Signs of change: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation studies its strategy for saving the humanities.

Signs of change

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation studies its strategy for saving the humanities.

At Mellon, Signs of ChangeThe giant grant maker, known for its opacity, is studying its strategy for saving the humanities

MARK MAKELA for THE CHRONICLE

The Mellon foundation, with offices in New York City (above), is known for doing business behind closed doors.

June 29, 2014

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has a reputation for moving in mysterious ways. For 45 years, it has steadily handed out money—lots of it—to sustain the humanities and the performing arts. As times have gotten tougher, Mellon’s deep pockets have become increasingly important. The foundation tends to attract an unusual level of anxiety and interest, like a rich uncle whose quirks and whims keep poorer relations on their toes.

Some observers worry that Mellon is too opaque in its operations and guarded about its intentions. It’s not unusual for potential grantees to scramble to put together grant proposals in response to an unexpected call from Mellon, as happened with university presses in 2007, when the foundation invited them to submit ideas for multi-press first-book collaborations. Unlike many other grant makers, it rarely promotes its activities, preferring to stay out of the spotlight. Critics say—usually off the record—that its circle of grantees is too small and that it has disproportionately favored elite colleges and universities. A Chronicle analysis of the last decade and a half of Mellon grants supports that claim. Still, the foundation is widely admired for using its money and clout to reinforce the idea that, in an age of "disruption" and the veneration of science and technology, "the humanities and the arts are central to any life that one should want to live," as Mellon’s then-president, Don M. Randel, wrote in his 2012 annual report.

Although it defends the persistent value of the humanities, Mellon also champions the idea that they must change with the times. It has spent hundreds of millions to encourage scholars and institutions to experiment and adapt.

Now, it is about to make some changes itself. With a new president, Earl Lewis, and a new strategic plan to be released this summer, the foundation appears poised to be more open about how it does business, and with whom.

Other private donors and foundations—the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, for instance—foot the bill for occasional humanities projects. But the Mellon foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities are pretty much the only game in town when it comes to long-term, humanities-focused philanthropy.

And Mellon’s financial contribution far outpaces the NEH’s. From 2000 to 2012, the foundation awarded 6,649 grants totaling $2.9-billion, according to The Chronicle’s analysis. With an endowment currently worth about $6-billion, Mellon handed out about $254-million in grants in 2012, the latest year for which data are available; according to the NEH, in the 2013 fiscal year, approximately $41-million of its grant money—about 36 percent—went to support humanities projects related to higher education, scholarship, and digital humanities. (A spokesman notes that if one doesn’t count the money the NEH provides to state humanities councils through its noncompetitive federal/state partnership grants, nearly 55 percent of the money the agency awards annually goes to higher education and scholarship.)

In the humanities, Mellon’s $250-million goes a long way. "That means the policies of the Mellon foundation are really crucially important to the humanities as a field," says Stanley N. Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and a longtime observer of foundations. Mellon money supports an astonishing array of activities related to teaching and research—more, probably, than many of its grantees appreciate.

Database: Explore All of Mellon's Grants Since 2000

Over 13 years the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded $2.9-billion in grants, more than 40 percent of which supported projects in higher education. Use The Chronicle's interactive grants database to explore how Mellon’s priorities have changed over the years.

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Chronicle analysis of Mellon grants made from 2000 to 2012. Original grants reports dating to 1969 can be found on the Mellon Foundation's website. Before 2010 the grant category "Scholarly Communications and Information Technology" was referred to as "Libraries and Scholarly Communication." Similarly, the grant category "Art History, Conservation, and Museums" was referred to as "Museum and Art Conservation" before 2011. For the purposes of this analysis, both grant categories are presented using their current classifications.

Explore a Chronicle analysis of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's grants.

The foundation divides its current grant-making activities into four major streams: higher education and scholarship, for which Mellon appropriated more than $132-million in 2012; scholarly communications and information technology (nearly $30-million appropriated in 2012); performing arts (just over $50-million); and art history, conservation, and museums (nearly $28-million). Another program, devoted to conservation and the environment, concluded last year.

