Building on Yale’s strength: adding new depth and breadth to the humanities

During Peter Salovey’s presidency, the university’s commitment to the humanities has brought faculty expansion and new spaces and resources. Second in a series.
Sunil Amrith, Yale’s Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History.

Sunil Amrith, Yale’s Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History. (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

This story is the second in a series about Yale’s evolution under President Peter Salovey as he prepares to return to the faculty later this year.

A few years ago, Sunil Amrith was a rising star at Harvard. A professor of history and South Asian studies, he’d already published two highly acclaimed books before he was 40, had been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and was co-director of the university’s Joint Center for History and Economics.

Yet when, in 2020, he was offered a position at Yale, Amrith didn’t hesitate. 

I was excited by the opportunity to move to a university where the humanities are thriving in a way that is almost unique in the United States, and perhaps the world,” said Amrith, now Yale’s Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History. The strong support that President Peter Salovey and the leadership of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) have shown, he added, “is all too rare these days.”

Indeed, while academic institutions across the country are slashing funding for the humanities and even eliminating whole departments, Yale has doubled down on its investment in these disciplines. Faculty like Amrith find at Yale an environment supportive to authoring groundbreaking, award-winning scholarship.

Yale has long been recognized for its strength in the humanities,” said Salovey. “By continuing to build on that strength, we affirm the importance of these studies in facing global challenges — to understand the world and human experience in all its complexity, to bring together perspectives from across disciplines, and to explore ways to improve the future by comprehending the past.”

As part of that commitment, the university has dramatically expanded ladder faculty across the arts and humanities since Salovey began his tenure, in 2013, building on existing strengths and stretching into new areas of contemporary relevance.

In the past decade, the FAS has hired and invested in faculty whose work spans the humanities: classicists and critical theorists; scholars of the ancient world and analysts of contemporary popular culture; medievalists who are also experts in indigenous studies; specialists in enlightenment poetry, in digital data, and in art and performance,” said FAS Dean Tamar Gendler, the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy, and a professor of psychology and cognitive science.

In short, we’ve made a conscious effort to build a culture where foundational humanities scholarship and research in emerging fields can thrive together and inform each other.”

FAS Dean Tamar Gendler, the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy, and a professor of psychology and cognitive science.
FAS Dean Tamar Gendler, the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy, and a professor of psychology and cognitive science. (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

The history department, as one example, has hired nearly 30 new faculty members (including Amrith) over the past decade, and continues to maintain its position as the largest undergraduate major in the humanities. Its areas of study now cover more of the globe in more depth than ever before, said Alan Mikhail, the Chace Family Professor of History and chair of the department.

We’ve certainly deepened our work in African and South Asian history, as well as environmental and legal history,” Mikhail said.

The expansion has also presented new opportunities for collaboration, as many of the new hires play prominent roles outside of the department. Amrith, for example, whose main field of research is environmental history, has a secondary appointment as a professor at Yale School of the Environment and is the current chair of the Council on South Asian Studies at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. 

Even as Yale has been making a strong push toward STEM disciplines [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], President Salovey has understood that we can’t lose sight of what has made Yale great over the centuries and what makes it great in the present,” Mikhail said.

New spaces and resources

Yale’s commitment to the humanities extends beyond the expansion of faculty — perhaps most visibly in the newly renovated and expanded Humanities Quadrangle at 320 York Street. Formerly the Hall of Graduate Studies, the Gothic structure houses 15 previously scattered departments, inviting new connections and scholarship across disciplines.

Yale renovated an iconic building at the heart of its campus to support the future of humanities scholarship,” said Kathryn Lofton, the Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies and FAS Dean of Humanities. “It was a monumental effort with a powerful symbolic effect. The study of language, literature, history, art, philosophy, and religion continue to evolve and flourish at this university.”

Other major projects, including some that are in the planning stages and others that are already underway, reflect a commitment to the humanities through teaching and public outreach, practice, and production.


Within the Humanities Quadrangle are housed 15 departments, 28 classrooms, 311 offices, and 24 shared meeting spaces.
The refurbished and expanded Humanities Quadrangle helps forge new connections and scholarship across disciplines.

The Yale Center for British Art is undergoing a comprehensive renovation, now in its final phase. Currently closed while its roof and domed skylights are being replaced, the museum will reopen in 2025. The Yale School of Music gained an important addition in 2017: the Adams Center for Musical Arts, which features a state-of-the-art orchestra rehearsal room. Renovations in Sterling Memorial Library introduced the Franke Family Digital Humanities Lab, where scholars can apply advanced computing to humanities-related data, while the wood-paneled Linonia and Brothers Reading Room, a much-loved place to read and study, will reopen this semester after upgrades to its mechanical systems.

Most recently, the university committed to developing a state-of-the-art theatrical arts building that will bring faculty, staff, students, and guest artists under one roof. The Dramatic Arts Building will be the home of the David Geffen School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theatre, and the undergraduate Program in Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. It will also provide dedicated space for the Yale Dramatic Association, the university’s oldest and largest undergraduate theater group.

