When the trustees of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation elected their new president last month, one of them was conspicuously absent.
Earl Lewis, the provost of Emory University, recused himself from the search process in March, when his fellow trustees asked if he'd consider jumping in himself.
"He was extremely engaged during the entire search process, bringing up issues we felt were very valuable, and we realized what a gem we had sitting at the table," says the Board of Trustees' departing chair, Anne M. Tatlock, who led the search.
Mr. Lewis says he was surprised and intrigued by the suggestion, which came after the board had winnowed its search to a list of finalists.
"After eight years of being a provost, the next logical step in American higher education is a university presidency," Mr. Lewis says, adding that he had been discussing that possibility with a few institutions. But he also felt deeply about the Mellon Foundation's support for the humanities, the liberal arts, and efforts to diversify academe.
Last year the New York City-based foundation distributed about $230-million to study higher education and scholarship, scholarly communications, performing arts, and other areas.
"When this opportunity emerged, it became clear that the ability to shape a series of questions more broadly in American life would follow the presidency of a foundation more so than any one school or university," Mr. Lewis says.
He threw his hat in the ring and was elected president.
Mr. Lewis will step down as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs—titles he's held at Emory since 2004—in January and will begin his new job next March. He will replace Don M. Randel, who is retiring after six years as president.
Mr. Lewis, 56, is also a professor of history and African-American studies at Emory and is the highest-ranking African-American administrator in the university's history.
He has worked on several Mellon-financed projects over the course of his career, including one on Ph.D. completion and another on the role of digital scholarship in the humanities. It's every university administrator's dream, he says, "to go from asking for money to being able to give it away."
The foundation's incoming board chair, W. Taylor Reveley III, says that, in addition to having a solid grounding in the humanities and a strong grasp of the challenges facing higher education, "Earl is also graced with boundless energy and a powerful work ethic."
His selection is a departure for the foundation, which has previously chosen prominent presidents from Ivy League backgrounds.
Mellon's departing president, Mr. Randel, was educated at Princeton University and was provost at Cornell University before becoming president of the University of Chicago. The foundation's previous president, William G. Bowen, had led Princeton University.
Mr. Lewis previously taught African-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Michigan, where he directed the university's Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.
His expertise in affirmative-action and diversity issues may prove valuable if the U.S. Supreme Court should overrule a 2003 decision upholding the use of race-conscious admissions.
Lawyers for Abigail N. Fisher, a white student who challenged the University of Texas' admissions policies, have asked the high court to revisit, and possibly strike down, the 2003 decision involving the University of Michigan's law school that the Texas policy was based on.
"Depending on where the Supreme Court finds itself on the Fisher case, we may find ourselves called on to step into the breach and think in a new way about how to continue to diversify higher education," Mr. Lewis says.
With states slashing higher-education budgets and tuition rising, Mellon-backed researchers will be studying such problems as "how we remain affordable and accessible without essentially bankrupting ourselves," Mr. Lewis says.
He says he's getting used to the idea that, for the first time in 30 years, he won't be a faculty member. But presiding over the Mellon Foundation will have its own intellectual rewards.
"It's like being in a continuous seminar," Mr. Lewis says. "Each time I come into a board meeting, I learn something new about a subject matter that's intense and deep and broad. That's four times a year now. I can only imagine what it will be like when the seminar is perpetual."