Many of the projects that sprang up with the help of Mellon money have become fixtures in the higher-education and scholarly-communication realms. Notable examples include JSTOR, a digital repository of scholarly journal articles and books, and the online image repository Artstor. Mellon investments have helped support the creation of digital editions, including the papers of the Founding Fathers, and virtual manuscript libraries like the online Parker Library created by Stanford University and the University of Cambridge. The foundation has been a stalwart investor in other kinds of resources developed and used by scholars and librarians; Fedora, an open-source data repository, and BitCurator, which focuses on digital forensics, are just two of many examples.

Mellon backing of digitally minded scholars and tools has played a considerable role in the rise of the digital humanities, as has its support—quiet, like most Mellon activities, but substantial—for making those tools and their products openly available. Mellon’s interest in certain fields has also influenced how other money, including federal money, gets spent. For instance, a major report on cyberinfrastructure, "Our Cultural Commonwealth," underwritten by Mellon and published in 2006, was used by the NEH "as a blueprint" in forming its Office of Digital Humanities, says Brett Bobley, the director of that office. The foundation also makes a major contribution by funding studies, workshops, and other conversations about what the humanities need, Mr. Bobley says, and by calling attention to promising work.

Its influence extends far beyond the digital arena. Mellon has long supported research, curriculum development, and infrastructure at liberal-arts colleges as well as at larger institutions. It works with libraries on effective ways to catalog, digitize, and preserve their collections; with museums and art-history programs to extend training in art conservation; and with university presses to help them figure out how to share scholarship more widely and publish more efficiently in a digital era. (One university-press director says Mellon has been the community’s "R&D arm" for four decades.)

Like any foundation, Mellon does not always back winners. For instance, Project Bamboo, an ambitious, multi-institutional attempt to create a cyberinfrastructure for the humanities, fizzled several years ago. But the foundation’s track record of humanities support is strong enough, and its coffers well enough stocked, to maintain Mellon’s enormous influence in the fields it serves.

It’s easy to see why Mellon comes across as inscrutable. Unlike the NEH, the foundation does not make grants directly to individual scholars; it awards money to universities and colleges, independent research institutions like the Folger Shakespeare Library, scholarly associations, museums, and performing-arts groups. Mellon has also long relied on several intermediaries, among them the Council on Library and Information Resources, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Social Science Research Council, to put its money to work in the scholarly community at large.

Also unlike the NEH, Mellon does not present would-be applicants with a checklist of how to apply for a grant. There’s no formal deadline, no application form on the website. A short note posted for the benefit of prospective grantees observes that "collaborative planning between the foundation and its grantee institutions generally precedes awards and is an integral part of grant making," and cautions that "unsolicited proposals are rarely funded."

"You don’t send something cold to Mellon," says Charles J. Henry, president of the library-resources council. "You pick up the phone." (That strategy works best, of course, if you already have a well-established relationship with the foundation, as Mr. Henry does.)

Council on Information and Library Resources

Charles Henry, president of the Council on Information and Library Resources

Mr. Henry and others who work regularly with Mellon describe the relationship as a continuing conversation, in which both sides float ideas and problems that might be the focus of collective action. CLIR will identify an issue "that could be explored or improved with national-scale funding," and then Mr. Henry will approach the program officer he works with most closely. Sometimes Mellon will contact its partner organizations with an idea, or invite members of a specific community—select university-press editorial directors, for instance—to gather at its offices to identify pressing problems and needs.

Mellon’s relationships with some of its partners date back decades, and the foundation has become central to their operations. The American Council of Learned Societies, for example, which won its first Mellon grants in the early 1970s, also receives money from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and others, but Mellon’s money remains "a very large piece of the pie," says Pauline Yu, the group’s president. In the 2012 fiscal year, the foundation gave ACLS $9-million, which made up almost 45 percent of the group’s total revenue that year. In 2013, Mellon’s contribution was nearly $12.5-million, or more than 35 percent of total ACLS revenue.

It is through grants like those that Mellon extends beyond the usual suspects. With that money, the ACLS runs fellowship programs for individual scholars at all stages of their careers. Unlike grants given directly by the foundation, these are awarded in open competitions with formal application processes. Almost 1,700 scholars applied to six Mellon-funded ACLS fellowship programs in 2013-14; 122 fellowships were awarded.

"They’re very much in demand," Ms. Yu says. "In partnering with us, what Mellon is doing is reaching out to the whole of the American professoriate."

How much of the professoriate and the larger higher-education community Mellon actually reaches is a subject of concern both outside and inside the foundation. Because of the way it operates, does Mellon risk missing out on fresh ideas and new thinkers?

