May 15, 2006

At national meeting, Skorton calls for university presidents to use 'bully pulpit' in advancing arts and humanities

"Reinvigorating the Humanities" was the title of a national colloquium held in Philadelphia May 12, but that was something of a misnomer. As evidenced by presenters who ranged from university presidents to congressmen, the humanities have plenty of vigor. What is needed, all seemed to agree, is a re-emergence of the humanities and humanistic thought as a leading force on campuses and in American society.

The colloquium was the first joint meeting of humanists represented by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and university leaders in the Association of American Universities (AAU). It was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the ACLS, which represents 68 national scholarly organizations.

Cornell was represented at the meeting by Provost Biddy Martin, who serves on the ACLS/AAU Humanities Steering Committee; by Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, who serves as campus liaison to the committee; and by Jonathan Culler, the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature and a member of the ACLS board of directors.

"Engaging the AAU, with university presidents and provosts, to think about the humanities and their importance along with the scholarly societies gives a great deal more heft to national campaigns and is likely to make universities themselves devote more attention to the humanities, especially when university leaders who are not themselves humanists call for this result," said Culler.

"The symposium turned out to mark an important moment in the life of universities and in the world more generally, a moment when the importance of imagination, intellectual life and culture could not be more apparent," Martin said. "All the panelists spoke about the arts and humanities with a sense of urgency that enlivened the proceedings. Cornell's presence in Philadelphia reflected the strength of our commitment to promote the arts and humanities here at home."

Cornell President-elect David J. Skorton, who described himself within academia as wearing "the hats of physician and scientist," gave a strong call for university presidents to use "the bully pulpit" and their "political capital" on behalf of the humanities.

"I believe it is paramount that I advocate strongly for the arts and humanities and that all university presidents do so as well," Skorton said in remarks at a session on Presidential and Scholarly Leadership in the Humanities. "The humanities are central to the mission of a research university and must be given high priority in planning and budgeting. Presidents and chancellors need to make sure that message is communicated widely and acted upon."

Skorton recounted initiatives he launched under his leadership as president of the University of Iowa, including the Year of the Arts and Humanities in 2004-05.

"Ultimately, the fate of the arts and humanities on our campuses is in the control of the president. There is no excuse not to fund arts and humanities initiatives, and every reason to do so," Skorton declared.

Supporting the humanities takes "creativity and determination," Skorton said, but it can be done. "Dollars should be aggressively reallocated toward the arts and humanities," he said. "Universities need to set a high priority on pursuing philanthropy. ... In the higher education world today, dollars do indeed speak loudly. But the costs in the creative and humanistic realms are inherently smaller, so strong leadership must amplify their importance in and centrality to the higher education mission."

Skorton's message underscored the themes of other speakers.

The three most important issues facing the humanities today are funding, communication and structure, said Edward M. Hundert, president of Case Western Reserve University and chair of the Humanities Steering Committee, of which Skorton is a member. He urged that the colloquium serve to start a new phase of action.

"Fundamentally the obstacle we have to fight against" is the "profoundly, deeply anti-intellectual streak" in American society, said Don M. Randel, president of the University of Chicago (and a former Cornell provost), in a panel on Humanistic Learning and Citizenship in a Global Society. "Its most virulent forms are found in sacred and secular fundamentalism" that make dialogue impossible, he said.

In addition, he noted, "We have to overcome the 19th-century German university model that created that list of disciplines embodied in our universities." He added, "We need to liberate ourselves from historical constructs" that impede the free range of new thought.

Speaking on the panel with Randel was novelist Thomas Mallon, deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who called for much more public engagement and for humanists to avoid academic jargon in presenting ideas. Randel responded by defending humanists' right to complexity.

"Don Randel's championing of the humanities was particularly inspiring since he treats poetry and literary language generally as something that should live in one's mind and inform one's thought," Culler said.

U.S. Reps. James Leach (R-Iowa) and David Price (D-N.C.), who co-chair the House Humanities Caucus, each spoke passionately about engaging the public. A president of a divided country launching a pre-emptive war would do well to read Greek tragedy, Leach said. In the 20th century, he noted, the world was changed by a poet in Czechoslovakia, a labor leader in Poland and a Pope armed with faith. "In America today there has never been greater leadership in every field, including academia, except politics," Leach said. He urged humanists to "participate in the process and maybe change it," especially by using the popular press to present knowledgeable perspectives on issues.

"We really do need the insights and involvement of a revitalized humanities community," Price said. He said the humanities caucus has been effective in holding the line on federal funding despite an "ideological band" that is trying to reduce it.

During the question-and-answer period, a representative of the Latin American Scholars Association described the difficulties scholars from Cuba and Central and South America had in obtaining visas to attend the group's annual meeting in Puerto Rico this year. She said because of that, the group was considering moving next year's meeting out of the United States, from Boston to Montreal, and asked what could be done about the politicization of scholars' visas.

Leach pledged to work through the Humanities Caucus to help resolve visa difficulties. He urged attendees to contact members of the caucus about problems http://www.nhalliance.org/had/2005/sourcebook/visits/05humcaucus.pdf and said they would follow up with letters to the U.S. State Department.

Mostafavi said the message delivered by Leach and Price was "inspiring."

"What we have been trying to do at Cornell is not to lose the link between the humanities and the political sphere," he said. "This is something that will matter a lot to students and faculty."

Linda Grace-Kobas is senior director of the Office of Humanities Communications.