Research News

Limited Submission Opportunity: Mellon Foundation Higher Learning Program Call for Concepts 2024–Exploring Democracy, Environmental Justice and Social Justice

Applications due Nov. 9

Vanderbilt University may submit up to three concept papers to the Mellon Foundation Higher Learning Program: 2024 Call for Concepts.

In the interest of maintaining a grant-making portfolio that supports inquiry into issues of vital social, cultural and historical import, the Higher Learning program at the Mellon Foundation invites ideas for research and/or curricular projects focused on any of the following three areas:

  • Cultures of U.S. democracy
  • Environmental justice studies
  • Social justice and disciplinary knowledge

Cultures of U.S. democracy: Extending well beyond a discrete set of governmental practices, democracy additionally encompasses the circumstantial conditions that enable those practices to flourish, including a generalized capacity for thoughtful deliberation; broad respect for, acceptance of, engagement with and, even, fostering of difference; and a prevailing ethic of reciprocity. Humanities scholars are especially well-equipped to consider how such conditions—which are specifically cultural functions rather than properly political matters—can best be achieved, nurtured and sustained within the increasingly complex and fractured society that is the United States. Work in this vein might explore what a democratic ethos is and how it comes to be; trace the manifestation of that ethos in certain artistic and cultural (or countercultural) practices (e.g., collective jazz improvisation); review imaginative strategies for negotiating demographic pluralism (e.g., speculative fiction, in either literary or cinematic form); or consider methods for promoting habits of intensive individual or collective reflection (e.g., contemplative retreat), among numerous other possibilities. The foundation welcomes submissions from scholars working in all areas of the humanities, particularly those seemingly far removed from questions of political philosophy and democratic theory.

Environmental justice studies: Rapidly accelerating environmental degradation is the paramount existential threat of our time, and its differential effects make it an urgent social justice concern. Recognizing that the social, cultural and ethical dimensions of this crisis demand deep and sustained attention from humanities thinkers, Mellon’s Higher Learning program seeks to support the most vital humanities-based environmental justice work currently underway at colleges and universities across the country. Understanding “environment” to encompass everything with which humans interrelate, the foundation invites ideas from scholars engaged in elaborating and promoting just outcomes for populations rendered environmentally vulnerable through factors of race, class, gender, ability, geography and their intersection. Given that questions of environmental justice touch nearly all aspects of life today, the foundation welcomes humanities-grounded projects that focus on specific systems (such as food, water or health), ones that engage interrelated systems in a given community/locale, and ones that come at this topic through discrete analytical or disciplinary lenses (such as disability studies, literary studies, art-historical approaches, etc.). The strongest applications will center the co-creation of advanced humanities knowledge by academic constituencies and partner cohorts from affected communities.

Social justice and disciplinary knowledge: Scholarly fields and disciplines are never merely “academic,” in that they aim to illuminate aspects of the world at large, well beyond the academy itself. Inasmuch as that larger world has always been characterized by various forms of division and inequity, even the most seemingly hermetic fields of inquiry must inevitably confront considerations of social justice in their respective areas of focus, manifest not only in the objects, ideas, methods and communities they engage, but also in their sense of disciplinary mission and cultural norms. The foundation seeks ideas for projects that best exemplify how specific disciplinary or interdisciplinary fields of study are equipped to reckon with issues of social justice given the particular investigative and analytical methods they deploy. While the foundation welcomes submissions from across the humanities, it is especially interested in applications grounded in long-standing fields such as art history, classics, history, languages and literatures, musicology, philosophy and religious studies. Preference will be given to projects that reflect explicitly on the relevant discipline’s or inter-discipline’s particular capacity for social justice analysis as well as its limits in this regard, and that propose concrete pedagogical, research and/or community-engaged efforts that have transformative potential for the institution and the wider field.

Eligibility: The principal investigator (PI) should be a faculty member or dean in a program or department in the humanities or humanistic social sciences, or the institution’s provost, and should have the support of the institution’s senior academic leadership. For eligible fields of study, see pg. 9 of the guidelines.

Award information: $250,000–$500,000 for up to three years. No indirect costs are allowed. Mellon anticipates allocating up to $10 million for this call for concepts.

Allowed expenditures: Grant awards may be used for purposes such as (but not limited to):

  • Course releases for participating faculty (alternatively, faculty stipends or salary supplements will be considered on a case-by-case basis)
  • Course development funds
  • Funds for the implementation of experimental projects
  • Funds to support costs associated with workshops and reading, discussion and/or action groups
  • Postdoctoral fellowships
  • Travel and convening expenses, such as speaker honoraria, catering and child care and elder care expenses
  • Undergraduate research fellowships/stipends
  • Equipment necessary to the undertaking (see “Disallowed Expenditures” in guidelines for exceptions)
  • Up to 10 percent of funds to program operational administrative and occupancy costs directly tied to the grant-funded activities

Timeline: The selected nominees must submit a Mellon registration form by Nov. 30, 2023. The deadline for submission of concepts is Feb. 15, 2024. The Mellon Higher Learning team will review all submissions and invite a small number of the most promising ones to be developed into full proposals for potential grant funding. Full proposal invitations will be issued during summer 2024.

See the guidelines for more information.

Internal submission instructions

Interested faculty should visit to submit an application for the internal LSO competition and to find additional information about the opportunity. The deadline for the internal competition is Nov. 9, 2023.

Any questions about this opportunity or the LSO process may be directed to