"It’s a worry, and we try to at least keep a channel open," says Donald J. Waters. He leads Mellon’s scholarly-communications-and-information-technology program, and has long been a central figure in the worlds of academic publishing, libraries, and digital humanities. "I think even if we had a full application process, we might miss something," he says. "Our job is to keep our eyes open, be alert to where the work is going on."

Mellon Foundation

Donald Waters, senior program officer at the Mellon foundation

Mr. Waters belongs to a small circle of people who decide where Mellon’s large amounts of money go, subject to the approval of the foundation’s board of trustees. In addition to Mr. Waters, the foundation’s most influential officers include Philip E. Lewis, a vice president who has run the higher-education-and-scholarship program and will be stepping down next year, and Mariët Westermann, a vice president brought aboard to oversee Mellon’s museum- and performing-arts-related activities and who is now also closely involved in the higher-education programs. About 30 people all told run Mellon’s grant-making programs, according to Ms. Westermann. A former director of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and the former provost of the university’s Abu Dhabi campus, she came to Mellon four years ago, hired by Mr. Randel, who led the foundation from 2006 to 2013.

Mr. Randel replaced William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, who served as Mellon’s president from 1988 to 2006, making him the foundation’s longest-serving leader so far. Mr. Bowen led the foundation through a period of significant change in the humanities. In his 2004 president’s report, he sketched out a grant-making strategy whose priorities still apply to Mellon a decade later. He emphasized "sharpening and deepening commitments," "refocusing traditional activities," and "promoting collaborations and program crossovers"—all themes that came up in recent conversations with Ms. Westermann and her colleagues.

"If I were writing that report now, 10 years later, it would read very much the same," Mr. Bowen says in an interview. "I suppose the one big difference is that technology, as it always does, advances."

Ms. Westermann describes a two-pronged grant-making strategy. First, "we look for organizations that do really pathbreaking work—typically we know them fairly well—and that have the capacity to sustain new initiatives," she says. Because Mellon is so prominent and so closely watched in the fields it serves, people who bring ideas to the program staff often have a good sense already of whether an idea will spark its interest, Ms. Westermann says.

Chuck Zovko, Lafayette College

Philip Lewis, a vice president at the Mellon foundation

Second, to ensure that that approach "doesn’t get too rote," the program staff members spend a lot of time "listening to the field," she says, and talking about what trends they see developing. Program officers travel regularly to conferences and campuses. "We put our ear to the ground. We bring people here in convenings, in groups, and we try not to say ‘Don’t you think we should be doing this?’ We tend to say ‘What’s on your mind?’ We read a lot. We study up on these things." Ms. Westermann calls this "the kind of grant making that really ties together a whole constellation of actors."

For the past year, Ms. Westermann, Mr. Waters, and their colleagues have been examining Mellon’s practices and priorities, what has worked and what hasn’t, asking themselves what needs to change. "We’ve begun to plot some new strategic directions for the grant-making programs," says Ms. Westermann.

The results of that self-reflection are supposed to be made public this summer in a new strategic plan. The program officers and the foundation’s president say they can’t share specifics until everything is agreed on and approved by the board of trustees.

But Ms. Westermann gives some broad indications that the foundation’s revamped strategy "will look very familiar" while adding new emphases.

For instance, diversity is an avowed priority of Earl Lewis’s. It has been "in the DNA of the Mellon foundation that diversity should be a constant concern" since Mr. Bowen was at the helm, Ms. Westermann says, but "it’s unfinished business for the country, and therefore for us." In 2014, that means taking a close look at a program like the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, set up to attract minority students to academic careers. It has been "a great success," Ms. Westermann says—as of March 2013, more than 4,000 fellows have participated, with 484 Ph.D.’s earned and 690 more in progress—but has it kept up with the country’s demographic shifts over the last few years? For instance, is it reaching Latino, Hispanic, and Native American students effectively? "There may be imbalances in our own work," she says.

Philip Cheung

Mariët Westermann, a vice president at the Mellon foundation

The foundation is also concerned about how much pressure universities and colleges feel now "to prove their worth, what they’re really contributing," Ms. Westermann says. Institutions of higher education "do a lot for the public good," she says, "but they are often awfully quiet about it." How can Mellon "help the institutions best think about that and make the case for the humanities in particular in the public sphere?"

