Foundation Officers Forecast Future of Support for Liberal Arts Education

Mariёt Westermann presents from the podium
Mariёt Westermann, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The 27th annual Conversation between Foundation Officers and College and University Presidents featured presentations from a wide range of foundation representatives from the Henry Luce Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation, Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, Spencer Foundation, Jenzabar Foundation, and American Express Foundation, among others. Held at the Convene Conference Center in New York City on October 13, 19 foundation officers joined 86 presidents and four State Fund executives to discuss “The Present and Future of Foundation Support for Liberal Arts Education.”
Keynote speaker Mariët Westermann, vice president of the Mellon Foundation, was joined by a large cohort of colleagues from the foundation who were interested in hearing more about the mission of CIC and its members. Westermann’s remarks focused primarily on why foundations should care about liberal arts education and the priorities of the Mellon Foundation related to the liberal arts.
Foundations should care about liberal arts education, Westermann said, because “Without a well-articulated rationale for the liberal arts that can be understood by a wide range of constituencies, the future of foundation funding, or any other kind of financing for this special mode of higher education, is in doubt. We need allies in communicating that rationale to the not-already converted.” New York Times columnist David Brooks is one unlikely ally that she cited at length. His recent op-ed, “The Big University,” she said, “offers provocative thoughts on what one might call the values proposition of the university, although he never uses the term, of a liberal arts education.” Westermann said, “Brooks…paints a glowing vision for how higher learning in America can reclaim the holistic rationale that motivated it in the first place.” In the piece, he cited examples of moves that universities are making to stem careerism and broaden conceptions of achievement in life; applauded interdisciplinary institutes grounded in the humanities; mentioned the humanities more than any other set of disciplines; and pointed to the value of the campus as a place.

Mary Marcy stands at microphone to ask question
Mary Marcy of Dominican University of California asks a question of Westermann during Q&A.

Westermann then discussed priorities of the Mellon Foundation related to liberal arts education as outlined in the foundation’s strategic plan. “We are doubling down on our support for the humanities and the arts in higher education and cultural organizations in the U.S. and select other areas of the world.” This means that the Mellon Foundation will, among other priorities:
  • Support liberal arts education and specifically the residential liberal arts model;
  • Promote relevant connections across institutional types; 
  • Emphasize faculty development and curricular and pedagogic innovation in areas such as digital humanities and campus diversity;
  • Broaden the range of liberal arts colleges it supports; and
  • Foster inter-institutional collaboration.
Westermann noted, “although the new liberal arts college initiative will reach only a limited set of colleges…we hope that the initiative will offer us lessons that could be applied at different scales through consortia such as CIC.”
In fact, she announced that Mellon will renew its grant to CIC for the online humanities consortium “to enable a larger number of CIC institutions to join the group and diversify the experiment.” In 2013, the foundation made a grant to CIC for a pilot consortium of institutions that would develop and share online humanities courses and test their educational effectiveness and potential cost savings. “Thus far, the 21 participating campuses have made excellent progress on assessing the intellectual and pedagogic value…of hybrid forms of teaching advanced humanities courses…. The CIC pilot begins to suggest how the liberal arts college sector might respond to the online opportunity in ways that broaden access to humanities education and hold out hope for bending the cost curve while also achieving the qualities of intellectual intimacy and student interaction that CIC institutions aspire to provide.” (More information about the Online Humanities Consortium is on the CIC website.)

Jennifer Hoos Rothberg and Robert Hackett speak while seated at the head table
Jennifer Hoos Rothberg, Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, and Robert Hackett, Bonner Foundation

