March 26, 2008

Race to keep up with humanities faculty hiring gets intellectual boost from Mellon Foundation grant

A changing of the guard is taking place in the professoriate nationwide. The hiring boom of the late 1960s is producing a wave of retirements, fueling an intensely competitive market in which Cornell University and its peer institutions must vie for top scholars.

In humanities disciplines, the shift is seismic, says Peter Lepage, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "Many of our most prominent humanists are retiring, and we're hiring lots of exciting young humanists," he says. "When you're living through a transition like this, it's a mixture of enthusiasm, as you see the potential of new people coming into the university, and alarm, as you watch some of your most famous people retire."

But attracting the best and the brightest is a costly undertaking. In fall 2007, the university received word that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation would allocate $2.5 million toward the $12 million needed to endow three new senior humanities professorships. The challenge grant requires Cornell to raise $9.6 million over the next five years to receive the Mellon funds.

Cornell's prominence in humanistic study and teaching make it a solid investment, according to Lepage. About 40 percent of College of Arts and Sciences faculty members, or 226 of 548 tenured or tenure-track faculty, work in humanistic disciplines.

"We are a world leader," he notes. "Our departments are among the very strongest in national and international humanistic scholarship. Most are top 10 in national rankings. They have a big impact on our students, not only in the Arts College but also across the university. Almost every Cornell student takes courses in writing, English, history, philosophy, foreign languages or other humanistic disciplines."

The Mellon professorships will accomplish several goals. Most new faculty hires at Cornell are scholars beginning their careers. Midlevel or senior faculty will be recruited into the Mellon professorships. They will be established or rising stars whose scholarship and teaching encompass more than one -- perhaps several -- humanistic disciplines. And they will help to fill the vacuum in intellectual leadership created by numerous retirements. At the same time, the college will continue to cultivate its own leaders.

Recruitment will be aided by what Lepage characterizes as the university's "robust and deeply rooted culture of multidisciplinary work, built upon the strengths of individual departments."

"The new senior chaired professorships are a bold, creative initiative," says Dominick LaCapra, the Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies and a professor of history and comparative literature. "They are aimed at bringing to Cornell the type of scholar and teacher who can reach across disciplines to help stimulate creative work in the humanities. This is a rare opportunity not only to increase Cornell's visibility in an area where it already has significant strength. It is also a way to bring the university to the very forefront of work in the humanities and make it more effective in the recruitment of both faculty and students."

The Mellon professors will make a considerable impact, Lepage says. "One person can make a big difference here. The second new house on West Campus is named for Carl Becker, a Cornell historian who 50 years ago was influential across the humanities -- and is still influential today. Mike Abrams, now an emeritus English professor, had a huge impact on the humanities at Cornell and on the entire humanistic enterprise. We aspire to attract such remarkable individuals to Cornell because they become a very important resource as leaders."

Much thought is going into where the Mellon professors will reside, and humanities departments have been invited to submit ideas and proposals. "We'll discuss these proposals with our leading humanists," Lepage says. "That will help determine where the professorships fall within the college, whether in English or history or Romance studies or philosophy or more than one department. These chairs are not targeted to particular departments."

When the holder of a Mellon chair retires or leaves the university, the position will revert to the college and a new round of proposals will begin to determine where the chair will make the most impact.

As part of the current comprehensive campaign, the College of Arts and Sciences seeks to raise a minimum of $100 million for the humanities: $25 million for endowed professorships, $25 million for endowed department funds that support research, travel and innovative teaching, and $50 million for a new humanities building to rise adjacent to Goldwin Smith Hall to provide critically needed teaching and office space. More than $43 million has been raised.

"These Mellon professorships provide a superb opportunity to build on our great strengths in the humanities by bringing in outstanding midcareer scholars before our most eminent humanists have retired so that our programs will remain strong," says Jonathan Culler, Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature. "It is easier to preserve an outstanding reputation than to rebuild it once you start to lose it, and we hope that matching funds will enable us to start making these important interdisciplinary appointments very soon. We need to be able to act whenever a wonderful candidate becomes available instead of waiting for a retirement."

Four-and-a-half years remain for Cornell to raise funds to secure the match from Mellon. Says Lepage, "Sooner than that would be better. Given this historical moment, it's a particularly important time to create this sort of humanities professorship."