Rethinking how graduate students are trained—an issue also on the agendas of scholarly societies like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association, both Mellon grantees—could help. The rise of digital scholarship represents "a huge opportunity," Ms. Westermann says. "Not everyone’s going to love the digital humanities, nor probably does everyone have to, but it would be good to begin to build the opportunity to develop that competency right into doctoral education rather than waiting till 10 years out" from graduate school to do it.

Mr. Waters, meanwhile, sketches out several broad topics of current emphasis for the scholarly-communications-and-information-technology program. He and his colleagues are keenly interested in the ability to annotate scholarship online, he says; Mellon has made serious investments in annotation tools and the development of open annotation standards by the university community and projects like Hypothes.is, which just received a two-year, $752,000 grant from the foundation to look into digital annotation in humanities and social-science scholarship.

One of Mellon’s current interests, Mr. Waters said, is how to enable scholarship to travel more freely on the open web. Open access may be one means to that end, he says. He notes that although Mellon cannot legally lobby, it may be able to help influence policy decisions about open access and fair use through the work it chooses to support.

The foundation continues to place a high priority on helping university presses figure out how to publish digitally and how to work more closely with their home universities and with each other. "We have no prescriptions for them," Mr. Waters said, beyond making sure that they preserve "what they’re really good at": identifying, vetting, and promoting top-flight scholarship.

But Mellon has also sent signals that it has its own ideas about how to change the business model of scholarly publishing. In recent weeks, it has floated the possibility of handing money to universities to subsidize the publication of humanities monographs by university presses. The potential and uncertainties of the still-developing proposal prompted plenty of speculation at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses in New Orleans last week, where Mr. Waters presented Mellon’s plan alongside a similar but separate one from the Association of Research Libraries and the Association of American Universities.

As the speculation around the latest press proposal suggests, Mellon doesn’t seem ready to abandon its insistently understated—some would say enigmatic—approach. "Listening, then proposing, then testing, then proposing a new round" of grants is how Mark Simpson-Vos, editorial director of the University of North Carolina Press, describes the process as he’s experienced it in working with Mellon on publishing-related grants.

Abby Smith Rumsey, a historian, has had a working relationship with Mellon that dates back to the 1990s. She used to be director of programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources; she went on to direct the Scholarly Communication Institute, funded by Mellon from 2003-13 and based at the University of Virginia. (Duke University is home to SCI’s new incarnation.) Ms. Rumsey says the foundation did not meddle or offer too much advice. "They gave us a broad scope," she says. "They expected a high level of intellectual leadership and engagement on our part." Beyond the money itself, that hands-off aspect appeals to some investigators with Mellon grants, Ms. Rumsey says. "I’ve never heard anybody complain about being micromanaged." That hands-off style contrasts with the more aggressive, quantitative style of some other big foundations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which wants to be able to measure the results of the work it pays for. Not everyone responds well to Mellon’s more genteel style, however. It can be especially frustrating for would-be grantees who try to read the tea leaves to discover what the foundation wants.

Mark Makela for THE CHRONICLE

Earl Lewis is the new president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Lean times have made that dynamic worse. Two decades ago, when other foundations were more active in their support for the humanities, "it was a much more salubrious environment," Ms. Rumsey says. It’s not Mellon’s fault if some people find the foundation intimidating, she says; because it’s so wealthy, and because it now has so little company, "there’s a feeling of dependence on them which is sometimes unhealthy."

Steven C. Wheatley, ACLS’s vice president, acknowledges that sometimes the foundation comes off as mysterious in its workings. "They’ve been fairly reticent and in the background talking about themselves," he says. "I don’t think they desire to be mysterious. People project that onto them."

Some critics say Mellon pays too much attention to elite institutions, overlooking some public universities and liberal-arts colleges in favor of their higher-profile or more prestigious counterparts. "They shower money on the elite schools," says one scholar who works at a public university that has not been favored with much Mellon support. "They’ve had a distorting influence, for good or ill."

Ms. Westermann says that Mellon supports "a much wider range" of institutions than people realize, and that over the last decade "there’s been a really significant shift" toward supporting public universities. Mellon has recognized that they are often the country’s "intellectually elite" institutions, she says, and that fewer and fewer of them receive significant amounts of public support. An analysis of Mellon’s grants shows that the foundation has nearly doubled the amount of grants it awards to public universities in the past few years, from $15,317,610 (adjusted for inflation) in 2000 to $27,823,000 in 2012. However, it still awards nearly three times as much to private universities.