This commitment follows a major gift from entertainment executive and philanthropist David Geffen that three years ago made Yale’s drama school the first institution of its kind to eliminate tuition.

Character on stage singing in Yale Rep production of Choir Boy.
A new state-of-the-art theatrical arts building will be home to the David Geffen School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theatre, and the undergraduate Program in Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

That the David Geffen School of Drama will be tuition-free in perpetuity is the direct result of President Salovey’s unique ability to represent Yale in all of its dimensions and of his prodigious energy as Yale’s ambassador to all the principalities of philanthropy,” said James Bundy, Elizabeth Parker Ware Dean of the school and artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater. “His success certainly stems from his deep appreciation for the joy, empathy, and nuanced understanding that theater artists can inspire in audiences.”

Then there are the transformative changes that go beyond the bounds of physical spaces, and the campus itself. Last summer, for instance, Yale introduced a groundbreaking digital platform that has made the university’s unrivaled collections of artistic, cultural, and scientific objects accessible to researchers worldwide. The custom search tool known as LUX-Yale Collections Discovery, made possible through the support of the Mellon Foundation, enables anyone, anywhere to explore the more than 17 million items contained in the university’s museums, libraries, and archives.

Faculty in the humanities are also contributing to work being done across campus to grapple with the rapidly changing world of artificial intelligence (AI): examining AI’s ethical and social dimensions and exploring opportunities that AI tools present to revolutionize conservation and the arts and to improve teaching. 

To capitalize on the potential of these innovations — and to bridge the work happening across disciplines — the university recently created the Yale Task Force on Artificial Intelligence, which includes Laurie Paul, the Millstone Family Professor of Philosophy in FAS and professor of cognitive science, among its members. The newly established Digital Ethics Center, founded by philosopher Luciano Floridi, professor in the practice in the Cognitive Science Program, seeks to identify and address potential ethical issues with AI, both at the university and in the broader public sphere.


17,183,414 objects; 4,886,073 concepts; 5,743,646 people and groups; and 13,227,797 works are searchable through LUX.
LUX-Yale Collections Discovery, a groundbreaking digital platform introduced in 2023, makes the university’s collections accessible to researchers worldwide.

The university has also examined new ways to educate the next generation of scholars. A working group convened to study humanities doctoral education issued a report in 2021 that outlines a series of recommendations that are guiding efforts for “pushing the frontiers of knowledge and fostering intellectual and pedagogical innovation.” Another FAS humanities working group reflected on how Yale can set the highest standards in its support for instructional faculty.

Expanding expertise

The field-changing expansion in faculty expertise extends to many of Yale’s professional schools, where additional humanities research takes place. For example, after more than 25 years at Princeton University, politics professor Keith Whittington recently joined Yale Law School as the David Boies Professor of Law and will launch a new center for the study of free speech and academic freedom.

For many departments in the Division of Humanities in FAS, the support for vigorous and strategic hiring has been transformative. The philosophy department, for example, has been able to target hires that further develop its depth in the history of philosophy, and expand its expertise to areas that impact contemporary life, such as the metaphysics of gender and algorithmic fairness, said chair Paul Franks, the Robert F. and Patricia Weis Professor of Philosophy and Judaic Studies and professor of religious studies.

Likewise, the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, which covers ancient and pre-modern studies and modern languages, is now one of the strongest in the country because of the university’s support for hiring, said Shawkat M. Toorawa, a professor of Arabic and comparative literature who himself was hired in 2016. The department has lately added faculty in Egyptology (including Nadine Moeller, the current department chair), classical Arabic, and Assyriology.

We’ve had unfailing support and respect,” especially heartening given that the entire department is pre-modern in its focus, said Toorawa, who was chair from 2016 to 2023.

Often elsewhere when there is support it’s only for the modern,” he said. “But not at Yale. It’s an affirmation of the importance of the humanities, the premodern, and what we do and its importance for students.”

The department of African American Studies has seen rapid growth, making 12 new hires over the past decade, including senior scholars “at the top of their game” and junior faculty who promise to be leaders in African American and Caribbean literary studies, history of science and medicine, documentary film production, theater and performance studies, and Black diaspora visual art, said Jacqueline Goldsby, the Thomas E. Donnelly Professor of African American Studies and English, who chaired the department from 2014 to 2022.

The university has also emerged as a leading site for the study of the carceral state, a term for the criminal justice system’s institutions of confinement and the policing and ideological practices that help fill those institutions.  The university’s strength in this area — “one of the most pressing issues in public life” in Goldsby’s view — is signaled by its recruitment of two leaders in the field: Phillip Atiba Solomon, the Carl I. Hovland Professor of African American Studies and professor of psychology, and Elizabeth Hinton, professor of history, African American Studies, and law.

Overall, Goldsby finds the growth in faculty and areas of research across the humanities over the past decade nothing short of thrilling. Now, she said, it’s time to think about how to best foster collaboration across these robust units by making strategic use of their shared space in the Humanities Quadrangle. 

That’s an exciting prospect we can imagine and enact at Yale,” she said. “We’re at a new juncture of innovation in humanist research, and Yale’s poised to continue leading the way.”


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