Newest Cohort of Higher Learning Grants Opens New Directions

people at an outdoor table writing Students register to vote at East Carolina University in North Carolina. Courtesy The Andrew Goodman Foundation.

Higher Learning Program Director Phillip Brian Harper and Senior Program Officer Armando Bengochea offer their thoughts on new work that is uniquely positioned to meet some of the most pressing issues of the moment.

side by side headshot portraits of two peopleLeft: Phillip Brian Harper, Program Director. Right: Armando I. Bengochea, Senior Program Officer and Director of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program.

Mellon recently announced the 26 institutions selected to received funding as a part of a call for proposals focused on the potential for research and curricular activities to address broadly urgent social issues. Unprecedented in its openness relative to previous processes, the call was designed to reach a diverse set of institutions without a history of Mellon funding—an invaluable tool for social justice philanthropies, which the team anticipates making regular use of in the coming years. The Higher Learning team reflects on what was different about this call, and what it means for a changing higher education landscape. 

Can you reflect on the three topic areas—civic engagement and voting rights, race and racialization in the United States, and social justice and the literary imagination—emphasized in this most recent open call? Why do they feel important today? 
There is no denying that challenges to democratic engagement and the legacies of US racialization are among the most urgent and pressing issues of our current moment. In soliciting project ideas focused on these topics, we wanted to act on our conviction that any matter of great social import can be productively illuminated by work in the humanities—and in seeking literarily focused projects we wanted to assert our belief that such illumination can emerge from any humanities field, including those concerned with cultural interpretation and analysis. We felt that it was incumbent on us to insist on the rightful place of literary engagement within social justice-oriented humanities inquiry. 

Of the 26 colleges and universities that are part of this cohort, seven institutions have never received funding from Mellon. Why is that noteworthy? 
For the past two years, the Higher Learning program has been working hard to diversify its portfolio of grantees and to broaden the pool of institutions with which we engage. We see that broadening as a crucial component of the social justice mission that guides all of the Foundation’s work at present, and the fact that seven brand-new grantee institutions are receiving support through the open call is a sign that it is well underway. 

What are some grant projects you’re particularly excited about among the group selected? 
Given our interest in work focused on expressive culture, the grant to Northwestern University is especially noteworthy. It will support a project titled, “Race, Black Dance, and the Embodied Geographies of Freedom,” which is designed to show how modes of Black social dance have functioned to consolidate African American community and to further African American freedom in localities around the country. The Ohio State University’s “Native Americans and African Americans in and out of the Body Politic” promises to draw on primary source material from the 19th century to uncover previously unrecognized instances of social agency and political engagement among Black and Indigenous populations in the United States. And one of our first-time grantees, St. Catherine University located in St. Paul, Minnesota, will potentially implement significant changes across its core humanities curriculum by analyzing and critiquing the racial-political underpinnings of many traditional disciplines. 

The incorporation of storytelling components (i.e., translating research to broader audiences through stories and narratives) is a prominent component of several of the awarded projects. What’s the relationship between scholarship and storytelling? 
While all successful humanities scholarship entails persuasive argumentation, the most effective instances also tell engrossing stories that capture the imagination of students and the general public alike. To the extent that we want to ensure that crucial humanities knowledge reaches the broadest possible audience, we are interested in supporting projects that take seriously the narrative import of impactful humanities work while maintaining the rigorous criteria of evidence and argument that have long been the hallmark of substantive scholarship. 

What is different about funding in the higher education space now compared to 10 years ago? 
Speaking specifically for Mellon, we have become increasingly sensitive to the fact that the nation has roughly 4,000 institutions of higher education and that terrific humanities scholarship can be found across that entire cohort. If we truly want to sustain the humanities, we cannot focus our attention only on a group of 100 or so well-known colleges and universities, and we are therefore striving to recognize the depth of humanities work that takes place across a much broader array of institutions. By the same token, humanities scholars themselves are increasingly committed to a democratization of their practice, as evidenced by their intensified interest in co-creating knowledge in partnership with non-academic community members and organizations. Our commitment to supporting such partnerships itself distinguishes our grantmaking work in the current moment.