“Advancing Public Good Across the Midwest”: The Formation of HWW

We spoke with Dianne Harris, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, about the origins of the Humanities Without Walls consortium (HWW). Harris was the director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) from 2008 to 2015. (In 2020, IPRH advanced to institute status and became the Humanities Research Institute.) Harris conceptualized, founded, and was the first Principal Investigator for HWW.

Dianne Harris headshot
Dianne Harris

What would it take to form a humanities consortium that connected humanities centers and faculty across four leading institutions of higher education in the state of Illinois? This was the original question that Dianne Harris was trying to answer as she sought ways to strengthen support for the humanities at UIUC and beyond. It was in the aftermath of the global economic crisis of 2008, and IPRH was operating on a lean budget with limited staff and public programming. And yet, seeing that there could be strength in numbers and in collaboration, a wealth of untapped opportunities existed across the state in the nearby humanities centers at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and at the University of Illinois Chicago. How could IPRH creatively pool resources with these other institutions to amplify humanistic research and publicly engaged work? A collaborative solution was needed.

Harris hit the ground running. She began brainstorming with fellow humanists both in-state and across the country. The Central New York Humanities Corridor project team, supported by the Mellon Foundation, generously shared background knowledge with Harris about their consortium, which provided a proven framework for regional collaboration in research, teaching, and programming. After generating ideas with her humanities center director colleagues at the three other in-state institutions, Harris approached the Mellon Foundation to discuss the possibility of funding to support the activities of an Illinois consortium. In April 2011, Harris and Janelle Weatherford, University of Illinois Executive Director of Foundation Relations, flew to New York City to meet with Philip Lewis, then Vice President of the Mellon Foundation.

The Foundation expressed interest and encouraged the formation of a much larger consortium, one that would harness the strengths of the Committee for Institutional Cooperation, which would eventually become the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA), and even the possibility of including the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. The consortium eventually scaled up to include thirteen partners from across the BTAA creating a first-ever humanities consortium of that size. Although it was daunting to operationalize, the leveling effect of including both public and private institutions represented as comparable peers appealed to Harris, as did the opportunities represented by working with such a large group of intellectually powerful partners.

This was one of the most innovative aspects of HWW: the opportunity to show humanists that they could be stronger together—a force for advancing the common good across the Midwest. To be successful, however, the consortium would need to remove barriers for both graduate students and faculty members to be able to access resources and engage fully in interdisciplinary research.

“I don’t think most scholars have training in the humanities [on] how to collaborate,” Harris said. “We don’t, for the most part, provide the infrastructure for collaboration on campus. It means you have to help people study in a second discipline and provide other kinds of resources to facilitate and not impede collaboration. Most institutions don’t have that.”

HWW would be a creative resource for humanistic researchers and graduate students: providing funding for people to test out ideas, workshops on how to collaborate, and time away from teaching to focus on research and community engagement. Fueled by this knowledge, Harris and Weatherford submitted the proposal for the initial officers planning grant, which received funding from the Mellon Foundation in 2012.

In addition to running two pilot projects that tested cross-institutional collaboration in the humanities, Harris and the consortial partners gathered for a series of three meetings over the next year to map out the prospective framework for the HWW initiative. The first meeting took place at the I Hotel Event and Conference Center in Champaign, Illinois. The second meeting was hosted by the University of Chicago at the Franke Institute for the Humanities. In this latter meeting, Harris and her colleagues determined that HWW was going to have two main focal points: one half of the initiative would focus on interdisciplinary research and the other half would focus on supporting graduate students pursuing humanities doctoral degrees. By the third meeting at the CHCI conference at the University of Kansas, the nascent HWW consortial partners had meshed into a collaborative, cross-institutional working group.

Harris also continued to be in dialogue with program officers at the Mellon Foundation, and in the Fall of 2013 received an invitation to submit a proposal requesting three million dollars in support of the Humanities Without Walls consortium for three years. In January 2014 at the Modern Language Association meeting, a big announcement was made: the HWW initiative would receive the funding to launch the consortium.

Almost a decade later, Harris is impressed by HWW’s longevity and all its partners have accomplished. She credits this continued growth and success to the consortial partners, and especially to Dr. Antoinette Burton, who has been the HWW Principal Investigator and the Director of the Humanities Research Institute since 2015.

“Antoinette embraced it and I think she's just done a phenomenal job. She got the next two rounds of funding, and she's made this ship sail,” Harris enthused. “I'm delighted it's lasted 10 years. I'm thrilled that Mellon decided to fund it so robustly over three grants.”

For Harris, one legacy of the HWW consortium is the network of fellows from the career diversity summer workshops, held annually for five years. Harris saw how the fellows’ enthusiasm during the experience bubbled over into their personal and professional pursuits. She hopes that HWW—and other iterations of this grant—continue to provide pathways for humanities and humanistic scholars to explore.

Meanwhile, Harris has her eye on the future. In her current role as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Harris launched the Rethinking the Academy initiative, which included a group of faculty Futurists focused on higher education and the liberal arts after 2050.

“It’s clear to me that we, of course, need to understand the past. We also have to think imaginatively,” Harris said. “If we don't work to figure out the future we want, we're going to inherit a future that just comes at us without any intention or strategy or planning or vision. We might as well take the reins and try to figure out what we want.”

Published on October 9, 2023