University establishes Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge

$10 million gift from University Trustee Steve G. Stevanovich to support new research institute

Seldom do we question what we know—what we accept as facts, and how such facts came into being. A new research institute at the University of Chicago is designed to address just such questions.

The Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge will bring together scholars from many fields to examine the historical, social and intellectual circumstances that give rise to different kinds of knowledge, and to assess how this knowledge shapes the modern world. As such, it will function as a research laboratory and incubator for UChicago faculty and visiting scholars, as well as PhD students and postdoctoral scholars associated with the program. Faculty members at the Stevanovich Institute also will teach a wide range of courses at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. These courses will, broadly speaking, focus on what we know, how we know it, and how knowledge and its current applications are shaped by the culture and historical moments in which it was created.

The institute will be named for University Trustee Steve G. Stevanovich and his wife Ashley, in recognition of their $10 million donation to the University in support of the institute. Stevanovich, AB’85, MBA’90, is a longtime UChicago supporter whose philanthropy also has benefitted the University’s Stevanovich Center for Financial Mathematics and teaching in the Core curriculum of the College.

Through the Stevanovich Institute, scholars will have the opportunity to work on questions with a broad geographical and historical scope. What does “knowledge” incorporate, and what does it exclude? From what sources does knowledge emerge and derive legitimacy in different cultures? And what is the half-life of knowledge, given that knowledge is always dying as well as being born?

The Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge joins other interdisciplinary programs with a humanistic perspective such as the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, and the Franke Institute for the Humanities—all of which, in distinct ways, bring together a wide range of scholars to tackle areas of study that benefit from diverse perspectives. 

The institute has been established by the ideas and efforts of a group of more than 20 faculty members drawn from across the University. This distinguished group of scholars, spanning five academic divisions and schools, will teach the Stevanovich Institute’s undergraduate College courses and graduate seminars.

“The Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge embodies a fundamental strength of the University: inquiry across disciplinary boundaries,” said Provost Eric Isaacs. “It will bring together scholars with divergent approaches but converging interests, enhancing innovative work on campus and making our campus a global destination for scholars seeking a deeper understanding of the evolution of knowledge over time.”

Stevanovich believes the institute will be a valuable resource for scholars in the humanities and social sciences.

“Intellectual history, through my work with renowned historian and teacher Karl Weintraub, was a touchstone of my education at the University,” Stevanovich said. “I am honored to support this transformative program that will build on the University’s longstanding excellence in this field.”

Isaacs appointed Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor in Classics and the College, to be the inaugural faculty director of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge for a three-year term.

Prof. Clifford Ando, a member of the faculty steering committee, described Bartsch-Zimmer as a “subtle, curious and wide-ranging intellectual” whose interests and training make her an ideal choice for the position.

“Shadi is a superb historian of ancient thought, with deep and precise expertise. Among historians of ancient thought, she is among the most committed to the idea that classical materials have something to say to scholars who use modern tools of analysis,” said Ando, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Classics, History, Law and the College. Bartsch-Zimmer’s recent work looks at the different cultural outcomes of the Western and Chinese philosophical traditions.

Bartsch-Zimmer said it was an honor to serve as the Stevanovich Institute’s inaugural director.

“There is no institute like the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge currently in existence at any university,” she said. “But the University of Chicago has always been a place where discipline-agnostic ‘thinking outside the box’ is encouraged, and the Stevanovich Institute is an expression of that approach to knowledge. We are sure it will thrive here, even as it reaches out to other universities across the world.” 

Specific examples of questions scholars in the institute will address include: How does democracy’s ancient origin in the slave-holding city of ancient Athens affect its present shape? How did Darwin’s findings about evolution give birth to archaeology as a discipline—and pass on to Freud, in turn, the model for “digging” into the unconscious?  In the West, has the privileged place of instrumental rationality rendered us less appreciative of alternative sources of “knowing?” And how do metaphors in science shape conceptual advances in that field?

The Stevanovich Institute’s executive committee will include the director, along with Ando; Tom Ginsburg, the Leo Spitz Professor of International Law; Robert J. Richards, the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor in the History of Science and Medicine; Haun Saussy, University Professor in Comparative Literature; and ex officio member Vice Provost Sian Beilock. The steering committee will be guided by the diverse faculty of the institute, including scholars of the Islamic world, India and China. Thomas Christensen, Master of the Humanities Collegiate Division, will be a regular consultant on College teaching.

The institute will share its research findings through a new biannual journal, The Journal of the History of Knowledge, to be published by the University of Chicago Press. A group of internationally known scholars drawn from around the world will serve as the journal’s editorial board. In addition, the institute will host conferences, seminars, workshops and public events throughout the year.

The Stevanovich Institute will begin offering a seminar for graduate students next academic year. Additionally, it is already looking forward to the production of a new core sequence for undergraduates in the College. An inaugural conference for the Stevanovich Institute will take place in spring 2016.