Mellon Foundation awards $3.1 million for broad diversity, education initiative

Susan Burlingame
February 23, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $3.1 million grant to Penn State to build on existing programs in the College of Liberal Arts related to diversity, equity and inclusion, including expanding research initiatives and working toward a more diverse academic community. Directed toward a project titled “Just Transformations: A College of the Liberal Arts Initiative Toward Building and Sustaining Diverse Communities in Higher Education,” the award is the largest ever grant to Penn State from the Mellon Foundation.

Mellon Grant Co-PIs

Four Liberal Arts faculty members will serve as co-principal investigators for “Just Transformations,” a major pipeline-building and research initiative funded with a $3.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Clockwise from upper left: Amy Allen, head of the Department of Philosophy; P. Gabrielle Foreman, founding director of the Colored Conventions Project and co-director of the Center for Black Digital Research (CBDR); Shirley Moody-Turner, co-director of the CBDR; and Cynthia Young, head of the Department of African American Studies.

IMAGE: Penn State Liberal Arts

The grant is intended to support and expand a set of programs focused on Black studies and racial justice that includes the Colored Conventions Project and the Center for Black Digital Research. It builds on existing programs in the college related to diversity, equity and inclusion, including Mellon Foundation-funded programs in the departments of African American Studies and Philosophy and the landmark African American and African Diaspora Life and Culture cluster hire  in 2018-19. The strategic recruitment effort resulted in the hiring of 13 new faculty members who strengthen the diversity of the liberal arts faculty and its research expertise. 

“We are thrilled that the Mellon Foundation has recognized the important work in the College of the Liberal Arts to build a more diverse academic community and to expand scholarship focused on racial disparities, racial equity and social transformation,” said Penn State President Eric Barron, noting that the Office of the Provost and several departments in liberal arts have committed funding to the project as well. “’Just Transformations’ is a comprehensive effort that ultimately will support and train new generations of scholars, readying them to make a difference across the academy. It also fits squarely with the recommendations of our Select Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety.”

Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, serves as co-chair of the Select Presidential Commission. He said that though the Mellon Grant proposal was initiated well before the commission was founded, the grant is in keeping with the commission’s recommendations while also capitalizing on the college’s long-term goals and potential for additional leadership in this area. “We had a germ of an idea for a grant proposal,” said Lang. “We wanted to unleash the energies and creativity and expertise of liberal arts scholars, so we took already strong threads in the college and, thanks to the critical efforts of Scott Bennett [associate dean for research and graduate studies], who served as a bridge between the principal investigators and the dean’s office, tied those threads together to propose an integrated set of initiatives aimed at pipeline building, community and cohort building, and research.”

By building deeper and broader pipelines and promoting scholarly research that addresses enduring racial and ethnic inequality, ‘Just Transformations’ will foster collaborations that make marginalized research more visible and relevant to the public by improving the racial diversity of faculty and students in higher education,” Lang continued.

Through recruitment, training, mentoring and research opportunities, “Just Transformations” will support undergraduates through mid-career faculty. Its intent is threefold. First, it will build an expanded intellectual community for visiting and resident graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty of color, as well as others who are committed to diversity in the academy through research, teaching and service. Second, it will provide opportunities for collaboration between and among College of the Liberal Arts research centers (Colored Conventions Project, Center for Black Digital Research, Richards Civil War Era Center, Humanities Institute, and Africana Research Center). Finally, it will provide opportunities for students and faculty to develop skills and conduct research in the digital liberal arts.

 “Just Transformations” will be led by four co-principal investigators, each of whom will take the lead for one year while working closely with each other and with Dean Lang and Associate Dean Bennett to implement the grant. Cynthia Young, associate professor of African American studies, English, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies as well as head of the Department of African American Studies, will serve as principal investigator in year one.

"The University has made substantial investments in African American studies over the last few years, and this grant allows us to build on that investment," said Young. "When foundations partner with units like ours, we can boost that investment by fostering faculty and student research on the intellectual and political contributions of Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities to all fields and disciplines, while also increasing the number of BIPOC faculty and students in the professoriate."

P. Gabrielle Foreman, Paterno Family Professor of American Literature and professor of African American studies and history, will serve as another of the project’s principal investigators. Foreman came to Penn State in 2019, bringing with her the Colored Conventions Project (CCP), which also is funded by the Mellon Foundation. The CCP, housed in Penn State’s recently established Center for Black Digital Research (CBDR), is an interdisciplinary research hub that uses digital tools to bring the buried history of nineteenth-century Black organizing to life. Foreman is founding director of the CCP as well as co-director of the CBDR, both of which figure prominently in the “Just Transformations” grant.

“’Just Transformations’ creates a synergy between many successful entities in the college and allows us to infuse that with a focus on the way in which digital platforms can facilitate accessibility and recuperation of large numbers of records — Black histories that have been excluded in the past,” Foreman said. “This grant will allow Penn State to take its place both as an incubator and an accelerator for exciting diversity and digital work across the humanities and across the nation.”

Amy Allen, liberal arts research professor of philosophy and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and head of the Department of Philosophy, and Shirley Moody-Turner, associate professor of English and African American studies and co-director of the CBDR, also will serve as co-principal investigators for the project.

“I see ‘Just Transformations’ as a concrete effort to think about how we do the broader work of equity in terms of how we are building, in a very intentional way, pipelines and mechanisms to support the progression and success of undergraduates through senior faculty members,” concluded Dean Clarence Lang. “All of us who are committed to these principles and goals need to put our heads down and do the work, in modest ways as we can and in extravagant ways as we are able. This grant is about how we bring an emphasis to research content about marginalized populations and their narratives, histories and experiences, as well as the cutting-edge methodologies in which we want people to be steeped while we do that work. This also is clearly an opportunity to ask ourselves not just what our students can do but who we are training them to be. I want the work to do the talking.”

“Just Transformations: A College of the Liberal Arts Initiative Toward Building and Sustaining Diverse Communities in Higher Education” helps to advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With support from the Mellon Foundation and other devoted benefactors who believe in Penn State and its mission, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit

About the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom that can be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive.


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Last Updated April 15, 2021