Wayne State University

Aim Higher

I write this message with quite mixed feelings since it will be the last such message from me. After serving as Director of the Humanities Center for almost 30 years, I will be resigning from the position on August 31 and returning to my faculty position in the English Department after a year of administrative leave in 2022-23.

After the Provost’s public announcement of my decision to step down, dozens of faculty and administrators sent me emails thanking me for my service, and several of them asked me why I stayed so long in the position. I will address that question later in this message but first, I want to give credit to the late David Adamany, who served as president of Wayne State University from 1983 to 1997. It was President Adamany’s idea to establish the Center and his vision for it is enshrined in its charter. He envisioned a Humanities Center that bridges the divide between the traditional humanities and the social sciences and arts by promoting interdisciplinary connections among scholars and artists affiliated with these disciplines. Principally through Dr. Adamany’s efforts, the center was established in 1993 under the aegis of Garret Heberlein, who was at that time the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. I was an Associate Dean in the Graduate School and was given the responsibility of setting up the Center’s structure and leading it.

Right from its inception, the interdisciplinary character of the Center was reflected in the composition of its Advisory Board which comprised faculty and students from a variety of colleges and disciplines. Advisory Board members were drawn from the following departments: Art and Art History, History, Africana Studies, English, Nursing, Sociology, German and Slavic Languages, and the Law. I chaired the Board.

In 1994, we offered our first Faculty Fellowships Competition on the theme “Constructing Identity Above and Below: Urban, Transnational, and National Perspectives”. That topic was chosen for its potential to attract proposals from a wide range of relevant disciplines. The response was very positive. We received some 40 proposals and funded 16 projects from faculty respectively affiliated with English, Sociology, History, Art and Art History, Romance Languages and Literatures, and Interdisciplinary Studies. Since then, we have had 28 such annual competitions through which we have funded 244 WSU faculty from every humanities, social science and arts department.

President Adamany also envisioned the Center as a physical entity on this campus. To this end, he provided an attractive suite of offices for the Center in the refurbished Old Main building into which we moved in 1998. That space allowed us to have a Resident Scholars’ program and to initiate our Brown Bag and Working Groups programs. The Resident Scholars’ program continued the Center’s interdisciplinary focus. Thus, our first cohort of residents comprised faculty affiliated with political science, criminal justice, romance languages, communication, history, sociology, and law. From that beginning, we have hosted 8-10 resident scholars yearly for a total of 241 faculty and students most of whose projects have been completed and published.

I can go on and on listing the programs the Center has since introduced and through which literally hundreds of WSU faculty and students have been funded and whose publications and exhibitions have made an enormous contribution to the academic reputation of WSU. For example, Center has also sponsored over 1200 Brown Bag talks and more than 55 conferences and symposia which attracted thousands of faculty and students, as presenters and audience members and provided venues for intellectual fellowship and growth.

Having given you a brief review of the Center’s history and philosophy, I will now turn my attention to addressing why I stayed so long in the position. The answer is simply that being director of the Humanities Center has been the most satisfying administrative position I have held in my very long career in higher and secondary education. I have been a headmaster, a department chair, a program coordinator, an assistant dean, an associate dean, and an assistant provost, but none of those occupations has provided me with the sense of mission and worthwhile purpose as this one. My administrative assistants and I have continually faced challenges of running ambitious programs with perennially small budgets and minimal staff, and have had to deal with many difficult situations, but none of those challenges has diminished the gratification I derive from interacting with outstanding academics and artists daily as this position allows. As Humanities Center director, I have a central role in identifying, celebrating, and supporting excellent scholarship and creative expressions in the humanities through the programs the Center sponsors. As an example, I recall that in 1998 I was fascinated when I met and had conversations with the iconic feminist scholar, bell hooks whom we invited to deliver the keynote address at our interdisciplinary conference on “The Humanities and the Millennium: Beginnings and Endings”. Approximately 400 people crowded into the McGregor conference Center to hear professor hooks. The title of bell hooks’ talk was “Ending Domination: Celebrating the Ethic of Love in the New Millennium.” I marveled at the power of her ideas, and at her humility and quiet strength; but most of all I felt great pride that the Center was able to sponsor and organize an event that had such a positive impact on the WSU and Detroit Metropolitan communities. I have followed bell hooks’s career since then and was very sad to learn of her passing a few months ago.

An event that also brought me enormous satisfaction was the Center’s Fall 2014 Symposium on “Re-the City”, organized by David Merolla who was at that time a very engaged member of our advisory board. The symposium attracted dozens of proposals allowing us to have 24 sessions divided between two rooms in the McGregor Conference Center. We had sessions on re-inventing, renewing, re-telling, re-building, re-imagining, repairing, and re-envisioning Detroit. Our keynoter was Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson, an internationally renowned sociologist. That symposium provided a wealth of ideas that showed the way forward for our city. I was proud that the Center was able to sponsor such an important event.

I was very pleased, also, when in 2021 the Center held a virtual conference on “Creative Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic”. The conference was the culmination of a competition the Center organized in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, to demonstrate that as humanists we would not allow the pandemic to simmer our creative and scholarly expressions. I was proud that the deans of the colleges of Education, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Fine Performing and Communication Arts, Social Work, Honors and Law co-sponsored the competition by contributing funds to reward the recipients. The competition invited proposals from students and part-time faculty and received 22 proposals from which the Advisory Board selected 10 recipients. Subsequently, on February 27, 2021, the Center held a public conference over Zoom at which the recipients presented papers and gave performances that revealed their created art, poetry, music and essays during the pandemic. I was delighted that Center remained an active, productive, and inspiring presence on our campus throughout the pandemic.

