New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Education

Where Have All the Funders Gone? How Big Philanthropy Left the Humanities Behind

Editors’ Note: Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch discuss the decline of U.S. philanthropic foundation support for the humanities in higher education, based on their book The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education (Johns Hopkins, 2021).

And then there were none. As the millennium unfolded, humanists have watched as funders have deserted U.S. higher education—and the humanities in particular—one by one. The Ford Foundation, which had funded the original Woodrow Wilson graduate fellowships following World War Two, ended that support decades ago when it determined that all too many PhDs were being created for the academic job market, and Ford just recently announced an end to all fellowships for K-12 and higher education. Woodrow Wilson itself (now The Institute for Citizens and Scholars), as an operating foundation once able to draw together humanities departments from myriad universities and colleges, refocused eventually on K-12 teacher preparation and then on what its new title suggests. Pew Trusts, once a major player in liberal arts reform, no longer plays on that field, and no longer provides grants at all, in fact: it now funds its own work. Atlantic Philanthropies abruptly ended its higher education and humanities efforts in the late 1990s and spent itself out of existence. The Rockefeller Foundation retreated more gradually. And on they went. When the retreat ended and the dust settled, only one venue (aside from the governmental National Endowment for the Humanities and the one valiant private but much less wealthy exception, the Teagle Foundation) remained where humanists could reliably apply for outside support. 

That sole remaining port in a mounting storm was the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which had long devoted itself to the support of scholarship and instruction in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Then, a few years ago, Mellon revised its mission to emphasize social justice. That former stalwart appears now to have joined fellow large foundations in becoming impatient and skeptical of the intrinsic value of the humanities. The humanities still can find funding there, but only in direct service to a social cause. No foundation any longer seems to see the furtherance of humanistic study as a worthy cause in itself.

This is a quiet catastrophe, with Mellon’s shift as the culmination of a slow collapse. This collective philanthropic withdrawal in the U.S. goes beyond a loss of funding to a loss of stature for a constellation of humanistic academic fields. We should understand better why this series of divorces have taken place, and a particular Mellon-funded example is particularly suggestive. When we examined—with our own funding from Mellon—the reforms of doctoral education that eventually led to our book, The New PhD, we came to understand better why so many foundations have sailed in other directions, and why Mellon downsized the good ship Humanities to a tugboat.

Let us look back to 1991, when Mellon’s “Graduate Education Initiative” (GEI) funded grants to humanities departments (including the humanistic social sciences of anthropology and political science) at the ten research universities most often attended by Mellon fellowship awardees. Mellon also collected data from programs at three other unfunded universities; these would be the control group. These thirteen universities together accounted for 18 percent of all PhDs in the humanities, a considerable share. In all, 54 departments participated: they submitted plans and subsequent reports to their deans and then, in summary, to Mellon.

The aim of the GEI program was greater efficiency—to save students years of their lives, and universities the expense of supporting graduate students who might stay on, and on and on, or else drop out (too often in the later years of their programs). The foundation selected two “key indicators” as measures of effectiveness: attrition rates and the average time to the PhD, which Mellon sought to bring down to six years at most, a reduction of one to two years.[i] (When one considers that average time to degree during the 1960s was four to five years, the goal here seems modest.)

William G. Bowen, Mellon President from 1988 to 2006, and Vice President Neil L. Rudenstine, longtime colleagues (and previously president and provost, respectively, at Princeton), had determined by 1991 that high attrition and lengthy time to degree came about in part due to inadequate student funding. But they also discovered that simply increasing student stipends did not help, as the recipients of the extra money finished at about the same rate and fared no better in securing academic employment than the general doctoral population.[ii] The aim of the GEI was to act through conditional funding to departments (with some supervisory attention from the deans of the graduate schools at each institution) which would then autonomously provide support for those students advancing in programs at the desired pace. To receive continuing funds, each department would have to reconsider the design of their doctoral programs. At the same time, Mellon sought not to be too prescriptive. Programmatic changes had to “be consistent with…improving effectiveness, lowering attrition, shrinking [time to degree], redesigning programs, and funding graduate students in line with helping them move expeditiously toward completion.”[iii]

In all, Mellon spent nearly $85 million over a decade to support the GEI: $58 million in aid, an additional $22.5 million for sustaining the new practices after the 1991-2000 study period ended, and another $4 million-plus for planning grants and funds for data collection. (Concerning that last item, the project importantly included much data and analysis to attempt to determine links between practices and effects.)

The very fact that a prestigious foundation was highlighting problems at the doctoral level focused new attention on the issues. But the results were decidedly disappointing. Mellon’s own voluminous report on the GEI, Educating Scholars (2010), is commendably frank. To begin with, many programs did not live up to their agreement to reform their own practices. “Improving effectiveness was,” the authors note, “a less pressing matter” for them than continuing graduate education in its deeply rutted grooves.[iv] Graduate deans lacked necessary authority; many departments did not follow through on their plans; reporting mechanisms appeared to focus more on sheer data than on assessment and consequences.

The reported gains were modest indeed: over the ten years surveyed, mean time to degree stood at 7.27 years before the initiative, and 6.98 years afterwards, a difference of just three and a half months. In comparison to the unfunded control programs, the difference was negligible, only a matter of weeks.

