History of the NYIH
In the summer of 1976, New York University Professor of Sociology Richard Sennett chaired a conference on the Humanities and Social Thought in Bellagio, Italy, in which the idea for a New York-based institute to foster intellectual discourse and cross-disciplinary communication was explored. In December 1976 NYU and Sennett’s Center for Humanistic Studies co-sponsored the conference “The Future of the Intellectual Community in New York,” co-organized by Sennett, NYU president John Sawhill, and NYU professor Ronald Florence, then director of the New York Council for the Humanities. Based on the success of the conference, Sennett and Sawhill co-hosted a series of informal dinners for cultural, labor, and business leaders, writers, and artists. Participants discussed how to continue to redefine and strengthen intellectual life in New York City. The ideas that arose from the dinners provided the structure for the New York Institute for the Humanities.
In 1977 the New York Institute for the Humanities was established as a permanent activity of NYU by an act of the university’s Board of Trustees. An advisory board was formed to help with the Institute’s early development, while Sennett, New York Times editor Caroline Rand Herron, and NYU professor Thomas Bender worked with administrative assistant Toni Greenberg on the Institute’s day-to-day operations. Rand Herron acted as a publications and communications consultant, creating a series of Institute lunches and Public Forums. Bender also contributed considerable time and organized the Institute’s first Gallatin Lectures. Susan Sontag and Aryeh Neier were also central players in the early establishment of the institute. In 1978, the Institute received significant funding from the Exxon Education Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, enabling expansion of its fellowship and lecture activities. In 1980 the institute was independently incorporated and formed its own board of trustees; however, all daily administrative activities were handled by NYU, with the institute’s board serving primarily in an advisory role.
From the time of the institute’s inception, the fellowship program was the core of the New York Institute for the Humanities, embodying its mission to support the work of individual scholars and intellectuals in an environment that encouraged interaction. About half of the early fellows were academics from New York-area universities, while the rest were artists, writers, journalists, and public officials. In the early years, fellows generally met once or twice a month for informal seminars. As the institute grew, Sennett worked with Bender and with Aryeh Neier to create a more defined program in which fellows—elected to one- or five-year fellowships—formed interdisciplinary seminars around topics of interest and participated in weekly fellows lunches. Most fellows were unpaid, although some received office space or clerical support. Fellows were also responsible for the Institute’s internal operations.
The program committee was particularly active during the institute’s first five years. The institute hosted public lecture series and conferences, most notably the James Lecture Series and the Gallatin Lecture Series. In a concerted move to counter American isolationist tendencies at the time, the James Lectures brought primarily European intellectuals to the institute. The Gallatin Lecture Series was created shortly thereafter to provide a diverse public audience for American humanists. Such literary and intellectual figures as Michel Foucault, Italo Calvino, Czeslow Milosz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Roland Barthes presented lectures at the institute and participated in seminars. In 1981 the Institute launched a Humanities Exchange Program for writers exiled from Latin American and Eastern European regimes.
Today, the institute comprises approximately 250 fellows from a variety of field of endeavor and holds luncheon-lectures for institute fellows every Friday of the academic year. In addition the NYIH organizes a variety of seminars, conferences, discussions, readings, and performances that are free and open to the public. New fellows are chosen each year. Their position is unremunerated beyond a number of research-related benefits, but it is a prestigious appointment that confers membership in an intellectually enriching circle of scholars, writers, artists, and others.
Roster of Directors
1977–78: – Richard Sennett
1978–79: – Richard Sennett and Thomas Bender
1979–80: – Loren Baritz
1980–81: – Aryeh Neier
1981–83: – Edmund White
1983–84: – Edmund White and Richard Sennett
1984–85: – Jerome Bruner
1986–87: – William R. Taylor and A. Richard Turner
1987–92: – A. Richard Turner
1993–96: – Tony Judt
1996–97: – A. Richard Turner and Anne Hollander
1997–2001: – Leonard Barkan
2001–2013: – Lawrence Weschler
2013–present: – Eric Banks
Benn, Melissa “Inner City Scholar” The Guardian Saturday February 3, 2001
Rieff, David. Humanities in Review Cambridge: New York Institute for the Humanities, 1982
Administrative Papers of President John Crittenden Sawhill, 1974-1981, (RG 3.0.8) New York University Archives