The Center for Humanities (CHUM) celebrated its anniversary on Oct. 9th, marking 50 years that it has quietly been bringing luminaries to campus and sponsoring academic research in the humanities. To commemorate the occasion, the Center held a conference entitled “After the Humanities,” which included lectures from President Michael Roth, faculty, and visitors.
Although some students might not be well acquainted with the concept of CHUM, it has drawn a long list of renowned academics to campus as visiting fellows or speakers, including Hannah Arendt, Buckminster Fuller, Edward Said, Elie Wiesel, and Edmund Wilson.
The Center is run as a community of fellows—a diverse mix of University faculty, senior undergraduates, and post-doctorates—who are sponsored by a grant from the Mellon Foundation. CHUM sponsors a lecture every Monday night at Russell House, which are organized according to an annual theme. This year’s theme is war.
President Roth was a student fellow and has cited CHUM for awakening his academic impulses.
“As a student more than 30 years ago the Center was my intellectual home,” Roth wrote in a blog post. “I had made up my own major, and so I didn’t have one department that was my base. But every Monday night I went to the Center to listen to Wesleyan faculty and distinguished visitors explain their research as they benefited from an atmosphere of intense, interdisciplinary activity. It was heady stuff for me, even if I understood little.”
Current fellows are likewise inspired by the heady intellectualism.
“The lectures have given me an opportunity to hear research being done that I would never have heard of just from my classes at Wesleyan,” said Molly McFee ’10, one current student fellow this semester. “It’s been a way for me to access a lot of perspectives. It’s a broad age range of people doing all kinds of work, and it’s been a really great collaborative experience. It’s really just people coming together to share their ideas about whatever topic is discussed. There’s a lot of intellectual freedom.”
The current model of CHUM has been in place since 1969, however it stems from the Center for Advanced Studies (CAS), which began in 1959, and differed quite distinctly from the current CHUM. Unlike CHUM fellows, fellows at CAS all came from outside of the University—visiting academics as well as statesmen, journalists, and businessmen. The Center had some predecessors in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and the Rand Institute in Santa Monica, but it was the first of its kind at a liberal arts college.
In forming the CAS, former President Victor Butterfield sought to raise the University’s national profile with its own think tank of big-name academics and professionals. In a 1959 memo to faculty, he laid out the aims of the Center:
“We feel that institutions of Wesleyan’s type, if they can find the resources, should on principle support vigorously the creative work of some of our very ablest people in the liberating disciplines,” wrote Butterfield in the memo.
Current Professor of English Sean McCann placed CAS in the context of the Cold War in a lecture entitled “Ordeals of Liberal Humanism: The Center for the Humanities and the Cold War University,” and noted that it was a product of its time—a belief that academics should confer with the power elite and move national discourse.
“It was hugely ambitious and self-consciously elitist,” McCann told the Argus. “A mission to be a national leadership institution and to shake up Wesleyan. A faculty member joked that it was President Butterfield’s way to embarrass the faculty by bringing in big-shots.”
The fellows of the CAS were renowned scholars, but also many members of the “power elite.” They included diplomats, U.N. officials, and such national figures as Daniel Moynihan, a prominent public servant and academic who went on to the U.S. Senate; Richard Goodwin, who held various appointments in the Kennedy administration, including special assistant; and Douglass Cater, editor-in-chief of The Reporter. These prominent public figures often saw the CAS as an opportunity to take time off from their regular work and dive into an academic setting.
Some fellows integrated easily into the community, while others isolated themselves in the CAS headquarters, nicknamed “Sig’s Motel,” after Sigmund Neumann, the first CAS director.
The CAS gave its fellows freedom, and encouraged (but did not require) them to teach small seminars. Hannah Arendt taught a seminar on Machiavelli. John B. Martin, a journalist, writer, campaign staff member with Stevenson, Kennedy and Johson, and former U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, taught “Limits on American Power,” which met in his own home.
A 1962 Wesleyan Alumnus article describes other popular fellow.
“One conspicuous success was Sir Leslie Munro, the New Zealand diplomat, who spent several weeks at the Center last year. A large, bluff, cigar-smoking man of the world, Sir Leslie was willing to argue international affairs with anyone – student or faculty member- who had any interest in the subject. As a former President of the U.N.’s General Assembly he spoke with authority, conviction and wit. The students loved him: ‘He brought the U.N. to Middletown.’”
While some students benefited from contact with the fellows, tension began to mount during the 1960s. Students and faculty believed that that these famous fellows contributed little to the University—besides publicity.
This tension came turned into conflict in January 1967 when the prestige-focused Butterfield hosted a celebratory dinner showcasing fellows’ work, complete with champagne, several courses and a string ensemble. However, the dinner occupied Olin Library during Finals Weeks. Students protested outside, furious at the President’s seeming disregard.
In an article published on January 11, 1967, the Argus announced that junior faculty had unanimously voted to abolish the CAS.
“This marks the end of one phase of a struggle that the CAS has continually faced form its inception in 1959,” the article read “It reflects ‘the lack of meaningful communication which has characterized relations between the Center and the faculty as a whole.’ …Almost everyone agrees that Wesleyan does not receive ‘nickel for nickel’ benefit from the CAS.”
Students and fellows traded bitter editorials in the Argus’ Letter to the Editor section, with some fellows defending the program. The long-standing grievances against CAS were eventually undeniable, however, and the feasibility of having only high profile outside fellows was fading.
In 1969, the administration announced that the CAS would become the Center for the Humanities. The change meant that the Center would include University students and faculty as fellows, and that the research would center around a theme. This model proved to be much more popular, and the current Center is run in essentially the same fashion.
Since 1969, CHUM has been a center of intellectual scholarship and discourse on campus and in the academic world. The close-knit intellectual community continues to draw big names, though they now favor professors and academics. Long before “interdisciplinary” became an admissions buzzword, CHUM joined scholars from across departments to debate and discuss a diversity of topics.
In its 50th year, CHUM is still an exciting, stimulating place for students and faculty. The department’s think tank model will be used by the proposed College of the Environment, and a new course titled “Comparative Study of Cultures” will be offered in the near future thanks to a $142,000 Mellon Grant. While some students may not be aware of the Center’s importance in the University’s history and scholarship, visitors are always welcome at Monday night seminars at Russell House, a tradition five decades in the making.