Humanities Center Endowed by $10-Million Gift

Securing a hub for interdisciplinary discourse

The Humanities Center at Harvard, an interdisciplinary hub for lectures, readings, conferences, and seminars within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), has received a $10-million gift from Anand Mahindra '77, M.B.A. '81, in honor of his late mother, Indira Mahindra. (See "A Humanist Who Knows Corn Flakes," Harvard Magazine's 2005 report on the center and its then-new director, Homi Bhabha.) According to the University news release, it is "the largest gift for the study of humanities in Harvard's history." The center will be renamed the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard. The gift will secure its operations; heretofore, the center has been supported with FAS funds and grants. 

Anand Mahindra, who came to the College as a film-studies concentrator, is vice chairman and managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra, Ltd., a leading industrial conglomerate based in Mumbai, India, with interests in tractor and other vehicle production, financial services, and, more recently, information technology. He is also a member of the Committee on University Resources, Harvard's principal fundraising advisory body. Read the October 6 Bloomberg profile here. 

“I am happy to be able to contribute to the cause of the humanities,” Mahindra said in the news release.  “To address complex problems in an interdependent world, it is vital to encourage the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary exchange of ideas in an international setting. I am proud to be part of the intellectual legacy of India’s contribution to global thinking across the arts, culture, science, and philosophy. I am convinced of the need for incorporating social and humanistic concerns into the core value proposition of business.”

“This remarkable gift is a significant affirmation of the importance of the humanities and the central place of the liberal arts in the University,” said President Drew Faust in the news release.  “It comes at a time when it is vital to bring a humane and critical perspective to the urgent questions that confront the world." According to the release, Faust plans next spring to charge a faculty working group with exploring the role of humanistic study in the curriculum, in interdisciplinary scholarship, and in public discourse in the wider community beyond the University.

(Coincidentally, during the weekend, Brown University announced a $3-million gift that launches a Brown Humanities Initiative, including the appointment of six new scholars in the field.)

The association with the Mahindra family will "emphasize the universal value of the humanities in both education and public life,” said center director Bhabha in the news release. Bhabha, the Rothenberg professor of the humanities, has written and lectured widely on cultural migration, globalization, human rights, race, gender, and the arts; The Location of Culture is his best-known book. In his Director's Letter on the center's website, he has written that

the humanities build communities rather than 'models,' and this is why the public always feels that it has a stake in humanistic debates. The humanities make a unique contribution to establishing—through dialogue and interpretation—communities of interest and climates of opinion. Like the weather, humanistic knowledge can be changeable, turbulent, and elusive. But does anybody seriously argue that we can do without air? We need the humanities, as we do the atmosphere, for they allow us to draw the breath of human life and art, and in that process to aspire to the best in ourselves and others.

In a conversation, Bhabha said that faculty members would have to plan how to proceed with the new support, but he did advance possible avenues for "enhancing some of the things we have wanted to enhance." He could envision fellowships for faculty members, enabling them to pursue their scholarship; "more ambitious events, national and perhaps international," like those now held on campus; and more "laboratory work," to explore ways the center could help promote the expansion of humanistic study and its extension into and collaboration with other fields. Bhabha has launched a medical humanities group with Harvard Medical School, and occasional events with other faculties (of law and business, for instance); now, perhaps, those seeds could grow into "groups of scholars who will get together more regularly" to probe "a more ambitious architecture" for inquiry. In disciplines such as education and public health, Bhabha said, humanities questions are often central to practice, but they are not formally acknowledged as such in curricular terms; the center might be able to raise the level at which such issues are addressed, leading, over time, to interdisciplinary and interfaculty courses. He also imagined similar connections to Harvard's museums and the American Repertory Theater.

And "hoping against hope," Bhabha said, he envisioned "in some way, in time, we might have some reflection on how we might feed humanities into policy thinking," with its much shorter decision cycles, to influence the debate over cultural institutions and policies.

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