In ancient Rome, a collegium brought people together for a common religious, professional, or social cause. At the University of Chicago, the same name will launch a new venture to gather the world’s most promising scholars and ask them to explore ideas without regard for narrow specialization. 

Announced in June, the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society will create an incubator for boundary-crossing research and a structure to connect UChicago faculty with top international scholars. A joint venture of the Divisions of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the initiative represents “a new model for humanistic inquiry,” says Martha T. Roth, dean of the Humanities. 

“The humanities is no longer exclusively a ‘lone-scholar’ discipline; it’s much more collaborative; there are many more large-scale projects and higher, more ambitious aspirations,” explains Roth. A major ambition for the Neubauer Collegium is to create a global destination where scholars in the humanities and humanistic social sciences can join forces to create and disseminate new “Chicago schools” of knowledge.

The Collegium is named to honor University trustee Joseph Neubauer, MBA’65, and Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer (pictured below), whose landmark $26.5 million gift will bring the project to life. 

The couple’s vision and generosity have had a far-reaching impact on the University’s humanities programs, which Joseph Neubauer has called “one of the great treasures of American education.” The Neubauer Family Foundation endowed the division’s most prestigious fellowships for incoming PhD students in 2002 and established the Neubauer Family Assistant Professorships, which help attract and support outstanding junior faculty, in 2007. Their support also underwrites the Oriental Institute’s Neubauer Expedition to Zincirli, an archaeological project in southeastern Turkey.

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For Joseph Neubauer—who came to the United States from Israel at age 14 and held senior executive positions before becoming CEO and chairman of Aramark—the Collegium represents “an investment in human capital and an investment in what makes this University distinctive. It’s really designed to create a natural platform for the University’s scholars to cross disciplinary boundaries to consider the complicated multidimensional problems of everyday life.”

“Any time there has been a flowering of civilization, it is because great ideas have been tested, shared, and disseminated widely,” agrees Jeanette Lerman-Neubaer, who founded the marketing and communications firm J. P. Lerman & Co. and is a former vice president of corporate communications for Time Warner.

Planned activities for the Neubauer Collegium include a visitors program, public lectures, and symposia. Collaborative research projects will bring together scholars “to tackle the biggest questions on their grandest scale,” says David Nirenberg, founding faculty director and the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor in Medieval History and Social Thought.

Many of the most pressing questions facing societies around the world defy easy academic categorization, adds Nirenberg. Religious conflicts are a leading source of global instability, for example; historians, theologians, and anthropologists could work together to make critical sense of such processes. Similarly, scholars of language, linguistics, and migration might partner to explore the impact of globalization on language change. Yet another interdisciplinary team could study the political, economic, and cultural consequences of the massive flows of people and capital between China and Africa.

Visiting scholars will begin arriving in 2013–14; they’ll stay for a quarter to a full academic year, and some will teach in addition to pursuing research. The University will renovate the former Meadville Lombard seminary building at 5701 South Woodlawn Avenue to provide a home for the Neubauer Collegium. It’s just a short walk from the main quadrangles and the Regenstein and Mansueto Libraries—but could represent a giant leap for ideas in the new century.

Photography by Jason Smith and Dan Dry

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