In a session on foundation support for student engagement and civic responsibility, Bonner Foundation President Robert Hackett said his foundation focuses on supporting students, college campuses, and local communities through the Bonner Scholars Program. Originally designed to provide students with “access to education and an opportunity to serve,” the program has expanded to become the largest privately funded, service-based college scholarship program in the nation. Hackett said the Bonner Scholars Program provides four years of support and the opportunity to take part in an intensive cohort experience to students with high financial need and a strong service ethic. Today, the Bonner Foundation helps other campuses replicate the Scholars Program model using such resources as the Federal Work Study Program. The Bonner Scholars Program successfully contributes to the enrollment and graduation of diverse student populations, including low-income and first-generation students. More than 60 campuses, including more than 40 CIC members, currently host Bonner programs, engaging nearly 3,000 students each year. Hackett encouraged presidents participating in the Foundation Conversation to consider hosting Bonner Scholars or to establish a similar model on their campus. “These service-based scholarship programs provide the highest level of student learning,” he concluded.
The mission of the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust is to “help people get along better” and to “make investments for a high-level impact in the world,” said Jennifer Hoos Rothberg, executive director of the trust. Since its founding in 2002, the trust has granted more than $100 million to research-backed nonprofit organizations “that provide age-appropriate opportunities to foster prosocial development in the United States.” Rothberg said they hope to help “people develop and practice the necessary skills, orientation, and behaviors—such as kindness, empathy, cooperation, and respect—to engage positively and productively with others.”
The trust invests in campus networks such as the Interfaith Youth Core and Campus Compact to foster student engagement, and it takes a “relationship-based approach to grantmaking” by investing in and working with individual institutions. For example, Rothberg explained that the trust invested in Cornell University over ten years “to embed community-engaged learning in each department of the college so that 100 percent of students receive a community-engaged learning experience.” She said the trust wants to work with CIC member colleges and universities and “invest dollars to sustain and help you reach more students and communities.” She added, “We can only do our best work if you help us develop it through partnerships.”
When asked by a participant how individual colleges can work with the trust, Rothberg suggested that CIC members form a consortium to streamline grant requests and apply in partnership to the foundation. “Our goal is to impact more campuses” so that “we can bring an evidence-based research approach to help students better understand who they are, who they want to be in the world...and how they can be their best selves to better serve the world,” she concluded.

Michael S. McPherson presents from the podium
Michael S. McPherson, Spencer Foundation

Research is at the heart of the Spencer Foundation as well. Its mission is “Investing in education research for the purpose of making education better.” Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, said that since grantmaking began in 1971, the foundation has made grants totaling nearly $500 million to support high-quality investigation of education through its research programs and to strengthen and renew the educational research community through its fellowship and training programs and related activities.
The Spencer Foundation does not typically give grants to individual colleges, McPherson said. “The reality is that we’re more likely to fund a study of your colleges than to fund your college directly, but we have made small grant awards to faculty members of liberal arts colleges to give young researchers without massive field research teams a chance.” Opportunities for research on higher education today might focus on combatting the “narrow vocational perspective on higher education, which has become common, driven by ideology and by the availability of not-very-credible payscale data on earnings after graduation from college.” He emphasized that there is good evidence that a liberal education has a long-run economic payoff, but “we need better evidence and a better understanding about what happens in the educational process that makes people more capable of being successful in life and in the marketplace.”
Particular questions that are especially relevant to CIC colleges and universities should be explored, he said, such as: What constitutes good teaching? Is active learning better than passive learning? Are discussions better than lectures? What constitutes a good lecture? Most research on higher education, McPherson asserted, is not about what happens in class or the work assigned. “Research on teaching and learning is an area that Spencer will take up,” he said.

Timothy J. McClimon and Robert A. Maginn, Jr. present while seated at the head table
Timothy J. McClimon, American Express Foundation, and Robert A. Maginn, Jr., Jenzabar Foundation

Jenzabar Foundation President Robert Maginn, Jr. and American Express Foundation President Timothy J. McClimon discussed corporate foundation support for private higher education. Jenzabar “recognizes and supports the good works and humanitarian efforts of student leaders serving others across the global community,” Maginn said. He added that the foundation “issues grants to institutions of higher education and other charitable organizations with similarly aligned missions…and raises additional money from the general public and others to expand its outreach and better support the good works of student leaders on college and university campuses.”
For example, Maginn said, the foundation finds and rewards student leaders who are committed to humanitarian efforts such as reducing global poverty and lifting up women and children in their own communities and around the world. The foundation provides students with travel grants to humanitarian-focused conferences and offers financial support to student groups that take on humanitarian projects. Maginn encouraged colleges and universities to submit proposals for student projects they deem worthy of the foundation’s support.
The American Express Foundation, said McClimon, also supports students and nonprofit higher education in programs related to historic preservation, leadership, and community service. “We make grants to hundreds of organizations, including colleges and universities, for leadership development programs.” For example, the foundation funded a program at Marlboro College (VT) to train nonprofit leaders in Vermont. “For-profit companies develop programs to train leaders, but the nonprofit sector hasn’t done that, so the foundation is trying to diversify nonprofit leadership and to help individual institutions in particular by providing funding for leadership development programs,” McClimon said. He, too, encouraged presidents at the Foundation Conversation to apply for grants from the foundation.