The authors of the report cite the poor academic job market as a possible cause for the program’s poor results.[v] Certainly the loss of full-time professorships due to the adjunctification of academic labor—a dispiriting development whose magnitude Bowen later confessed he had underestimated—played a role. But the authors suggest that faculty recalcitrance was the prime reason for the failure of the GEI. “There was no active disagreement with the goals of the GEI,” the authors observe. “The faculty simply lacked the enthusiasm for the necessary changes or the continuity of leadership that could make them happen…. In some departments, the very idea of changing the program came as a shock.”[vi] “All told,” the Mellon team concludes, “redesigning doctoral education in the humanities has proved harder than imagined at the outset.”[vii]

The failure of the GEI is extreme but not atypical. Simply put, Mellon found that academics are better at pushing back than at leaning forward. We—for the authors of this post are academic humanists ourselves—are fundamentally conservative, even reactionary in our skepticism, with an almost nonexistent tolerance for risk. There’s reason for that: just try to end a failing program once it is established. The stakes for reform often appear too high, most of all in doctoral education.

If we then ask who is to blame for the loss of external support for the humanities, the answer involves all parties. As we suggested in our account of the Mellon GEI, the foundations could be clumsy in their strategies of funding. Further, we may accuse the foundations of underestimating the crucial and continuing importance of the liberal arts, and the humanities in particular, to the human condition generally and U.S. democracy specifically. It seems to us no accident that two of the heroes of democracy of 2022, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Liz Cheney, have spoken and acted with the sort of historical consciousness that the humanities amply provides. The humanities in themselves lie at the heart of our understanding of social justice. But when humanities faculty ask who is to blame, they might equip themselves with a hand mirror. It just shouldn’t be this hard—not when other areas of human concern have shown themselves so much more amenable to funded reform. It may not have been our intent, but too often we have taken the money and run off with it. 

The history of doctoral education over the past half century offers a gruesome picture of the greater risks of doing nothing. Now couple that inaction with two big changes in academic philanthropy. The most obvious has been a reluctance to support business as usual, including the maintenance of virtuous traditions such as humanistic learning per se. Instead, foundations have increasingly valued departure from the status quo, usually described as “innovation,” an increasingly-overused but nevertheless pertinent label. Faculty resistance and frequent changes in administration are at odds with any foundation requirement for such adventurous movement.

That word “requirement” marks the other great change in academic philanthropy over the last few decades. Philanthropists have become far more directive. Various reports from the field show that philanthropy has become a more top-down operation in practice, with the grantors demanding a hand on the steering wheel. As the Mellon GEI example shows, academics don’t easily tolerate being dislodged from the driver’s seat. The problem: few venues remain for faculty who do have fresh ideas. Thus the humanities now ask, “Where have all the funders gone”?

It isn’t hopeless—we hope. Let’s go back to the Mellon GEI example. What if Mellon had been more assertive about the continuing requirements for participation, and sharp-eyed in evaluating the ongoing reports? In other words, a combination of real assessment by the funder with real, responsible accountability by the funded, with plenty of frequent sharing of information between them.

Top-down direction won’t work by itself, but neither will bottom-up planning. It takes two, as Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston remind us: a marriage between funders insisting on performance, and grantees with the space to meet those requirements in a way that best suits the local character of their program and institution. Humanists don’t spend our days and nights studying institutional change. We’re not great at getting on the same page or even at turning a near-consensus to action. That’s why the two of us devoted a full chapter of The New PhD to describing how best to do that. 

Two quick suggestions. First: in trying out an innovation, guarantee a sell-by date, so that after, say, three years the innovation will be tweaked if it’s working pretty well, expanded if it’s clearly successful, or (gasp) ended if it is failing in practice. Reduce the risk. 

And second, get higher administration informed, intrigued, and on board. Good deans, provosts, and presidents invariably appreciate departments that are working to improve, and they will be all the more supportive if your effort contributes to a major university theme (and making that connection isn’t hard). Given that Yale’s current fundraising effort is titled “For Humanity,” for instance, we might expect to see examples of funded humanities initiatives that further the overall effort. The University of Michigan several years ago proclaimed a “Year of the Humanities and Arts” as a way to dramatize continuing support. Less grandly, any humanities program involved in an action-oriented initiative, keyed especially to improving undergraduate education, may engage their colleagues in administration and attract internal dollars.

Yes, there are no longer any foundations that care to support the quality of higher education per se. Which puts even more responsibility on faculty to lead the way. Pete Seeger asks: “When will they ever learn?” Our answer: How about now? We must now look to college and university administrative colleagues to support these efforts while we all prove our capacity to improve our house. It’s the least our students deserve. If the humanities prove innovative on their own, foundation interest may revive. But with or without that help, the humanities, expelled from the garden, can—and must—use the tools at hand, to build our own sustainable future.

– Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch

Leonard Cassuto (professor of English at Fordham University) and Robert Weisbuch (professor emeritus of English at the University of Michigan and the eleventh president of Drew University) are the authors of The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education (Johns Hopkins, 2021). Their new project is “5 Big Ideas to Save the Humanities.”


[i] Harriet Zuckerman, Jeffrey A. Groen, Sharon M. Brucker, and Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities (Princeton UP, 2010), 3.

[ii] See William G. Bowen and Neil L. Rudenstine, In Pursuit of the Ph.D. (Princeton UP, 1992).

[iii] Zuckerman, et al., Educating Scholars, 5-7, 9.

[iv] Zuckerman, et al., Educating Scholars, 258.

[v] We would add that a primary focus on outcomes rather than time to degree might have helped also. We discuss this issue further in The New PhD.

[vi] Zuckerman, et al. Educating Scholars, 86.

[vii] Zuckerman, et al., Educating Scholars, 248.

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