History of the New York Institute for the Humanities
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. Sennett and other participants developed the idea for a New York-based institute to foster intellectual discourse and cross-disciplinary communication while at the conference. In December 1976 New York University and Richard Sennett’s Center for Humanistic Studies co-sponsored the conference “The Future of the Intellectual Community in New York”, which was co-organized by Sennett, New York University President John Sawhill, and New York University Professor Ronald Florence (then Director of the New York Council for the Humanities). Based on the success of the conference, Richard Sennett and President 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. Correspondence about these dinners, and the first proposals for a New York Institute for the Humanities, can be found in the Administrative Papers of President John Crittenden Sawhill (RG 3.0.8), Box 44.
In 1977 the New York Institute for the Humanities was established as a permanent activity of New York University 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 New York University Humanities 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. 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 New York University, 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 which 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 Aryeh Neier and Thomas Bender to create a more defined program in which Fellows--elected to either one-year 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 responsible for the Institute’s internal operations, which were overseen by the Director and three committees: an Executive Committee, a Program Committee, and a Fellowship Selection Committee.
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. The period of 1979-1983 was especially active, bringing such literary and intellectual figures as Michel Foucault, Italo Calvino, Czeslow Milosz, Jorge Luis Borges and Roland Barthes to speak publicly and to participate in seminars. In 1981 the Institute launched a Humanities Exchange Program for writers exiled from Latin American and Eastern European regimes. Many of the Institute’s early lectures were published by Columbia University Press in “Humanities in Review” (1982), edited by David Rieff.
The Institute is still in operation, currently comprising approximately 150 Fellows, and typically 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.
Only a partial list of Directors of the Institute has been confirmed:
1977-78 - Richard Sennett
1978-79 - Richard Sennett and Thomas Bender
1979-80 - Loren Baritz
1980-81 - Aryeh Neier
1981-82 - Edmund White
1982-83 - Edmund White
1983-84 - Edmund White and Richard Sennett
1984-85 - Jerome Bruner
1986-87 - William R. Taylor and A. Richard Turner
1987-88 - A. Richard Turner
As founder of the Institute, Richard Sennett’s papers form a large part of this collection. Sennett, an interdisciplinary scholar, novelist, and social critic, is currently Professor of History and Sociology at New York University, and Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics. Born in Chicago in 1943, Sennett was trained as a cellist at the Julliard School of Music, and later studied sociology at Harvard University. After brief appointments at Yale and Brandeis Universities, he came to New York University in 1972, where he has spent the majority of his career. Sennett has written over a dozen books on subjects ranging from urbanism to modern capitalism, including The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972), The Fall of Public Man (1976), and Authority, as well as the novel The Frog Who Dared to Croak (1982).
- 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