Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to Release New Strategic Plan

Under the leadership of a new president and with a soon-to-be-released strategic plan in the works, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation appears poised to become more open about its grantmaking, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

According to an analysis by the Chronicle, the foundation, which had assets of more than $6 billion in the latest year of record, awarded 6,649 grants totaling $2.9 billion between 2000 and 2012 — including, in 2012, $132 million through its higher education and scholarship program area, $50 million in support of the performing arts, $30 million through its scholarly communications and information technology program area, and $28 in support of art history, conservation, and museums. But while the foundation's support for various initiatives has made it the largest source of private funding for the humanities in the United States, critics have noted that, in an age of open data and radical transparency, it continues to play its grantmaking cards close to its vest. For example, it does not accept unsolicited grant proposals, does not award grants to individual scholars or artists, and has long relied on intermediaries to re-grant funds.

That may soon change. Since Earl Lewis, a former provost at Emory University, became president of the foundation last spring, the thirty or so people who run its grantmaking programs have begun to map out new directions and approaches — many of which will be shared with the public when the foundation unveils a new strategic plan this summer. Lewis himself has hinted at the possibility of expanding the list of liberal arts colleges the foundation supports, while other officers of the foundation told the Chronicle that new areas of focus would include a broadening of its diversity efforts, integrating digital scholarship into the doctoral programs it supports, and pushing university presses to make the transition to digital publishing.

"We have a history of supporting the top one hundred liberal arts colleges," Lewis said in a talk at the annual meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies in May. "I'm not sure that makes sense anymore. There are about two hundred and thirty-five. What would it mean for us to embrace the entire complex?" He further noted that the foundation had been thinking about "what it means to be part of a community of interest," and to that end may begin to push grantees to think and work more collaboratively.

According to Mariët Westermann, a vice president at the foundation, Mellon already supports "a much wider range" of institutions than most people realize, and over the last decade it has made "a really significant shift" toward supporting public universities. Indeed, although the foundation still awards nearly three times as much to private colleges and universities as it does to public institutions, over the last decade or so it has nearly doubled its funding for the latter, from $15 million in 2000 to $28 million 2012.

There are "a lot of people doing good work" in the humanities, said Donald Waters, a senior program officer who is in charge of the foundation's scholarly communications and information technology program area. "That's the benefit of being in this role here — we keep finding those people. You're right — we may miss some of them. But we have to make choices. We can't do everything."

Jennifer Howard. "At Mellon, Signs of Change." Chronicle of Higher Education 06/29/2014.