The University of Michigan has received a $1 million gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to endow four postdoctoral humanities positions in the Michigan Society of Fellows, one of the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowship programs in the country.
Additional funds were committed by the Rackham Graduate School to permanently secure these positions. In 2007, a $1.97 million gift from Mellon funded these positions for six years. This new gift ensures the future of the fellows, providing the opportunity for recent Ph.D.s with the time and financial support to prepare the major publication usually required to obtain a tenured faculty position.
“This is an example of the importance an endowment can play. By providing such a gift at this point, we can secure the future of these positions in perpetuity. The original gift from Mellon is significantly enhanced by this one,” said Carol A. Fierke, dean of the Rackham Graduate School and vice provost for academic affairs — graduate studies, and the Jerome and Isabella Karle Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and professor of biological chemistry.
“The 2007 gift from the Mellon Foundation was transformative to the Michigan Society of Fellows in so many ways, while providing a precious postdoctoral position to four additional fellows each year. We are deeply grateful for this generous gift to our endowment, which will ensure the strong presence of the humanities in the Society of Fellows for generations to come,” said Donald S. Lopez, Jr., chair of the Society of Fellows and Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies.
More than 1,000 applications are received annually for a position in the group. The society selects outstanding applicants for appointment to three-year fellowships in the biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and, humanities, as well as in the professional schools.
Each Fellow has a three-year appointment as an assistant professor in an affiliated department of the university and a three-year appointment as a postdoctoral scholar in the Society of Fellows. They have limited teaching responsibilities so they can focus intensively on their research and publications.
The newly appointed postdoctoral fellows join a unique interdisciplinary community composed of their peers as well as the senior fellows of the society, who include many of the university’s leading faculty members, appointed by the U-M president.
“The MSF brings brilliant young scholars to the university. This enriches the lives of faculty and students and gives these scholars the protected time to explore the boundaries of their own fields and how their fields cross others,” said Senior Fellow Betsy Foxman, Hunein F. and Hilda Maassab Endowed Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Molecular and Clinical Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases.
“Cross fertilization occurs naturally in the society, via dinners, lunches, and retreats as junior and senior fellows share their scholarly activities and comment on each other’s work. It is from these types of activities that the most exciting new ideas emerge. It is a real gift to hear from brilliant scholars about their work, and to view the world through the lens of a different discipline. Every time I attended an event I felt like I had walked into my fantasy of what academic life would be like.”
One of only a few such organizations across the country, the Society of Fellows provides a model being replicated at other universities.
“Without question, the Society of Fellows is what I miss most about the University of Michigan,” said former Senior Fellow Jamie Ferrara, now Ward-Coleman Chair in Cancer Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
“Our own ‘School of Athens’ on the banks of the Huron River: poets, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and historians would all bring their passionate perspectives and creativity to some of the most interesting questions of the day. Freed from the tribal pieties that sometimes infect academic specialties, the mix of brilliant young minds and seasoned scholars produced some of the liveliest, stimulating and far ranging conversations I have ever experienced as a university member.”
Alumni fellows of the society have gone on to become distinguished scholars at institutions around the world.
“To know that MSF will have substantial funding for so many years to come is amazing. Having a group of eight, which makes for such a robust, interdisciplinary community, and having so much support as one leaves graduate school simultaneously challenges you to think more expansively than you ever have before,” said Clare Croft, a fellow from 2010-13 and assistant professor of dance at U-M.
“I thrived as a fellow. The time to focus on one’s work — to really consider what it is about scholarship that I wanted to do, that I wanted to engage in and to have the time to do that — absolutely changed the trajectory of my career.
“MSF taught me what the university could be: a group of people stretching to work and think within and beyond their own expertise, their own disciplines, asking hard, genuine questions and feeding one another’s curious spirits. I, as I’m sure many of my fellow alums do, now try to bring that sensibility to my work with colleagues and students at Michigan.”