Measured by the metric of making a difference, $1.26 million is a fortune! Kalamazoo College has received that sum from the Mellon Foundation during the past four years and used it to advance its programming and curriculum development.
“The Mellon Foundation is incredibly important to schools like K,” says Ann Jenks, the College’s director of corporate and foundation relations. “Its program officers are very much aware of the challenges facing small liberal arts schools, and they understand that colleges like ours don’t have the economy of scale that larger schools do.”
The Foundation’s understanding is reflected annually in grants to more than 120 colleges and universities, from Allegheny to Vassar, Bucknell to Wabash, Duke to University of Michigan. Each and every year, the total given to those schools exceeds $100 million.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was formed in 1969 as a result of the consolidation of two existing foundations that had been established in the 1940’s by Mellon’s son and daughter. Its focus is on advancing the humanities and the arts. The Foundation’s Annual Report states, “While there are more than 81,000 grant-making philanthropies in the United States, too few support the humanities or arts.”
In addition to assisting the humanities in higher education, the Foundation provides support for arts and cultural heritage, diversity, scholarly communications, and international higher education. In total, its annual grants exceed $230 million, which is awarded to recipients in 68 different countries.
The money K has received from the Foundation since 2011has come in the form of three grants, each for a specific purpose. The most recent—$616,000—is for the development of diversity and inclusion initiatives, including faculty development and ethnic studies implementation.
“That grant allowed us to provide professional development for our professors for a variety of things,” explains Provost Mickey McDonald, “such as how to make classes more inclusive and how to avoid unintentional marginalization of students. It also enabled us to hire a new professional to work with our students, especially students of color and other historically underrepresented groups, to help them navigate college life and increase their sense of belonging and academic and personal success.”
“We hope to positively influence the campus climate and that includes work in the classroom and beyond,” Jenks adds. “A reciprocal mentoring effort among faculty members includes the formation of communities of practice. These working groups are engaging with issues related to power and difference and how they may affect curricula and teaching methods.”
A $150,000 grant received in 2013 helped K fund the creation of a new major—Critical Ethnic Studies. This interdisciplinary program examines issues such as colonialism, diaspora movements and indigenous languages in order to better understand multiple voices and world views.
“Our first step,” says McDonald, “was to decide what the overall philosophy of the new program was going to be and what core classes we’d offer. We brought in a visiting scholar, Dr. Reid Gómez, to help us to do that. We then needed to hire someone to actually teach the classes and become a tenure-track professor. After reviewing 130 applications we decided that Dr. Gómez was the best person for the job, so she’ll be moving into the tenure-track faculty position.”
In 2012 the Foundation gave a four-year grant of $500,000 to fund an expansion of K’s Shared Passages program.
“That grant was really important to us,” McDonald says, “because the Shared Passages program goes to the heart of our liberal arts mission. Our students cross disciplinary boundaries, cultural boundaries and national boundaries, and this program provides students the academic and communal preparation for those passages.”
The grant enabled expansion of Shared Passages beyond first-year seminars, which focus on foundational skills such as writing, oral expression, information literacy and critical thinking.
With the grant, K has included both sophomore and senior Shared Passages programs. The sophomore seminars address cultural issues, in part to prepare students for study abroad and living in a world more globally interdependent than ever before. The senior program, with courses referred to as capstones, incorporates both disciplinary as well as interdisciplinary courses, helps students reflect on their four years at K and also helps prepare students for life after K.
Both the diversity and inclusion initiatives and the new Critical Ethnic Studies major reflect K’s desire to support a robust and diverse learning community. During the past decade the school has made great strides in enrolling a student population more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and country of origin.
K’s student body has also become much more diverse in family income level, geography and first-generation students.
Jenks points out that the Mellon Foundation also supports a post-doctoral fellowship at K through a series of grants made to the University of Michigan.
“For the past 12 years, K and Oberlin College have had a partnership with U of M. The program enables students who have obtained doctorates from Michigan to come to K or Oberlin and spend a year teaching. K benefits from the added teaching capacity particularly because we are able to recruit scholars whose expertise augments, but does not duplicate, the work of our permanent faculty.”
Jenks appreciates the Foundation’s grants because of its focus on the academic life of an institution, the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning, and the value of the arts and humanities to a well-rounded educational experience.
“The Foundation works with us,” she says. “The officers encourage us to think big and be ambitious.”
Of course ambition requires financial resources to come to fruition, and both McDonald and Jenks are optimistic that the Mellon Foundation will continue to provide funds for worthwhile projects.
“We are very grateful for their support of our mission,” says Jenks. “The work enabled by the Foundation will continue to have a significant impact on our faculty, our students and our curriculum. We certainly wish to continue working with the Foundation to foster excellence in undergraduate education.”