large critical editions to the production of an authoritative study of mass incarceration to the completion of the human genome project—ten years early. 

    Although the benefits of collaborative academic projects are real, they are also challenging as they stand and fall by the ability of faculties in different institutions to see eye to eye on shared research agendas, pedagogic priorities, and even the ethos of what it means to be in the academy.  Traveling distance, home campus priorities, or just the busyness of life get in the way.  The best of these collaborations, however, offer us insight into the hard work of overcoming incompatibilities between institutional systems for the sake of a greater, perhaps replicable good.

What could these six priorities for the liberal arts look like in a concrete project? The Creative Connections Consortium (C3), launched in 2012 with Mellon support, is a creative partnership between liberal arts colleges and research universities that offers benefits to both while addressing the need to make America’s campuses truly diverse and inclusive.  Starting out as a learning alliance between Bates College, Connecticut College, Middlebury College, Williams College, the University of California at Berkeley, and Columbia University, C3 invites recent PhDs from research universities to spend two years teaching and doing research on liberal arts college campuses.  While these postdocs are enmeshed in the riches of intellectual and community life at a liberal arts college, they also serve as role models for students from a wide range of backgrounds and encourage them to consider a scholarly career.  Those undergraduates are eligible for paid undergraduate research mentorships with faculty in the universities.  Through these triangulated connections, university faculty are becoming more attuned to the liberal arts college as an important potential career destination for their advisees.  C3 is the brainchild of LADO, a consortium of Liberal Arts Diversity Officers from two dozen colleges, and the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia University.  The initiative is intentionally expandable, and recently had the Universities of Chicago and Michigan join.

Although the early results are promising, it is too early to tell how robust C3’s eventual outcomes will be.  At the very least, it has already focused universities and colleges on the work they can do together to address persistent challenges for higher education and issues of equity in the country.  In the process, it is modeling a mode of collaborative work that has chances of making meaningful change while preparing the next generation of teacher-scholars.