Philanthropist Elizabeth Grass Weese and her brother, Roger Grass, have committed $10 million to advance humanities scholarship and teaching at the Johns Hopkins University and to promote literature, art, philosophy, history, and other cultural studies in Baltimore and the wider community.
Their gift, through the Alexander Grass Foundation, is the largest ever to Johns Hopkins exclusively for the support of the humanities.
It establishes the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute as a focal point and important sponsor of programming for 10 humanities departments in the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, other departments in humanistic social sciences, and related centers and programs.
The institute is named for the donors' late father, a Pennsylvania businessman and philanthropist and founder in 1962 of what became Rite Aid Corp., now one of the nation's largest drugstore chains.
"The study of the humanities reflects humankind's ceaseless quest to know who we are and how we understand our relation to one another," said Ronald J. Daniels, president of the university. "Elizabeth and Roger's generous gift stands as a bold statement of Johns Hopkins' unwavering commitment to these disciplines and their essential role in addressing the key questions of our age."
The institute will be housed in the School of Arts and Sciences.
"Study in the humanities is central to Johns Hopkins' purpose as the nation's first research university," said Beverly Wendland, James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School.
"We believe in the importance of these disciplines. We believe that scholarship in these disciplines improves the human condition. We believe that studying these disciplines opens our students to important new ways of thinking and puts them on the path to more productive and useful lives. We are grateful to Elizabeth Weese, Roger Grass, and the foundation for strengthening so substantially our work in the humanities."
The Alexander Grass Humanities Institute plans to hold both scholarly meetings and events for the public. It will support visiting scholars and public speakers, graduate student fellowships and undergraduate research projects. It will pave the way for faculty members from different departments to work together on innovative projects of mutual interest. Possible future ventures include fellowships for humanities-related projects in the community, and poetry or essay contests.
Weese's daughter, Olivia, is a junior Writing Seminars major at Johns Hopkins, and her son, Jonathan, is a doctoral student in computer science. Weese hopes the institute will help the university win a reputation in the humanities commensurate with its standing in health and medicine.
"Really, the study of the humanities is at the basis of everything in life, and sometimes it gets short shrift," said Weese, 59, a former Baltimore resident and a mother of six. "What I really love about the institute is its cross-disciplinary nature, which illustrates the scope of the humanities. The opportunities will ultimately broaden students' options in life."
Johns Hopkins humanities departments include Classics, English, German and Romance Languages and Literatures, History, History of Art, History of Science and Technology, the Humanities Center, Near Eastern Studies, Philosophy, and the Writing Seminars. Some social science faculty members such as the Anthropology Department and political theorists in Political Science will also be involved in the institute, as will other programs and centers in the Krieger School.
The breadth of humanities study at Johns Hopkins speaks to the depth and enthusiasm of the university's support and the importance of humanities education, said Christopher Celenza, vice dean for humanities and social sciences and chair of the Classics Department.
"Especially for our undergraduate students, many of whom will change careers every five years, the humanities provide personal resiliency by helping people re-situate themselves in life's different circumstances," Celenza said. "They teach one how to do research that is translatable to other realms of inquiry; they build the capacity to follow complex rhetorical argumentation—all the more important in a world where information is moving around faster than ever; they hone our ability to express ourselves both orally and in writing; and they enrich our lives by allowing us to see the world in all its diversity."
The institute's first director will be William Egginton, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and a professor in the department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures. His latest book, published this year, is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World.
Many institute programs, Egginton said, will fall within three broad areas: global humanities, examining the differences among cultural, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups and the importance of non-Western intellectual traditions; media and knowledge formation, or how humans record knowledge, share it, and make it understandable to others; and aesthetics, which explores how we perceive and understand art. In its first year, the institute will support symposia and workshops in all of those areas, including one on the history of the humanities and another on the theory and practice of translation, Egginton said.
"Right from the beginning," he said, "the institute will go to work developing platforms to forge connections between this programming and the wider public, both locally and in the broader public sphere."
Alexander Grass, who built Rite Aid from its beginning in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as one small health and beauty aid retail store, retired as chairman and CEO in 1995. He pursued other businesses and philanthropy until his death in 2009 at 82. Among other institutions in the United States and Israel, he supported Johns Hopkins, giving more than $1.3 million to its Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The gift establishing the Alexander Grass Institute counts toward Rising to the Challenge: The Campaign for Johns Hopkins, an effort to raise $5 billion, primarily to support students, research and discovery, and interdisciplinary solutions to some of humanity's most important problems. The campaign, supporting both the university and Johns Hopkins Medicine, began in January 2010, was publicly launched in May 2013, and is targeted for completion in June 2018. So far, the campaign has raised $3.82 billion.