Chicago establishes Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture

University of Chicago alumna Karla Scherer, who earned her master’s degree at the age 62, has given the University’s Division of the Humanities a multi-million dollar gift in order to create a research center for the study of American culture. Her giving totals over $5 million, making her one of the largest single contributors to the division.

“The University of Chicago has long had some of the world’s leading area studies centers and research institutes, focusing on language, culture, history, and politics of many regions of the world,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “This gift from Karla Scherer will add to this rich tradition by creating our first center dedicated to examining the culture of the United States.”

The Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture will be the nexus for dozens of Chicago scholars studying a variety of aspects of American culture – ranging from American painting of the 18th Century, the great American novels of the 19th Century, and the linguistic origins of Native American dialects to the history of hip hop music.

“American culture is a vast and growing field, and there has been a corresponding amount of growth in Americanist research at the University of Chicago in recent years,” said Martha T. Roth, Dean of the Division of the Humanities. “This exceptionally generous and important gift to establish the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture will create a much-needed resource. It underscores what we’ve known for many years: Chicago is one of the best places to study American culture.”

In addition to increasing financial support for faculty and graduate student research, spurring faculty collaborations and creating a central home for the University’s scholars of American culture, the Scherer gift will endow a professorship, the Karla Scherer Professor of American Culture. The gift also aims to showcase the study of American culture to a much broader audience through public conferences and symposia.

The Center will not only be for academics, Scherer said.

“I want this to be a resource for the City of Chicago and beyond, for anyone interested in American culture,” said Scherer. A longtime board member, and current Vice Chairman of the Chicago Humanities Festival Board, Scherer said the Center will partner with other Chicago cultural institutions, such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Newberry Library, and will host programs of interest to the general public. “I really want the general public to have a chance to learn about new approaches to the study of American culture, as well.”

Bill Brown, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature, and a participant in the Center’s planning, added that the Scherer Center not only will help to raise the profile of American cultural scholarship on campus, but will function as an important point of convergence for researchers in the field. “This is a research center that will attract scholars in American culture from throughout the world,” he said.

The creation of the center is, in large part, a response to the growing desire among faculty in the Humanities and Socials Sciences divisions. It will serve an important coordinating role across the disciplines.

“In the last few years, a terrific number of Americanist enterprises have sprung up, from workshops originating in English and History to comparative efforts drawing in the Romance Languages; from a new program area in jazz to an effort by Art History to establish a program in American art history,” said Danielle Allen, Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and former Dean of the Division of the Humanities, who also has an appointment as UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study.

The University elected not to create a major or program in American studies, but rather to create a center because of a firm belief in the multidisciplinary approach, said Eric Slauter, Assistant Professor in English Language and Literature, and one of the co-directors of the Scherer Center.

“Studying American culture,” Slauter said, “extends far beyond the established relationships between literary and historical studies that form the core of most programs in American studies.” For example, Slauter said, “right now, at Chicago, you’;ll find faculty and students studying aspects of American culture in very different ways in far-flung departments, divisions and schools across the University: in Anthropology, Art History, Cinema & Media Studies, the Divinity School, Economics, English Language & Literature, the Graduate School of Business, History, the Law School, Linguistics, Music, Romance Languages, Philosophy, Psychology, Political Science, Public Policy, Social Thought, Sociology, Visual Arts – and no doubt elsewhere.”

The Scherer Center will be formally opened during a reception Monday, Nov. 12 at its offices in Classics 110. Three directors — James Chandler, the Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature, Clark Gilpin, the Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School, and Slauter — will manage the center in its first three years of operation.

Among the first of the center’s goals is to begin the search for a distinguished professor to be named the Karla Scherer Professor of American Culture, and to begin planning an agenda of conferences and symposia.

The center also will build a Web site to showcase Americanist research at Chicago and plan a fellowship program for graduate and post-doctoral students. In the near future, Scherer also hopes the Center will forge a relationship with publishing houses, to publish important research in American culture.