The Association of American Universities recently
released a lengthy report that examines the state of the
humanities in leading research universities in the United
A 19-member AAU task force, which included eight
university presidents and Johns Hopkins
Provost Steven Knapp, surveyed
the organization's 62 campuses — Johns Hopkins among
them — to examine how the humanities are being
supported at large research universities and whether they
are receiving appropriate emphasis.
The report's central finding is that the humanities
are experiencing a revival at these institutions, but that
for the trend to continue, these disciplines need sustained
support and full integration into the broader goals of the
Specifically, the report calls on research
universities to make the humanities a major focus in
institutional strategic planning; strengthen the
recruitment and placement process for humanities graduate
students; encourage undergraduate humanities studies;
increase the use of digital and information technology in
the humanities; and encourage and seek greater funding for
the humanities from outside sources, including the National
Endowment for the Humanities.
The Gazette sat down last week with Knapp, a professor
in the English Department as well as provost, and
Daniel Weiss, the James B.
Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, to
discuss the report and the state of the humanities at Johns
The two senior leaders said that, in short, the
humanities are thriving at
JHU, pointing to increased enrollment and successful
initiatives that have created new humanities centers,
programs and research opportunities. Of these, the AAU
report specifically touts Johns Hopkins' Robert and Nancy
Hall Fellowship Program, which supports paid internships
for humanities students to engage in curatorial and
educational work at the Walters Art Museum; the
university's residential program in Washington, D.C., which
is dedicated to providing undergraduates with an intensive
educational experience in humanistic studies; and the
Woodrow Wilson Scholars Program, which provides funding for
undergraduates to pursue independent research projects,
including those in the humanities.
How will Johns Hopkins use this AAU report? Is it a
Weiss: We are, I think, ahead of a lot of
universities in the kind of work that we are doing in the
humanities. This report in many ways affirms the wisdom of
the strategy that we have been pursuing at Johns Hopkins
for a long, long time. We are very pleased with the
progress we have been making. The senior leadership at the
university is firmly behind us. One way to put it into
perspective is that Steve was on the committee that
prepared the report. He is a humanist. He is a leader of
the university. We are well ahead of the curve on this.
This report reaffirms what we have been up to for all these
years under his leadership.
Knapp: One of the things that triggered this report
was the perception on the part of a lot of university
presidents that there was a growing imbalance between the
presence on university campuses of work in the natural
sciences and work in the humanities. Part of that is driven
by a very good thing, which is the significant increase in
federal sponsorship for research, particularly in the
health sciences area. The question was: Is that increase in
natural science activity accompanied by a decrease in the
support for the humanities? As we looked at this, we
discovered that the humanities are very much alive and
well. There is a tremendous amount of activity going on
across what you would think of as science-heavy
One of the themes of this report is that research
universities are committed to using resources from various
sources, even if they are not receiving much funding from
the federal government.
Weiss: That is an important point to make. In an age
of increasing investment in technology in major sciences,
this report reaffirms the centrality of humanities to a
research university. And it's not obvious, or intuitive,
that that would be the conclusion.
Knapp: When people were writing this report, they
thought it would be more a lament for the state of the
humanities; but actually, as it developed, and we learned
more about what people were doing, we found that there was
quite universal recognition on the part of university deans
and presidents that the humanities are very much thriving.
The centrality issue is important. None of us would want to
live in a culture where all we ever did was science and
technology, and you probably wouldn't want to study in an
institution where those were the only subjects.
How do we overcome the challenge of funding work in the
humanities, where results typically can't be measured
Weiss: I think one way to do that is to have all the
leading research universities continue to emphasize in
every way they can the importance of the National Endowment
for the Humanities and other kinds of foundation support
for the humanities ... to exert some political pressure and
foster awareness of how important that investment is to the
lifeblood of the university.
