From Inspiration to Action: Advancing the Arts and Humanities at Vanderbilt
In my February 2016 Open Dore newsletter, I wrote that Vanderbilt has a deep and unwavering commitment to advancing excellence in discovery and learning across ALL disciplines. At that time, we were hearing constant challenges in the media questioning the value of a liberal arts education and, unfortunately, we still are. Earlier this month, the Chancellor wrote further on this topic and convened a dynamic town hall meeting during which ideas for advancing the arts and humanities were discussed and debated. At Vanderbilt, we continue to move the conversation forward in a tangible way. In addition to documenting the intrinsic, academic and societal benefits of the arts and humanities to all, we are putting action behind our words.
The Academic Strategic Plan emphasized the importance of a broad-based liberal education, recognizing that to engage, question and drive positive change, we must have strong disciplinary foundations as well as robust links across them to ensure we are addressing society’s grand challenges in as comprehensive a manner as possible. To that end, the plan paved the way for a number of investments that have impacted all disciplines and continue to do so – from Immersion Vanderbilt, to Trans-Institutional Programs, to University Courses, to Education Technologies.
Yet many ask, what are we specifically doing to support the artists and humanists on campus, from faculty to staff to students?
Last academic year, we launched a serious, in-depth, trans-institutional capital planning process to define our future needs for the humanities and the social sciences in the historic campus core with the College of Arts and Science and the Central Library. Our physical spaces determine not just how those who work within them will be productive, but also how others from across the broader campus are engaged and drawn to the humanities. The process, now led by Dean John Geer and supported by a multi-disciplinary committee, has been in the information gathering phase and is now moving to an engagement process with the community. The final study and proposals for next steps will be presented to me in the Spring.
Also, last year, we transitioned the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery from under the College of Arts and Science to the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries system and formed two trans-institutional advisory committees to provide guidance and ensure the Fine Arts Gallery serves the interests of all schools and colleges. We also just completed a year long competitive award process for new library acquisitions through the Library Collections Initiative. The Office of the Provost funded 10 proposals valuing almost $750,000 to bring a variety of treasures to campus; including contemporary printed music scores, Baruch Spinoza editions and scholarly materials, and a collection of the esteemed Colombian literary figure Delia Zapata Olivella. In addition, we recently renovated space in the Central Library for creation of a new poetry room, that includes 1500 volumes including works by Vanderbilt faculty.
The Blair and Divinity schools are prepping for the future as well. Divinity has invested in a major renovation and building addition and the Blair School of Music completed an internal review in AY17-18 and has launched an external review for this AY18-19, the recommendations from which will chart the course ahead.
But we know we have more to do. Yesterday, I announced the next installment of efforts targeted at amplifying, enhancing and advancing the important work of Vanderbilt’s artists and humanist scholars. The full plan can be found here but let me share a few highlights.
A number of committees and working groups across campus have called for enhanced mechanisms by which distinguished guests and scholars can be brought to campus. Visiting thought leaders and collaborators that come to campus not only enhance our work but as they return home they become ambassadors, advancing Vanderbilt’s efforts around the world. During this academic year, we are developing a draft framework for a visiting fellows fund that will feature access to short-to-medium term use of guest apartments. The apartments will be located in a 20-story iconic tower that will be part of the now-under-construction residential college at the corner of West End and 25th avenue.
The Chancellor’s Humanities Committee’s Manifesto called for the development of new curriculum to explore what it means to be human. Opportunities exist to offer such new courses through select topics courses, and through University Courses and iSeminars. This coming semester, we’ll host working sessions to make sure more faculty are aware of these opportunities and have the information they need to pursue them.
Strategic planning is also commencing in specific areas. Importantly, a review of the Robert Penn Warren (RPW) Center for the Humanities is underway. Executive Director Mona Fredrick, who recently announced plans to retire, has built an incredibly strong foundation and legacy for the center over the past 30 years. As we celebrate the center’s accomplishments and consider all the changes that have come to the field in recent years, we will examine how to position the center for continued success and impact. Like the Curb Center and the Wond’ry, the RPW Center is a foundational and inclusive resource to those within the arts and humanities and forges important connections to those beyond. The Graduate School will be convening a faculty committee on graduate education in the humanities this semester and Arts & Science, in partnership with Blair, Peabody, Engineering, the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning and the Libraries is activating a trans-institutional task force for the digital humanities.
To capture all of this campus-wide activity, the Provost’s Office, with partners across campus, is developing an Arts and Humanities web portal to boost visibility and to reveal the depth, breadth and interconnections of our various departments, programs and centers. I will also be creating a rapid-response micro-grant program for the arts and humanities to provide our faculty with quick funding to implement timely, responsive projects.
Lastly, I want to note that while the trans-institutional capital planning process analyzes our academic space needs, we are also thinking about how our commitment to art and humanistic inquiry permeates other parts of campus. For example, the design of our residential colleges includes space for art exhibits and performances. When you have a chance, take a moment and walk through the public spaces of the new E. Bronson Ingram Residential College. From the gallery walkway to the artist-designed stone carvings, we are sending a strong signal of our priorities to our students and the community broadly.
As we move forward these many initiatives, as always, I welcome your feedback. Feel free to drop me an email at Provost@Vanderbilt.edu or to stop me when you see me around campus.
Susan R. Wente
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