Some of what comes across as favoritism reflects Mellon’s habit of developing relationships that persist over time. John M. Unsworth, the vice provost, CIO, and university librarian at Brandeis University, has worked on a number of Mellon-funded projects—for instance, the 2006 cyberinfrastructure report that the NEH’s Mr. Bobley cites as so influential.

Mellon grantees "tend to be high visibility," he says. "Sometimes that’s because they were funded by Mellon, but more often they’re funded by Mellon because they’re high visibility."

Mellon watchers are waiting to see how much the foundation will broaden its reach under Mr. Lewis’s tenure. The new president has dropped tantalizing hints. "We have a history of supporting the top 100 liberal-arts colleges," he said in a talk at this year’s meeting of the ACLS. "I’m not sure that makes sense anymore. There are about 235. What would it mean for us to embrace the entire complex?"

Mr. Lewis said Mellon had been thinking about "what it means to be part of a community of interest." In that vein, the foundation has signaled with some of its recent grant-making that it will push grantees to think collaboratively at a scale that many humanists aren’t used to.

A couple of years ago, Dianne Harris stopped by the foundation’s Upper East Side offices to say thanks for past support and to pitch a modest idea. Ms. Harris, an architectural historian and professor of landscape architecture, directs the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She wanted to create a small "humanities corridor" in Illinois similar to one that Mellon helped fund in central New York State, bringing together several colleges and universities to support collaborative projects and raise the humanities’ visibility in the area. Ms. Harris thought that Illinois could benefit from something similar because "the intellectual power in the Midwest too often doesn’t get the attention it deserves," she says.

Keri Wiginton for THE CHRONICLE

With money and encouragement from Mellon, Dianne Harris of the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign led the development of a humanities consortium for Midwestern universities.

Mellon’s program staff liked the idea. They liked it so well that they encouraged Ms. Harris to be more ambitious in her thinking. "What started for me as a fairly small initiative with fairly modest goals has ended up to be something much bigger than I imagined," Ms. Harris says.

She’s now the principal investigator for a two-year, $3-million Mellon grant that supports Humanities Without Walls, a consortium of 15 Midwestern institutions, most of them with humanities centers. Mellon’s money will underwrite two main streams of work: research projects on "the Global Midwest" and a coordinated effort to train humanities graduate students to put their skills to work in the public sphere. The Chicago Humanities Festival and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Illinois are helping organize the effort.

Taking advantage of one another’s strengths and resources, the consortium’s members can try things they wouldn’t try on their own "because we’re distributing risk," Ms. Harris says. That happens not only at the intellectual level but at the "mundane and mechanical" level too: how to move money from one campus to another, for instance. "It’s a cultural shift in the humanities," she says. "The sciences do it all the time."

How much of a cultural shift can or should one private foundation, even a very wealthy one, hope to accomplish? Ms. Harris is not privy to Mellon’s internal conversations about how it should spend its money. She has speculated, though, about what it must be like to be "under so much pressure to hold up the humanities," she says. "It’s an incredible burden. And it makes sense that they’re trying to figure out how to distribute humanities support in an intelligent way."

Mellon officers and trustees make it quietly clear that they would welcome more company in their work, even as they reaffirm their commitment to it. "We could really use some foundation brothers and sisters in this space," says Danielle S. Allen, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study and a member of Mellon’s board of trustees. Next spring she will take over as its chair.

Mr. Waters, the Mellon officer in charge of scholarly communications and information technology, invokes something Don Randel, the former president, used to say: "It’s lonely here, because there are so few of us."

Still, Mr. Waters adds, with the pressure come rewards. There are "a lot of people doing good work" in the humanities, he says. "That’s the benefit of being in this role here—we keep finding those people. You’re right—we may miss some of them. But we have to make choices. We can’t do everything."

Data analysis by Sarah Frostenson. Presentation by Vincent DeFrancesco and Sarah Frostenson.

Correction (6/30/2014, 9:45 a.m.): The intermediaries Mellon relies on in its grant making include the Social Science Research Council, not the Social Science Research Network. In addition, the two bar charts should have clarified that colleges that did not report their SAT-score data to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System were not included in the "elite private colleges" category. The article and charts have been updated to reflect that.