Mellon Foundation pivots to DEI, awards millions to ‘social justice’ initiatives

The Mellon Foundation, which awarded over $500 million in grants in 2021, recently ended two of its social science fellowships ‘as part of a broader refocusing on social justice.’

‘An increased focus on just communities comes at a moment in which a national spotlight is shining on widespread–and longstanding–social and racial injustice,’ the foundation said in a press release.

At the recent American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting, scholars noted the dwindling financial support for their profession. 

Some of the financial setbacks come from the Mellon Foundation’s shift away from funding a wide range of research projects in favor of initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). 

The AHA meeting is an opportunity for scholars to network, share their research, and recommend approaches to their discipline, according to AHA’s website. 

Jane Kamensky, a historian of early America at Harvard,” told The New York Times that “‘Ford and Mellon have gotten out of the history business.’” These two foundations “have recently ended or reduced support for graduate study and higher education generally, as part of a broader refocusing on social justice,” The New York Times reported. 

Despite refocusing on DEI, AHA Executive Director James Grossman told Campus Reform that “[b]oth of these foundations are thoughtful and responsible stewards of their resources and I respect the decisions they make.” 

”I have met many of these individuals and have great respect for their judgement,” he continued. 

A program overseeing a grant that ended after the foundation’s pivot to DEI said that “Mellon still funds dissertation research.” 

The current program is called the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellowships,” American Council of Learned Societies President Joy Connolly told Campus Reform

ACLS supports a broad variety of scholars including those that help American democracy and citizenship thrive. This is in keeping with the mission on which we were founded in 1919,” she claimed. 

While the former Mellon-funded program “support[ed] advanced graduate students in the last year of PhD dissertation writing to help them complete projects in the humanities,” the program referenced by Connolly appears to have a narrower focus.

The Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellowships, according to its website, has “a particular focus on supporting scholars who can build a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable academy.”

[RELATED: University receives $625K grant for DEI]

An announcement from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) declared the end of a similar program after 25 years of funding from the Mellon Foundation. 

The SSRC’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) “ha[d] funded more than 1,600 emerging scholars pursuing research that advances knowledge about non-US cultures, histories, politics, and societies around the world,” according to the announcement. 

In response to AHA meeting attendees’ concerns over funding, Campus Reform asked Grossman whether funding can impact which topics scholars choose to research. 

This varies by discipline of course. Historians seldom choose topics based on the availability of funding,” Grossman said. ”We ask whether a topic is important and whether it is interesting.” 

However, Campus Reform has reported that millions of dollars are at stake for institutions and researchers to pursue DEI projects. Other major grantors, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), issue funding for these projects with continued support from the federal government. 

As “[o]ne of the largest recipients of Congress’ spending bill,” NSF “received a 12% increase above the fiscal year 2022 enacted level” for its projects. One is an initiative to “‘diversify the engineering workforce by increasing the participation of LGBTQ+ students and faculty,’” Campus Reform reported. 

Similarly, the Mellon Foundation shows over $500 million awarded to programs last year in its grant database. Compared to the range of topics pursed in the two defunct programs, new programs funded by Mellon, the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities,“ focus on diversifying American institutions.

[RELATED: Community college gets $15k grant for DEI initiatives in STEM]

A 2020 press release from the Mellon Foundation announced its initiatives as “a major strategic evolution for its organization” which would “prioritiz[e] social justice in all of its grantmaking.” 

“Since its founding, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has sought to strengthen, promote, and defend the arts and humanities as essential to democratic societies,” the press release reads. “An increased focus on just communities comes at a moment in which a national spotlight is shining on widespread–and longstanding–social and racial injustice.”

Initiatives include those that “work with colleges, universities, and other organizations that embrace equity in higher learning and have built exemplary capacity to pursue this work.”

In its work with colleges and universities, the Mellon Foundation awarded approximately $1.2 million to Morehouse College in Georgia “to support the development of an institute for Black masculinities studies.” Morehouse, an all-male private liberal arts college, currently offers an Africana Studies major that “examine[s] questions of social justice and Black life.” 

Another recent grant is the $3.65 million that the Mellon Foundation awarded to “Leading Edge Fellowships,” or “postdoctoral fellowships in social-justice-oriented government and nonprofit agencies for humanities PhDs.”  Leading Edge Fellowships are coordinated by ACLS, the host program of the now-defunct Dissertation Completion Fellowships.

report from Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander suggests the scope of academic and artistic organizations funded by the foundation. “We are proud to partner with the Academy of American Poets, the National Book Foundation, and the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses to support small presses and literary organizations through the renewal of the Literary Arts Emergency Fund,” the report reads. 

Alexander’s biography describes her role at other institutions as “Chancellor Emeritus of the Academy of American Poets, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,” and a board member of the Pulitzer Prize, which all deliver coveted funding and recognition in poetryscholarship, and journalism

A representative at Mellon declined to comment. 

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.