Landmark initiative reimagines humanistic inquiry

In an ambitious initiative designed to expand the boundaries of humanistic study, the University of Chicago is establishing a center devoted to addressing questions that transcend any single field or methodology.

The Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society will create a destination for outstanding visiting scholars in the humanities and humanistic social sciences from around the nation and the world, who will come to collaborate with their peers in Chicago. The Neubauer Collegium will fund research into large-scale questions that require the expertise and perspectives of many disciplines, while pioneering new efforts to share that work with a wider public.

The Collegium is named in honor of Joseph Neubauer and Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer, whose landmark $26.5 million gift to the University is among the largest in support of the humanities and social sciences in the institution’s history. The gift marks a new chapter in the Neubauer family’s history of innovative philanthropy in support of scholars and groundbreaking research, designed to make a lasting impact.

“The Neubauer Collegium reflects the University's commitment to humanistic inquiry and discourse, important not only for its own merits but because it comes at a time when some other institutions are retreating from the humanities," wrote President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum in a joint message to University faculty. "The Collegium will create an intellectual destination in Hyde Park that will enhance the University's initiatives around the globe."

The Neubauers said their support for the Collegium stemmed from a desire to help humanists embrace new modes of inquiry.

“We want to see what humanists and social scientists can do when they are encouraged to and have the resources to set their sights on questions beyond their discipline,” says Joseph Neubauer, MBA ’65, a trustee of the University and Chairman of the Aramark corporation.

“Any time there has been a flowering of civilization, it is because great ideas have been tested, shared and disseminated widely,” Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer adds. “The Collegium has the potential to foster that kind of collaboration in our time.”

The Neubauer Collegium is the latest in a series of ambitious humanities and arts-related initiatives and projects at UChicago. Investment in these initiatives—which include the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, and the Graduate Aid Initiative—totals $275 million since 2006. It also complements initiatives that advance the social sciences, such as the Computation Institute, the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, and the Grossman Institute for Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior.

The Neubauer Collegium will be housed at 5701 S. Woodlawn in the former Meadville-Lombard Seminary building, and will begin operation during the 2012-2013 school year, with the first visiting scholars arriving in 2013-2014.

Tackling the biggest questions on their grandest scale

Many of the most pressing questions facing societies around the world defy easy academic categorization, according to David Nirenberg, who has been appointed the Neubauer Collegium’s founding faculty director.

Nirenberg, the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought, pointed to the struggle to address the different challenges posed by providing health care around the world—questions that require not only clinical understanding and economics expertise, but also behavioral, historical, and religious insights.

Similarly, a changing climate raises scientific issues as well as questions about how well democracies can undertake long-term commitments, the ethical obligations of one generation to another, and the opportunities and limitations of markets to lead change.

The centerpiece of the Neubauer Collegium will be a series of interdisciplinary research projects designed by UChicago faculty and visiting scholars who want to ask such far-reaching questions. The Collegium will help select, shape, and support those collaborative projects.

“The Neubauer Collegium will allow scholars to tackle the biggest questions on their grandest scale,” Nirenberg says. “It will enable us to bring together the finest scholars from around the world and encourage their explorations.”

Some questions now facing scholars did not even exist a few years ago, says Nirenberg, citing the new relationships developing between China and Africa, as Chinese capital and goods flow into Africa, and a massive influx of African immigrants and visitors enter China. Understanding that dynamic requires scholars with interests in linguistics, global economics, the history of migration, and the cultures of both China and African nations.

“These are cultural questions the humanities and social sciences can provide answers to, or can find new ways of studying—if they have the tools to bring all those disciplines together,” Nirenberg adds. “The Neubauer Collegium is that kind of tool.”

Collaborative research with global impact

Tackling questions of this scale and complexity requires “a two-way flow of people and a two-way flow of ideas,” says Martha Roth, the Chauncey S. Boucher Distinguished Service Professor of Assyriology and dean of the Division of the Humanities.

To that end, the Neubauer Collegium will host visiting professors from around the world for periods ranging from a quarter to a full academic year. In addition to working on collaborative projects with UChicago faculty, the Neubauer Collegium’s visiting scholars may be engaged in teaching graduate students and undergraduates during their stay.

“Just as our international centers in Paris and Beijing give us the opportunity to project our scholars and scholarship out into the world, the Neubauer Collegium will allow us to gather some of the best scholars the world has to offer to collaborate with our faculty and students back in Chicago, and to disseminate the fruits of these innovative collaborations throughout the global academy,” Roth says.

University leaders say the Neubauer Collegium was designed to promote a new, more collaborative model of research in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

“The Collegium stems from a distinctive vision of the future of humanistic scholarship,” says John Mark Hansen, the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science and dean of the Division of the Social Sciences. “Traditionally, these have been the ‘lone scholar’ fields, but we are already seeing more broadly collaborative practices taking hold. The Neubauer Collegium gives this development a push, providing the infrastructure for scholars and disciplines to come together in productive engagement with each other. We intend it to be an incubator for powerful new ideas in the humanities and social sciences.”

For Haun Saussy, University Professor in Comparative Literature and the College, the Neubauer Collegium’s emphasis on collaboration is vital. “Speaking personally, all of the most interesting work I’ve done has come out of groups. That’s the genius of this Collegium. It creates a way for departments and disciplines to communicate and do something new,” Saussy says. “The Neubauer Collegium is meant to disturb and perturb, and inspire through encounters among disciplines.”

The Neubauer Collegium’s name is taken from the Latin term meaning “colleagueship” or “partnership” and evokes the “bringing together” of scholars and disciplines. “We wanted a name that reflected the distinctiveness of the program,” Hansen says.

In addition to scholarly projects, the Neubauer Collegium will engage the general public through lectures, workshops, and symposia. Two annual lecture series will bring prominent scholars to campus to explore themes and ideas of interest to faculty, students, and the public. “These lecture series will be presented by ‘lighthouse’ scholars,” Nirenberg says, “people doing very creative work that is exemplary of the Neubauer Collegium’s approach to the study of culture and society.”

The Neubauer Collegium will be overseen by the faculty director and two advisory bodies. The Faculty Advisory Committee will comprise nine members of the faculty, who will help govern the Collegium and advise the faculty director. In addition, the director will convene a Neubauer Collegium Advisory Committee made up of cultural, foundation, business, governmental, and philanthropic leaders interested in providing their perspectives on the ways in which the humanities and social sciences can inform and enrich human society.