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Tulane vies for humanities center

March 9, 2000

Ryan Loskarn (T 00)

Borrowing a phrase typically associated with the real estate market, Lawrence Powell touts Tulane's "location, location, location" as one asset that will help the university secure a major grant to establish a regional humanities center.

"Tulane's location in one of the country's preeminent enjoyment cultures makes it an ideal locale to build a center to attract scholars," says Powell, professor of history and one of the principal investigators of the project to create a center at the university.

Tulane's premier location, its talented scholars and its partnerships in the community are just some of the reasons the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) should locate one of 10 national regional humanities centers at the university, argues Powell and fellow members of a committee that wrote a grant proposal to the NEH.

In December, Tulane learned that the proposal earned it a spot among 16 universities nationwide that are vying to run one of the 10 regional centers. The 10 regions the NEH identified for the centers are Pacific, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, Plains, Upper Mississippi Valley, Central, Deep South, South Atlantic, Mid-Atlantic and New England.

The endowment awarded Tulane a $50,000 planning grant to create a framework for establishing a center for the Deep South region, composed of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama. At stake is a five-year, $5-million grant from the NEH that would help Tulane raise the required additional $15 million over seven years to run and endow the center.

The NEH says it will award regional centers to institutions with the ability to collaborate with other cultural institutions in their regions, support research on regional topics, document regional history, preserve cultural resources, develop K-12 learning opportunities, build college-level degree programs in regional studies and foster cultural tourism.

The University of Mississippi/Oxford received the Deep South's only other planning grant and will compete with Tulane for the $5 million to develop the center. Although Ole Miss established a Center for the Study of Southern Culture in 1977, giving it the benefit of experience, Powell says Tulane's ability to design the structure of the center from the ground up will give the university an edge in creating a truly regional center that meets the spirit of collaboration required by the NEH.

"Our strategy is to build a public outreach bridge between higher education and the public,secondary schools, K- through-12 schools and local humanities institutions," he says.

The university has demonstrated a commitment to establishing a center, he says, by adding additional financial resources to the planning phase.

"It really does cover a couple of the essential theme areas of the strategic plan and the vision of Tulane's future," Powell says.

The center is designed to improve understanding of Southern culture in the region as well as across the nation. Contact with other universities and NEH directors across the Deep South has benefited Tulane's planning process, says Sylvia Frey, professor of history and the other principal investigator on the project. Tulane is using this year's planning phase to map out the university's vision for the center, says Frey.

"For the academic community, the benefits would come largely in the form of intellectual vitality that derives from the infusion of fresh ideas shared across the academic disciplines and state and institutional boundaries."

Tulane has scheduled three planning conferences, the first of which was last month. In addition to the conferences, five working committees will begin the process of formulating the details for a center that can enrich regional studies while appealing to the public, Powell says. Even in this early stage, Powell says Tulane faculty and staff from various disciplines already have demonstrated their commitment to working with others outside their academic and administrative borders.

"It is one of the most successful collaboratives of that kind that I've witnessed in my 22 years at Tulane," Powell says. Even if Tulane doesn't receive the final NEH grant, the university will likely go forward with plans to establish a humanities center anyway, he says. "I think this is the direction that the university administrators want to go in, which is why they are ready to commit some of their own dollars to it," Powell says. "They see it as an investment with a substantial return, intellectually and financially."

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