SPIA interviews president of Mellon foundation

The Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management presented the event titled “A Conversation with Dr. Earl Lewis, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation” on Thursday, Feb. 23. Theinterview was overseen by David Birdsell, dean of the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs.

Birdsell opened the event by introducing Lewis and telling attendees about Lewis’ profession. Lewis served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and the Asa Griggs Candler professor of history and African-American studies at Emory University. He has held faculty appointments at the University of California, Berkeley from 1984 to 1989 and at the University of Michigan from 1989 to 2004. He is the author and co-editor of seven books.

Birdsell further revealed that Lewis became the sixth president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in March 2013 and was named an honorary doctor of Humane Letters by Carnegie Mellon University. The Mellon Foundation is a private foundation endowed by Andrew W. Mellon that looks to promote contributions to the arts and humanities. Birdsell explained that philanthropy plays an enormous role on how higher education is supported and thus impacts students.

Birdsell started the discussion by asking Lewis about the agenda for the Mellon Foundation going forward. Lewis expressed that it will advocate for science, technology, engineering and math and the arts equally.

“Humanists need scientists and scientists need humanists,” said Lewis. “Social scientists discover the nature of problems, and the right questions solve problems. The arts and humanities need to be a part of any team, and we need to integrate this.”

This led to the question of whether there are blind spots in the humanities discipline. Lewis believed that humanists need to practice partnership to see what works and what does not. He elaborated that the Mellon Foundation is addressing these stark differences of vision by identifying the problem and investing in digital humanities, such as algorithms, computer science and frequencies, because plotting behavior over time satisfies social scientists.

The discussion then shifted when Birdsell asked if there should be a distinction between getting an education for knowledge and getting an education for skills.

Lewis explained that there were 11.4 million jobs in 2008, but only 80,000 of those jobs went to individuals with a high school diploma. They are threatened by unemployment, especially since new technology is constantly being introduced. Lewis mentioned the rise of semi-autonomous vehicles and how six to seven million truck drivers will lose their jobs. Lewis stressed that it is imperative to continue training them with a different set of skills. Birdsell then asked Lewis how one should approach a worker and explain the need to think about a broader basic education. Lewis described that he would first ask that person to imagine a world in which he or she would want their children to be raised.

“Not everyone will have a four year degree, but education will always be your friend,” he specified. “You can ask yourself what you believe in, and how do you re-harness and re-energize a passion for education. There will not be a future for the country if you have no reason to be engaged in a productive way.”

Lewis pledged that the Mellon Foundation will continue to support students in their pursuit of a higher education, especially those in public schools. He divulged that people get caught up in describing education as a private good.

“Public schools do not have the money from fundraisers and often have insufficient amounts, unlike private schools. We will increase efficiency, address civil awareness and try to think in new ways on how to collaborate with colleges,” he promised.

The focus then turned to the audience for questions. The audience inquired how diversity is integral in New York City institutions and what factors a student should consider when choosing a college.

Lewis stated that the value of diversity in the United States is paramount, as there will be a non-white majority by 2050. Students should additionally take into account a college’s graduation rate and how that school will foster their social and psychological development.

The event concluded with Lewis saying that Mellon will encourage innovation so that more U.S. citizens will be able to obtain the resources offered by U.S. universities.

NewsMaya YegorovaComment