Knapp: We do rely on philanthropic support that
needs to be farsighted, for, as you say, in the case of the
humanities, there isn't the immediate payoff. We don't have
"grateful patients" in the case of the humanities as we do
in medicine. There is a famous remark, attributed to
[former Johns Hopkins President] Steven Muller. He is
reputed to have invented the saying "No one ever died of
English," which was about this phenomenon that people might
be supportive of the humanities in principle, but when they
are looking to invest in something, they are looking for an
immediate return. They want to see tangible results. But
there is a large community of people who do understand and
are investing in things that are less tangible because they
can contribute so much to our quality of life, and we would
hate to imagine what the quality of life would be like if
we didn't have these things.
The report's first recommendation [of 10] is to make the
humanities a major focus in an institution's strategic
planning. Are we already doing that?
Weiss: Yes. We completed a strategic plan three
years ago in Arts and Sciences that had a major component
to invest in raising the visibility of the humanities,
strengthen the academic programs in the humanities and
identify the humanities as fundamental to what we do in the
School of Arts and Sciences. That plan led to a series of
campaign objectives, and the humanities initiative is one
of the two major priorities of the current fund-raising
campaign, which is to invest resources in faculty programs
and infrastructure to strengthen the humanities.
What can we point to in terms of results?
Weiss: This year alone we have established the
Center for Africana Studies; we have enhanced the Center
for East Asian Studies, bringing on two endowed
professorships; and established the Jewish Studies Program.
Add that to the three initiatives detailed in the report
— the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the Hall Fellowship
and the Washington, D.C., program in the Humanities Center
— and that is six examples key to our strategic plan
that have been developed in just the past three years.
The report documents the importance of integrating
digital technology and information technology in the
classroom. Johns Hopkins is clearly moving forward in this
Weiss: In terms of infrastructure investment, we are
doing well. In program development, such as the Center for
Educational Resources, we are doing well. In partnerships,
we are doing well. For example, we are a beta-testing site
for ARTStor Mellon Foundation program, which is a massive
effort to digitize all the works of art in the world.
Dean Weiss, you personally seem to have championed the
effort to bring more digital and information technology to
Weiss: It's a more effective way to do research and
to teach. It brings people close to the art; it brings an
added dynamic to the classroom. We felt strongly from the
onset that this is something we should be doing as a
leading humanities institution.
Knapp: Our [JHU] Press also has, as you probably
know, a large, if not the largest, collection of humanities
journals of any academic press. We have been a tremendous
innovator in that area through Project Muse, which is
another partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,
[which seeded the project with a $400,000 grant]. I think
that is the reason Mellon would come to us, our being a
leader in offering humanities journals online and making
them that much more accessible.
Does the public know how strong we are in the
humanities? It would appear Johns Hopkins is inexorably
linked with medicine and the applied sciences.
Knapp: It is always a challenge because when people
hear the name Johns Hopkins, it often gets linked to
medicine. Obviously, medicine is a tremendous strength of
Johns Hopkins; in fact, Johns Hopkins Medicine is a
national treasure that we would never want to diminish. But
people do have a tendency to identify an institution with
only one of its products, and that has been a challenge.
Weiss: Paradoxically, one could say the greatest
challenge facing Johns Hopkins on this issue is to get the
word out on what it has in the humanities — which is
[that it is] one of the leading humanities universities in
the world. And it isn't always known because we have such a
formidable medical program. You can see it as a nice little
The report says that historically the humanities have
faced underfunding and an absence of structures to support
them. Have we gone beyond that for the most part here at
Knapp: Since we don't manage our finances centrally,
we don't face the kind of challenges of how we are going to
allocate funds between medicine and arts and sciences, per
se, because each of our schools operates independently.
The report cites a revival of humanities at research
universities. Why, and how so?
Weiss: One thing that we are doing is trying to make
more of a connection between academic research and cultural
institutions. That is a change. Several of these
initiatives are about that, bringing the humanities at the
university more in contact with the world.
What is on your wish list for the future of the
humanities at JHU?
Weiss: I would say the major challenge facing the
humanities here is to build the infrastructure support for
the humanities, to bring it up to the level of support we
have for the other disciplines. The investment in the
humanities has to also include an investment in
infrastructure to support it, in the same ways that you
have support for the sciences.
"Reinvigorating the Humanities: Enhancing Research and
Education on Campus and Beyond" is available on the
AAU Web site at