Mellon Foundation gift bolsters fellowships

The most critical time in the life of a young scholar is often the transition between the dissertation and the tenure-track appointment.

The demands of teaching, especially for those new to its rigors, can sometimes delay research and publication, and especially so for scholars in the humanities and social sciences where the need to explore interdisciplinarity continues to grow.

The problem is not unique to WUSTL of course. What is unique is the institution’s answer to the problem: With the help of a $1,280,000 matching gift from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it has created a program whereby promising young scholars can spend two years at the University in a program of study that lets them blossom and experiment with research and teaching without the normal pressures of a tenure-track appointment.

The gift includes $1 million to establish a permanent endowment and $280,000 to be used over a three-year period to support postdoctoral fellowships in the humanities and social sciences in Arts & Sciences.

The award is an extension of a five-year grant made by the Mellon Foundation in 1999.

“This is a program that is tried and true,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “Thanks to the Mellon Foundation, we have had great success fostering first-rate scholars, and now, again with tremendous gratitude to the Mellon Foundation for this generous endowment, we will make this a permanent program that will generate the best in interdisciplinary scholarship and critical inquiry in areas that do not traditionally receive such attention.”

The program, called “Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry,” acknowledges and celebrates the need for postdoctoral investigations while simultaneously nurturing the scholar’s budding ability to teach his or her chosen subject.

In this model, everyone benefits: the undergraduate students who benefit from the young scholar’s passion and freshness; the senior faculty members who mentor the scholars; the institution, which gains the talents and resources of young academics for two-year intervals; and of course, the postdoctoral fellows themselves.

Young scholars in the sciences usually spend one or more years in a postdoctoral appointment after earning a doctorate. This has not been the case in the humanities and social sciences. This program allows for the opportunity in Arts & Sciences and helps broaden interdisciplinary work across many boundaries.

“Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” will continue to be directed by a steering committee led by Steven N. Zwicker, Ph.D., the Stanley Elkin Professor in the Humanities and professor of English in Arts & Sciences.

“We are broadening the bases of humanist inquiry and are testing relations between traditional questions posed by humanities scholars and the problems that have interested social scientists in recent years,” Zwicker said. “This is happening not only in conventional ways, but also in areas surprising to us, including musicology, art history, philosophy, geography and economics.”

Edward S. Macias, Ph.D., executive vice chancellor, dean of Arts & Sciences and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, believes the Mellon Foundation grant will help WUSTL attract exceptionally well-qualified applicants for the two-year program and will result in outstanding appointments.

“The program has succeeded beyond our expectations, enhancing the development of these young scholars, enriching our own undergraduate offerings, and providing our community with a structure that helps us to think through the future of interdisciplinarity at the University,” Macias said.

“The fellowship program has enabled us to encourage innovative undergraduate teaching and to support rigorous, interdisciplinary scholarship. Furthermore, the ‘mentoring’ aspect of this program has worked particularly well, and the fellows’ publications and research plans form part of their impressive record of accomplishment.”

The Mellon Foundation, with offices in New York and Princeton, N.J., supports a wide range of initiatives to strengthen selective private research universities in the United States, with particular emphasis on the humanities and “humanistic” social sciences. It makes grants available in five core program areas: higher education, museums and art conservation, performing arts, conservation and the environment, and public affairs.