The John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage will transition to a center for advanced study “focused on promoting the broad public discussion and dissemination of academic research,” according to a Dec. 14 announcement and a Dec. 20 letter from Dietrich Neumann, former JNBC director and professor of history of art and architecture and Italian studies.
Neumann’s letter announced that Steven Lubar, professor of American studies and history, would serve as the center’s interim director this semester. Kevin McLaughlin, professor of English and comparative literature and former dean of the faculty, will take over as the permanent director of the center, to be renamed the John Nicholas Brown Center for Advanced Studies, in July.
Additionally, the Master's in Public Humanities program — which prepares students for careers in “museums, historical societies, cultural planning agencies, heritage tourism, historic preservation and community arts programs,” according to the program’s website — has been put “on hold” until the University can relocate it in another department or institute, Neumann wrote in the letter. Current master's students will finish their studies this year, according to the announcement.
JNBC’s impact on public humanities
Elizabeth Francis PhD’94, executive director at the Rhode Island Council for Humanities, said the University played a key role in progressing public humanities programs nationwide.
“Brown was the first to establish a (master's) program in public humanities,” Francis said.
Although there are several other public humanities programs across the country, Francis noted that the program at Brown has played a “very beneficial” role in the community. “I’m not sure that Brown has understood very well how impactful this program has been in Rhode Island,” she said.
“The core mission of public humanities, namely building a bridge between the University and the general public — bringing academic knowledge to the outside and learning from groups often not represented in academia — is as important as ever,” Neumann wrote in his letter.
According to Francis, one particularly impactful project that came out of the center, alongside the Rhode Island Council for Humanities and the Rhode Island Historical Society, was the creation of Rhode Tour, an app and website for Rhode Island history and culture.
“The center (created) these opportunities for students to work at community and cultural organizations that could really benefit,” she said.
According to Lubar, the master’s program put the JNBC “on the map.” He said he hopes the University will “figure out a way” to keep the program’s work going while continuing alumni involvement.
A ‘significant setback’: Discussion surrounding pause on master’s program
Angela Feng MA’18, who is working toward a PhD in American Studies with the center, wrote in an email to The Herald that if the University did not rehouse the program, it would present a “significant setback.”
The pause on the program evoked a strong response from public humanities master’s alumni. In a letter to the University reviewed by The Herald, 11 program alumni outlined questions about the future of the program and public humanities at the University, while requesting that alumni are “included as active participants” in the program’s transition. 84 other alumni signed the letter.
In a response reviewed by The Herald, Interim Provost Larry Larson emphasized that the University would “actively explore the possibility of a new institutional setting” for the master’s program.
Larson also pointed to the Task Force on Doctoral Education, which offered recommendations surrounding career advising for graduate students, as a way the University continues to “support graduate students who wish to pursue non-academic jobs.”
The letter from alumni also questioned if the University would continue to “support public humanities investments in the local community.”
A cabinet-level position has been created to lead “community engagement strategy and initiatives” at the University, Larson noted.
Larson told The Herald that pausing programs can also be a “healthy thing” to “re-engage with faculty and rethink the curriculum a bit.”
“I really appreciated the letter that we got from the alums,” he said. “I thought it was really thoughtful.” He added that he hopes to meet with the working group of alumni who authored the letter to “continue the dialogue.”
Future ‘public-facing’ work
While the JNBC will remain physically located in Nightingale-Brown House, the ideologies behind the old and new centers are “completely different,” McLaughlin said. The center previously focused primarily on the master’s program, which had about 10-12 students per year, he said.
Under his tenure as director, the center will become a space for visiting scholars from “a whole range of fields,” McLaughlin said. In their year at the center, the visiting scholars will aim to produce “public-facing communication,” he added.
Lecture series, books and digital publications produced at the center will “explain why academic research in a particular field is important to the general public,” McLaughlin said — helping to bridge the “gap” between work that occurs inside academia and its reception in the broader community.
To support those projects, the JNBC will bring in “experts” from the publishing, trade publications and the electronic media industry, he added. But for the center to develop resources to support all faculty — both University-employed and visiting — it will not host visiting fellows next year.
While Lubar wrote in another letter to the community that he is “sad” to see some of the changes at the JNBC, they are meant to signify a shift towards communicating “the value of academic scholarship as such to the public at large.”
“We want … this revised version of the center to think a little about communicating the value of academia (and) the value of academic scholarship to the wider world,” Larson said.
One of those projects will come through a JNBC collaboration with the John Carter Brown Library ahead of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution in 2026, McLaughlin said. “Public-facing” projects will be developed by scholars familiar in the field, he added.
Clarification: A quote in a previous version of this article did not specify that the University's Master's in Public Humanities Program was the first master's program of its kind, as opposed to any academic program. The article has been updated.