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New Mellon Grant Supports Democracy Initiative

May 1, 2019 | Lorenzo Perez, A&S Senior Writer


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded the University of Virginia $2.95 million to support the Democracy Initiative, an interdisciplinary teaching, research and engagement effort announced last year to bring together a diverse range of scholars, government leaders and practitioners to study and advance the prospects of democracy around the world.

Funds from the five-year Mellon grant, which is scheduled to run through June 2024, will support a rotating series of “democracy labs,” including the Religion, Race & Democracy Lab and the Corruption Laboratory on Ethics, Accountability and the Rule of Law (CLEAR).

 “The Mellon Foundation’s early commitment to the Democracy Initiative comes at a critical juncture, said Melody C. Barnes, co-director of the Initiative and former director of President Barack Obama’s Domestic Policy Council.  “At a time when the challenging issues before us often inspire more heat than light, the Foundation’s support does two important things.  It ensures our work is grounded in a robust understanding of the philosophy and history that shape today’s debate, and it bolsters our efforts to illuminate a way forward.

“The grant is continued validation – by one of the country’s premier philanthropic institutions – of the importance of the work underway at the University of Virginia.”

Funded by nearly $13 million in gifts as well as additional matching funds from the University’s Strategic Investment Fund, the Democracy Initiative is led by UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. The College is conducting a nationwide search for an academic co-director to join Barnes in leading the initiative and guiding the research agenda.

Comprised of a central core lab and rotating research labs, the Initiative will produce new undergraduate courses, scholarship, and innovative tools of public engagement. It

also aims to have real world policy effects concerning critical issues facing democracies around the world. Over the next five years, the Initiative will hire seven new tenure-track faculty and operate five simultaneous labs on key topics. The Initiative’s scholarly and literary output will be disseminated in multiple forms—books and articles, but also digital media, podcasts, and videos—and will aim to shape the public conversation on democracy.

“I truly believe that this Initiative, and the collaborations that it will inspire between artists, humanities faculty, social scientists, legal scholars, and public policy makers will help define the University of Virginia this century,” Arts & Sciences Dean Ian B. Baucom said. “The impact of the Initiative’s work will reverberate not only in the future leaders we are educating on Grounds and the scholarship and arts that are sure to advance our understanding of democracy’s history and present, but also through the public engagement that influences democracy’s future in the twenty-first century.”

The first of the Initiative’s proposed labs, the Religion, Race & Democracy Lab is developing undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research, offering new graduate and undergraduate courses and hosting a number of public engagement efforts, including symposia on religion, race and global democracy. In addition, Sacred & Profane, a non-fiction podcast being produced by the Lab for a spring debut, will examine key concepts, foundational texts, and formative events throughout history that have been interpreted and misinterpreted in the service of democracy, tolerance and intolerance. The series, like its Lab, takes a global perspective, since it is attuned to the connections between the white supremacist anti-black and anti-Semitic movements in Charlottesville and what is going on globally ­– the brutal violence against Muslims in Myanmar, the refugee crisis and the dissolution of the dream of open societies in Europe, and the ongoing inter-religious convulsions of India, the world’s largest democracy. In short, the Lab explores the challenges and opportunities of race and religion – two forces that forcefully bind and divide – in democratic movements around the world.

The Corruption Laboratory on Ethics, Accountability and the Rule of Law (CLEAR) is led by Arts & Sciences faculty from the Departments of Anthropology, Economics, History and Politics, as well as faculty from the UVA School of Law. CLEAR will focus on four key topics: corruption and its links to political and campaign financing; electoral coercion; the historical political economy of democratic institutions; and corruption’s role in the distortion of markets.

Among the public events to be co-sponsored by the Democracy Initiative is the three-day Presidential Ideas Festival, scheduled for May 21-23. White House veterans, political figures and diplomats from both major political parties will join scholars and students on Grounds to discuss the future of the American presidency.