Donor gives $2 million to UC Merced humanities center

08/31/2012 2:34 PM

09/01/2012 2:20 AM

UC Merced received a $2 million anonymous gift that will help support the university's mission by expanding its Center for the Humanities.

The funds will help the center bring new faculty to campus, attract graduate students and organize events for the community beginning next fall, said Susan Amussen, professor and director of the UC Merced center.

"As a public university, our mission involves research, teaching and public service," she said. "The terrific thing about (the anonymous gift) is that it integrates all three of them."

This kind of support is critical for the future of public higher education, and specifically for UC Merced, said Kyle Hoffman, vice chancellor for development and alumni relations at UC Merced.

"State support and other resources of support have diminished over the last few years," he said. "This helps provide for our future."

The donation also is a special gift, he said, because it supports the arts, which often don't get much attention. The donation was made by an anonymous California donor.

UC Merced has received $82,490,573 in gifts, not including pledges, since it opened its doors in 2005, according to Jan Andow Mendenhall, associate vice chancellor for development at UC Merced.

The last time the university received such a big gift was in 2011, when the Bright Family Foundation made a $2 million donation, according to Mendenhall.

The center, formerly known as the Center for the Research in the Humanities and Arts, will help support interdisciplinary research that draws on theories and approaches from different disciplines. The funds will help the university be more "ambitious" in reaching out to the community through the arts, Hoffman said.

That outreach could include film series and creative arts activities, with some events involving entities in downtown Merced, Amussen said.

Community events would fall under an interdisciplinary theme, which will change every two years, she said. Faculty members are working to select a theme for next fall.

Each theme will be explored using literature, digital scholarship, creative arts and public humanities, Amussen said.

"I expect that our themes will be large categories that will allow us to explore broad issues in the communities," she said. "The humanities deal with all the questions that we address as humans, so they may not be regionally focused, except that they're relevant to human beings, relevant to us in the Central Valley."

The humanities help people understand themselves and their relationship to the world, Amussen said. "They don't explicitly usually solve problems, but they give us an understanding and imaginative empathy with others that enables us to think more clearly about the challenges we face," she said.

Humanities education helps people think more critically and be more imaginative, pushing them away from simplistic thinking, she added.

For example, Amussen said, research in the humanities doesn't solve air pollution, but it helps people think more critically about the issue.

"Over the long term, I would hope that having this center will create a healthy framework for conversation about issues within the community," she said.

The gift also will allow UC Merced to bring young scholars from other universities to the campus for two years, Amussen said.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or

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