Whitney looks back on 30 years

Crowds have gathered for free lectures and screenings at the Whitney Humanities Center since its founding in 1981.
Crowds have gathered for free lectures and screenings at the Whitney Humanities Center since its founding in 1981. Photo by Earl Lee.

On Tuesday, founding members and fellows of the Whitney Humanities Center gathered to take stock of the interdisciplinary institution’s history since its conception in February 1981.

Peter Brooks, the Center’s founding director and a Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, joined three of the Whitney’s first fellows to discuss their experiences developing the Center and defining its role on Yale’s campus for faculty and students alike. The Center’s current Director and Sterling Professor of the Humanities María Rosa Menocal said Tuesday’s talk was inspired by a concern for the lack of documentation about the founding and early years of the Whitney.

“Given the institutional importance of the Whitney at Yale, there isn’t so much extant history, so we thought a celebration and the remedy [to the deficit of documentation] could be the very same thing,” Menocal said.

This push for greater institutional memory comes at a time of transition for the Whitney: this spring, Menocal will step down after ten years as director, making way for new leadership next fall. Associate Director Norma Thompson, who is the director of undergraduate studies for Humanities, said the Whitney’s executive committee has yet to select the new director.

Thompson said that Menocal’s tenure has been marked by an increased focus on involvement with undergraduates and the broader Yale community. Since she took over from Brooks in 2002, Menocal has overseen a complete renovation of the Whitney building, increased ties with undergraduates by relocating the Directed Studies program to the center and broadened the Whitney fellowship to faculty, staff and graduate students in non-humanities fields including the sciences, economics and the School of Medicine, Thompson said.

Brooks, the Whitney’s founding director, said he was asked to set up a humanities center in the 1970s by then-University President A. Bartlett Giamatti, in an effort to bring together faculty who would otherwise have worked exclusively within their own departments, separate from one another.

“The center was needed [because of] specific concerns like departmentalization, the lack of an intellectual community and the University becoming increasingly atomized and privatized,” Brooks said. “My own thinking was most influenced by a remark that Yale was an exceptional place for students but did little for faculty.”

Sterling Professor Emeritus and senior research scholar of English and Comparative Literature and Whitney founding fellow Geoffrey Hartman GRD ’53 said he suggested creating such an institution in the 1950s because he sensed that professors wanted to meet more people in fields other than their own. Hartman, however, said he faced opposition in 1958 from the Dean of the Yale School of Drama, who said that Yale had no need for a multi-disciplinary venue for faculty.

“The foundation of this center was not inevitable,” Hartman added.

But the right moment came in the early ‘80s, Brooks said, when humanities scholars called into question the ways in which their field was traditionally studied, and many of the social science, such as economics and political science, began to rely heavily on the reading and writing skills traditionally associated with the humanities. Brooks noted he hoped faculty would come together for the sake of scholarship and the defense of the humanities — Yale, however, was lacking in institutions for this purpose.

“Some of us wanted to believe that a university is more than a suite of classrooms and computer clusters,” Brooks said.

The Whitney was established in 1981 with money donated by John Hay Whitney ’26, who had originally intended to help fund two new residential colleges, Brooks said. After the New Haven Board of Aldermen refused to grant approval for this construction, Whitney’s money was reallocated to help renovate Old Campus, and the remainder enabled Yale to purchase the Whitney’s current building from the local Episcopal church at 53 Wall St.

In its first year, the Whitney founded the Whitney Fellows program, which appoints Yale faculty members as fellows and invites them to weekly luncheons featuring informal presentations from other fellows and graduate students across departments.

“Right from the beginning, [the Whitney’s] conversation covered all of human understanding,” said Kai Erikson, a professor emeritus of Sociology and American Studies who was among the founding fellows.

The establishment of the Whitney also gave a home to junior faculty members looking to speak with peers outside their departments, said Martin Bresnick, the coordinator of the composition department of the Yale School of Music. He noted that prior to the founding of the center, communication between departments was unusual for senior faculty members, creating a “climate of fear” among junior instructors concerned about not receiving tenure offers because of interdepartmental politics.

American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor Laura Wexler agreed that the Whitney was an “extraordinary gift” to junior faculty members, adding that her involvement with the Yale Journal of Criticism, which was run under the Whitney’s umbrella until its discontinuation, shaped her entire intellectual life at Yale.

Jane Levin GRD ’75, a former Whitney fellow and director of undergraduate studies for the Directed Studies program, said that most Directed Studies faculty members now hold offices in the Whitney, and all lectures and colloquia for the program are hosted in the center’s auditorium. As a result, she said, the Whitney has provided Directed Studies faculty and students a sense of place and community.

“It’s exhilarating to have all these faculty members from across the University talking to you about work completely outside your discipline,” Levin said.

Dale Martin GRD ’88 said that becoming a Whitney fellow after he joined the faculty in 1999 was an integral part of learning to appreciate Yale’s intellectual environment.

In addition to Yale students and faculty, the Whitney has built a community that also includes local residents, who can attend events and screenings at the center that are free and open to the public.

“At the Whitney, we’re actually drawing from the New Haven community as well as the Yale community,” said Ronald Gregg, a Film Studies professor and the director of programming at the Whitney. “We’ve been able to build up a pretty incredible email list [which helps] introduce Yale to the humanities [and] issues of import both within a contemporary moment [and] a timeless sense.”

The Whitney also plays a crucial role in Yale’s film culture, as its auditorium serves as one of Yale’s principal screening spaces, Gregg said. He added that no comparable venues exist on campus for screenings, particularly 35mm films, which has enabled the Whitney to establish itself as a leader in the community. The number of film screenings at the Center has increased “exponentially” in recent years, Gregg said, adding that interest in film screenings may grow to the point where another space is developed on campus.

The Whitney is also home to the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, which was launched last summer. Maurice Samuels, the director of the program, a member of the Whitney Executive Committee and the director of graduate studies in French, said in an email that he is very happy to have the initiative based at the Center, which he added has an “extraordinary” staff.

“Under Maria Rosa Menocal’s leadership, it has been a very vibrant place, one of the most intellectually exciting corners of Yale,” Samuels said.

Thompson said Menocal’s replacement will be announced later this semester.

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