About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 10, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 34
Humanities in Research Universities

A new AAU report finds revival and support at JHU, others

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

The Association of American Universities recently released a lengthy report that examines the state of the humanities in leading research universities in the United States.

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 university.

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 Hopkins.

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 measuring stick?

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 campuses.

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 instantly?

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 area.

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 humanistic teaching.

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 problem.

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 Johns Hopkins?

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


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 540 | 901 S. Bond St. | Baltimore, MD 21231 | 443-287-9900 |