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The Center began its programs in January 1988 under the sponsorship of the College of Arts and Science (Vanderbilt University). The Center quickly became an intellectual center of activity, providing opportunities for faculty members in different disciplines and with related research and teaching interests to learn and study with each other. Shortly after the Center's inception, the University chose to name the program in honor of one of its most prominent graduates in the arts and humanities, Robert Penn Warren.
In 1989, The Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities was awarded a $480,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to assist in establishing a permanent endowment for the program. This award signifies the nationally recognized achievements of the Center and helps to ensure its long-term future.
"In addition to embodying the history of the humanities at Vanderbilt, the Robert Penn Warren Center represents their future. The Center has proven prescient in its modeling of the value of collaboration in the humanities. Over its quarter-century of existence, the Robert Penn Warren Center has evolved into a site of deep exploration for Vanderbilt's faculty, as well as for national and international scholars, by its situation at the heart of campus and through its promotion of the work faculty from different departments and disciplines can do together, the RPW Center confirms all of Vanderbilt to be a place for the humanities." — Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos