A Scholar of the Black Experience Shapes Giving at Mellon

Mark Makela for The Chronicle

Earl Lewis is the new president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
June 29, 2014

Many humanities scholars depend on money from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a $6-billion philanthropy named for one of the wealthiest people in human history. Most of them wouldn’t even notice Mellon’s headquarters. The private foundation occupies several linked townhomes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, an intimate warren of narrow staircases, Persian-style rugs, and antique illustrations of academic life.

The foundation’s giving is equally understated. In March 2013, when Earl Lewis became president of Mellon, one of the most important jobs in the humanities, the former Emory University provost took over an organization with no communications staff. Mellon’s web presence would have felt state-of-the art circa 1995. Its giving tradition often boiled down to this: "Invest in able people from capable institutions, and get out of the way."

That’s changing. Mr. Lewis and his colleagues are reconsidering how Mellon presents itself to the world and positions itself in public debates. The review comes at a time when the humanities are under siege, their decline bandied in headlines, their financial support eroding, the idea of a liberal-arts education in question.

"There couldn’t be a more important moment for the Mellon foundation to move out and take leadership in many ways on behalf of the humanities," says Terrence McDonald, director of the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library and a former longtime dean of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts.

The new public face of that foundation is a youthful-looking 58-year-old with a thin mustache, a fondness for basketball, and a plate in his ankle to thank for it. The Mellon foundation can feel elitist. Mr. Lewis doesn’t. He puts on no airs. He comes off as a warm conversationalist but one who chooses his words with care. He seems to favor the telling statistic over the grand pronouncement.

Mr. Lewis picks a newspaper metaphor to explain Mellon’s evolution:

"If we believe in the value of the humanities and the arts ... there will come times for the Mellon foundation to say that. ... There are times when we should be below the fold. But there are times when we should be above the fold on certain critical issues."

One of those "critical issues" is diversity. Mr. Lewis, who is African-American, devoted much of his scholarly career to the study of black history. At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he was a faculty member and graduate dean, he immersed himself in the legal battles over the university’s use of affirmative action in admissions, which the Supreme Court eventually decided in 2003. He is now developing a long-term Mellon project that will produce annual reports showcasing scholarship on the value of diversity.

The effort, to be called Our Compelling Interest, follows a meeting of college officials and legal experts that Mellon convened during the run-up to last year’s Supreme Court ruling in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin affirmative-action case. What became clear to Mr. Lewis was how few of those people "actually knew anything about the basic research literature" on diversity.

He voices similar concerns about the humanities. In public talks and newspaper commentary over the past year, the new Mellon president has exhorted humanists to better understand their own narrative.

When it comes to American students graduating with humanities degrees, he wrote in Britain’s Guardian in January, "two storylines emerge." The first is that "the number peaked in the early 1970s, hit an all-time low in the 90s, and has been on a steady rebound ever since." The second is that, as a percentage of overall graduates, the humanities have consistently hovered between 8 and 12 percent.

Mr. Lewis isn’t the only one to make those points. Michael Bérubé, for example, has framed a similar response to the decline-of-the-humanities meme, in far more colorful language. But Mr. Bérubé isn’t sitting on $6-billion. In the coming years, Mr. Lewis hopes his foundation’s influence can help shape a different story about the humanities, a story about "opportunity and possibility."

Mr. Lewis’s own story begins in the region around Norfolk, Va. He grew up among a family of schoolteachers in a largely black area. His was a transitional generation: that cohort of kids, raised in segregation, who came together as pioneers in the first integrated schools. Mr. Lewis didn’t attend class with white students until the 10th grade. He recalls how police officers monitored the halls and power was asserted in the strangest places.

"I had a geometry teacher who decided one day to begin her lessons by regaling us with stories about the good old days on the plantation," he says over a lunch at a French bistro near Mellon’s offices. "What does that have to do with a geometry class?"

After integrating that Southern school, Mr. Lewis lacked the stomach to repeat the experience in college. He decided to try something different. He enrolled at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. He knew nothing about the institution, whose admissions department had sent him a mass mailing. He knew even less about Minnesota. But he figured the move, if nothing else, would force him to grow up.

Mr. Lewis went to college in 1974 with a plan to major in psychology and accounting. When he couldn’t get into an accounting course, however, he signed up for a history one. It was the beginning of an academic journey that would lead to a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a rapid ascent through faculty and administrative positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Michigan, and Emory.

As a scholar, Mr. Lewis cut his teeth with a book on blacks’ struggles for empowerment in his hometown of Norfolk. The work, In Their Own Interests (University of California Press, 1991), represented "a new way of thinking about the black urban experience," says Joe William Trotter Jr., a longtime friend of Mr. Lewis’s and a professor of history and social justice at Carnegie Mellon University.

Earlier studies tended to focus their interpretations on individual factors, like race, gender, or class, Mr. Trotter says. But Mr. Lewis offered a more complicated portrait of black life, both at home and in the workplace. His books examine the interior dynamics of families and individual lives. For example, Love on Trial (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), written with Heidi Ardizzone, used the story of a scandalous jazz-age interracial marriage to investigate questions of identity.

Mr. Lewis is also known for essays on subjects like the evolution of the field of African-American history and the historical context of using race in admissions. The affirmative-action essay, in particular, offers a glimpse into how such public debates resonate in his private life.

Titled "Why History Remains a Factor in the Search for Racial Equality," the piece appeared in Defending Diversity (University of Michigan Press), a book produced in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Michigan decision. Mr. Lewis begins with a story about his then 6-year-old daughter, Suzanne, the product of an interracial marriage.

"So how do you think of yourself?" ask the child’s parents.

"I am black, African-American," she replies.


"If slavery still existed, I would be a slave."

As Mr. Lewis writes: "Unwittingly, she joined a long list of scholars in saying that race was an historically manufactured social construction and had a lingering effect on all." (Suzanne, now 28, is an account manager for a start-up company; Mr. Lewis’s son, Max, 22, is a recent graduate of Syracuse University, where he works as a counselor in the admissions office.)

That essay was one element of Mr. Lewis’s involvement with the Michigan case, an experience that informs his work at Mellon today. As Michigan defended itself in court, Mr. Lewis led a multiyear campus dialogue on diversity. He also helped the university mobilize academic research pertaining to access and opportunity in higher education, an effort conceived by Nancy Cantor, Michigan’s former provost.

The university collected testimony from a cast of academic stars, which was used in legal briefs and published online. Thomas J. Sugrue, a historian, discussed "the important role that race continues to play in modern American society." Patricia Y. Gurin, a social psychologist, presented evidence that "students educated in diverse classrooms learn to think in deeper and more complex ways." Claude M. Steele, another psychologist, explained how "stereotypes about minorities’ academic capabilities artificially depress minority students’ test scores."

Mr. Lewis argues that the need for access to such information is "as pressing today as it was in the early 2000s."

So what role should Mellon play?

The president smiles. After a long pause, he points out that the courts will continue to debate race and affirmative action for the foreseeable future. The foundation, he says, is looking to do more than react to those rulings.

"Maybe what we can do better than any other foundation at this point in time is to underwrite research that demonstrates the importance of diversity, in all domains, to democratic societies," he says.

"And take the long view," he adds. "My argument is that we need to inform a conversation for 25 years, and not be worried so much about what happens in any given year."