The pre-history of Oregon State University's Center for the Humanities can be traced to the Humanities Grant Study Committee, a collection of fifteen department chairs and faculty representatives from OSU's departments of Art, English, History, Modern Languages, Music, Philosophy, and Religious Studies, as well as the College of Liberal Arts Dean's Office. Led by faculty members Gordon Gilkey and Richard Astro, the study committee was charged with evaluating the feasibility of major changes to the humanities curriculum at Oregon State and exploring the possibility of applying for funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities that might facilitate changes of this sort.
The product of this group's work was a successful NEH Development Grant proposal that made a significant impact on the university's intellectual culture. The 1977 grant, titled "An Exploration of Community," steered just under $1,000,000 in federal money to the university for use in developing curricula in four areas: Northwest Studies; Marine and Maritime Studies; Community Studies; and Studies in Science, Technology, and Values. Administered by the newly created Humanities Development Program, these interdisciplinary certificate programs were meant to both broadly strengthen OSU's humanities offerings and to link study in the humanities to courses already extant in the university's science and professional schools.
The Humanities Development Program was run from the outset by Peter Copek, a faculty member in English, and it succeeded in filling a void at OSU. During the program's six year lifespan, over fifty faculty members participated in the development effort, creating sixty-five courses in what became three program areas. (The program's "Community Studies" and "Science, Technology and Values" offerings were reorganized as "Twentieth Century Studies.")
The Humanities Development Program contributed to the vigor of campus life in other ways, in part through its use of NEH funds and other support from organizations including the Oregon Humanities Committee to sponsor a wide array of campus events. Seminars, musical performances and film screenings were common sources of outreach for the program, which also supported and helped to organize at least four conferences. Perhaps most notably, Copek, who maintained a scholarly interest in film studies, co-founded the International Film Series, which screened independent and foreign films every weekend during the academic year for over twenty years, beginning in 1977.
The OSU Center for the Humanities was created as a result of a second NEH grant, this time a challenge grant which, in 1984, awarded $700,000 to the university following its own success in raising an additional $1.4 million from private donors. The $2.1 million total was used to endow the Center which, as with the Humanities Development Program before, was run by Peter Copek. In addition to continued offerings within the certificate programs, the new center also unveiled a fellowship program which provided stipends for both OSU faculty and "external fellows" to conduct research in the humanities, usually for one term. For external fellows, the funds provided by the Center supported travel, lodging and office space. Similarly, the Center lessened the load on internal OSU fellows by paying others to teach the courses to which they were normally assigned. The Center likewise continued to organize and support various events on campus, including multiple music festivals, a lecture series (keynoted by Gore Vidal) marking the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, and a symposium on the military-industrial complex.
In its early years, Center for the Humanities operations were run out of an office located in Moreland Hall. That changed in June 1989 when the Center moved into what would become its permanent home, a former sorority house on Jefferson Avenue. At the time of its formal purchase by the university in 1993, the facility was christened the Autzen House in honor of the Autzen Foundation of Portland, which provided major funding for the acquisition of the space.
The Center enjoyed stability and moderate growth throughout the 1990s, but change came suddenly in June 2001, when Peter Copek died at the age of fifty-six from a heart attack that struck in the aftermath of gall bladder surgery. English professor David Robinson was subsequently named director of the Center. Under Robinson's leadership, the OSU Center for the Humanities has continued to sponsor academic fellowships and to support campus and community offerings, including two annual events - The Magic Barrel Reading to Fight Hunger and The OSU Holocaust Memorial Program. The certificate programs that emerged from the original 1977 NEH grant are no longer offered at OSU; removal of the last of them, Twentieth Century Studies, was initiated in 2005.
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