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Generous Gift and University Support Create Humanities Institute

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October 15, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- More than a decade ago, a generous gift from Morris Kaplan, a lifetime member of the University Board of Trustees, endowed Northwestern's fledgling Center for the Humanities, creating the Alice Berline Kaplan Center for the Humanities and enriching the University's humanities culture in the years that followed.

With significant University financial support and a generous gift from Kaplan and The Morris and Mayer Kaplan Foundation, the Kaplan Center this year becomes the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. This transformation brings a notable expansion of the institute's humanities mission, including the establishment of a freshman scholars program and the recruitment of four new humanities professors.

“I think of it as Northwestern's Year of the Humanities,” said Daniel Linzer, dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, who named S. Hollis Clayson, professor of art history and Bergen Evans Professor in the Humanities, as the Kaplan Institute's inaugural director. He also indicated that the institute would relocate from its current house on Sheridan Road to a more central campus location when appropriate space becomes available.

Among the most exciting initiatives of the Kaplan Institute, Linzer and Clayson point to the establishment of the Kaplan Humanities Scholars Program. Professor Ken Alder, a noted history of science scholar, will serve as director of the program that in 2007-08 will offer a “supercharged humanities curriculum” to a cluster of 50 freshmen.

“The program will greatly stimulate undergraduate engagement in the humanities and help students develop a strong intellectual foundation,” Linzer said. The number of participating freshmen will increase to 100 and then 150 students in 2008-09 and 2009-10, respectively. As part of the program, the institute will develop interdisciplinary humanities courses that otherwise might not be offered by a single department or program.

“Ironically, undergraduates often get the impression that the humanities are even more specialized than the natural sciences,” said Alder, professor of history and Milton H. Wilson Professor in the Humanities. “One of the central goals of the scholars program is to show freshmen that the humanities - its way of posing questions and its interpretive methods -- can address problems beyond the confines of the classroom or the demands of specialized study.”

“The freshman initiative will teach students that rigorous inquiry is compatible with a public discussion open to all,” Alder said. He emphasized that the program will welcome students who do not intend to major in the humanities, including those planning to attend professional schools, as well as students interested in the humanities. “It will convey the vibrancy of the humanities, long a central feature of a liberal arts education,” Alder added.

Clayson said Alder's work in the history of science, including his recent book “The Measure of All Things” which has been translated into 14 languages, exemplifies the kind of outreach and crossover between the humanities and other fields that she envisions will be a hallmark of the Kaplan Institute.

Clayson will be advised by a humanities council made up, for the first time, of faculty from the School of Communication and School of Music as well as the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Members of the council, who reflect the University's commitment to a broad and inclusive definition of the humanities, are Weinberg faculty members Peter Fenves (German, comparative literary studies and Jewish studies), Darlene Clark Hine (African American studies and history), Edward Muir (history and French and Italian) and Barbara Newman (English, religion and classics). Inna Naroditskaya (School of Music, musicology) and Lynn Spigel (School of Communication, radio/television/film) also are members.

“The inaugural council will help me develop a plan that will determine what the Kaplan Institute is going to be, what it's going to do and where it's going to live,” said Clayson. Like Linzer, she envisions a highly visible, central location that will be a hub for humanities programming and discussion. “We want to create an enterprise that is really embedded in the everyday existence of people in the humanities and becomes a place for conversation, lectures and exchange for students and faculty,” Linzer said.

Clayson will suggest to the council the establishment of an external fellows program similar to the current fellows program that gives Northwestern faculty members a year to focus on their own scholarship and engage in intensive cross-discipline dialogue. “The addition of fellows from elsewhere will substantially enrich campus intellectual culture,” Clayson said. She also envisions establishment of a very high profile, distinguished visiting professorship that will bring a leading humanities scholar from outside the University to teach at Northwestern and lead a faculty seminar.

Above all, however, Clayson and the advisory council are interested in finding ways for the Kaplan Institute to bring together the largest possible numbers of people in lively dialogue. “I would never suggest that we stop supporting specialist scholarship,” said Clayson. “However, I'm also thinking about programs, events and classes that can bring together everyone -- from fresh-faced undergraduates to wizened professors -- in conversation on matters of broad interest and concern.”