But I didn’t need public events and iconic scholars to derive fulfillment from my job, because every day I have had opportunities to experience the brilliance and professional earnestness of our faculty and students--whether it was a brown bag talk, a working group meeting, a round-table session of the resident scholars, a lecture, or a meeting of our Advisory Board, I got to engage outstanding faculty and students from across the humanities, arts and social sciences.

My job has also given me the opportunity to get to know some exceptional WSU citizens who are generous with their time, wisdom, and resources. An example of the latter is history Professor Sandra Van Burkleo who in 2001, to commemorate the memory of her late husband Edward Wise, began annually donating $12,000 to the Center to initiate and sustain the Edward Wise Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship for 10 years. Professor Wise was a resident scholar for the Center in 2000 when he unexpectedly passed away. Sandra continued to give generously of her time when she joined Mary Garrett, and Heidi Gottfried as editors of the Center’s book, “Remapping the Humanities” published by WSU press in 2008. The late Marilyn Williamson, former WSU provost from 1991 to 1995, was another example of the generosity I experienced. Professor Williamson, a distinguished professor and notable Shakespeare scholar, left in her estate over $800,000 to endow the Humanities Center’s Marilyn Williamson Distinguished Faculty Fellowship. This endowment is a tangible expression of Provost Williamson’s endorsement of the Center’s work and established a prestigious program.

My job has also allowed me to witness, and to take avuncular pleasure in, the upward professional trajectories of some of WSU’s finest minds. I recall 25 years ago in the men’s locker room of Henry Ford’s fitness Center on West Grand Boulevard; I saw a youngster looking lost as if he had become inadvertently separated from his dad. It turned out to be a youthful John Corvino who had just been hired in the Philosophy Department as a lecturer. I took an instant liking to the young man and was pleased when he soon began to involve himself in the Center’s programs. Since then, I have enjoyed seeing John rise through the ranks to his present status as dean of the Honors College, and a highly respected public intellectual. I have also smilingly witnessed the progress of several other young faculty who took advantage of the Center’s funding and collaborative opportunities to develop and publish their work and have been rewarded with tenure, promotion, and related advancements, including department chairs and deanships. And how else, would I have met and enjoyed the friendship of such outstanding colleagues as Marion Jackson, Matt Seeger, Dennis Tini, Chris Collins, Guy Stern, Daphne Ntiri, Norah Duncan, Alfred Cobbs, Melba Boyd, Bill Harris, Todd Duncan, Tam Perry, Mary Anderson and others, but through my job as the Director of the Humanities Center?

Finally, my position allowed me to enjoy the professional partnership of some wonderfully dedicated staff, most notably Jennifer Leonard who served the Center for 12 years first as my secretary and then as my Administrative Assistant. For many years, it was generally understood that Jennifer was the engine that drove the Center. She was simply marvelous, and much of the Center’s good reputation was due to her dedication and all-around clerical, technical and administrative talents. It has taken us three years since she left in 2019 to hire an Administrative Assistant of her caliber, but fortunately we now have Ariel Ferguson who joined us six months ago and has been performing excellently in the role. I also enjoyed working with Shamira Tellis who served the Center continuously for six years as a college-work study student assistant but who was a paragon of professional behavior for such a young person. She did a fantastic job of promoting all the Center’s programs. I was absolutely delighted when she graduated two years ago with her bachelor’s degree in the health field and was recently admitted to a prestigious nursing program, on her way to the fulfillment of her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse.

So, my friends, I have had a good run. I have enjoyed my work as Director of the Humanities Center. But it is now time for me return full-time to the joys of teaching and research. I have several projects that have been on hold for many years while I dedicated myself to the affairs of the Center. I chose this time to step away because I sense that Provost Kornbluh will take good care of the Center, no matter what direction he and the new Director chose to take it. I believe that under Provost Kornbluh’s guidance the Center will be given resources to hire needed staff.

My friends, this university, and every university, needs a well-supported and valued Humanities Center because, as I have said elsewhere:

“A humanities center is a conduit through which flows the stories, art, philosophies, poetry and music that nurture our humanity; express our joys; alleviate our sorrows; celebrate our cultures; inspire our loftiest thoughts; and give us hope, resilience and courage in times of distress,”

I will conclude this final message by sharing with you that many years ago, around 2005, I attended a meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes at Stanford University where Dr. John Hennessy, Stanford’s president at the time, gave a poignant and memorable welcoming address to the group. He pointed to the fact that Stanford’s beautiful, modern, well-staffed and equipped Humanities Center was in the physical Center of the campus. President Hennessy said that the Center’s location is intentional since in his view the Humanities is the heart and center of a university education. His statement was particularly noteworthy since he is a distinguished computer scientist who has been called “the godfather of Silicon Valley”. I have kept John Hennessy’s words in my heart all these years because I believe them to be true; and I have worked as hard as I could these last 29 years to position The humanities centrally in the academic culture of WSU. Thus, if I had to choose a legacy statement for my work as Director of our Humanities Center, it would be that I tried my best to make the Humanities Center an important partner with departments and colleges in recognizing the value of the humanities to a quality university education and in providing the resources for humanities scholars and artists to produce and publish their work.

I am composing this message in mid-June 2022, a fortnight after the university held an elegant in-person tribute reception for me on June 7 at the McGregor Conference Center at which scores of humanities faculty and staff came together to wish me well as I transition back to the faculty. My thanks to Provost Kornbluh for generously funding the joyful fete, and to English Department Chair, Caroline Maun for being its principal organizer. I felt deeply honored.

And so, I thank the WSU community for giving me the opportunity to serve this important Center for so many years. I wish it well and will do all I can to support it in my resumed role as a professor of linguistics in the English Department. I hope you will all do the same.

Respectfully submitted,

Walter F. Edwards, D.Phil
Professor, English
Director, Humanities Center