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Request for Proposals: John E. Sawyer Seminars on the Comparative Study of Cultures


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has invited Northwestern University to submit one proposal for up to $225,000 to fund a year-long John E. Sawyer Seminar series related to multi-disciplinary and comparative research on historical and contemporary topics of major scholarly significance: “The seminars . . . bring together faculty, foreign visitors, postdoctoral trainees, and graduate students from a variety of fields mainly, but not exclusively, in the arts, humanities, and interpretive social sciences, for intensive study of subjects chosen by the participants.”  Of the 15 – 20 proposals expected, the Foundation plans to fund 10 Sawyer Seminars. The seminar series may be planned for the 2020-21 academic year to allow time for a planning year once the Foundation selects (in September 2019) the groups to be funded.

The Office of Foundation Relations is currently soliciting letters of intent and pre-proposals in order to select Northwestern’s nominee for this opportunity.

  • Monday, January, 14, 2019: Internal one-page letter of intent due to
  • Friday, February 15, 2019: Internal proposal and rough budget due to
  • Friday, March 8, 2019: Notification of results of internal selection process
  • Friday, March 29, 2019: Nominated proposal due to Mellon Foundation (to be uploaded by Sarah Fodor after OSR review)
  • Sunday, September 15, 2019 (Approximately): Mellon Foundation funding decision announced
Letter of Intent

To be considered as the University’s nominee, faculty applicants should email a brief letter of intent (of no more than one page) on or before Monday, January 14, 2019, to Sarah Fodor, Executive Director of Foundation Relations and Corporate Engagement, at Please include a brief description of the proposed Sawyer Seminar series focus, organizer or organizers’ expertise, and the academic fields of faculty whom you expect to be interested in attending the seminars. These required letters of intent will guide the Foundation Relations in calling the internal selection committee of senior faculty.

Internal Proposal

Following submission of letters of intent, full proposal drafts and rough budgets following Mellon’s application guidelines below should be submitted to Sarah Fodor in Foundation Relations by Friday, February 15, 2019 

Foundation Relations will assist the faculty member(s) whose proposal is selected with revising the narrative as needed, and a department research administrator will assist with the budget details and OSR review before the final submission deadline of Friday, March 29, 2019.

Proposal Guidelines

The application consists of the following parts:

  1. An executive summary (description of proposed work).

  2. The rationale for raising the central questions to be addressed and the potential significance of the inquiry to be pursued.

  3. A description of the cases to be studied (e.g., nations, regions, time periods, cultural trends, social tensions) and the perspectives to be brought to bear on them; the thematic “threads” that will run through the seminar; and the institution’s resources and suitability for the proposed seminar.

Note: The text covering these first three components typically ranges from 3,000 to 6,000 words and must not exceed 8,000 words.

  1. The procedures to be used in selecting graduate and postdoctoral trainees.

  2. A well-developed preliminary plan for the seminar that outlines the specific topics to be addressed in each session and provides the names and qualifications of the scholars who would ideally participate.

  3. A budget and budget narrative.

  4. Short CVs (1-2 pages) for the principal seminar organizers. If other participants are identified, please limit information about them to a few lines of text, either within the proposal or as part of this appendix.

  5. A letter of endorsement from an institutional officer (not required for internal application. Foundation Relations will assist in securing the Provost’s endorsement).
  • Funding requests should not exceed $225,000 for each seminar.
  • Each seminar’s budget must provide for 1) a postdoctoral fellowship to be awarded for the year the seminar meets, and 2) two graduate student dissertation fellowships to be awarded for the seminar year or the year that follows. The amounts for postdoctoral fellowship awards and dissertation fellowship stipends should follow institutional practices. To acknowledge the sustained intellectual involvement of these graduate students in the seminar, institutions may include tuition support or, for those funded by existing fellowships, supplementary support such as research and travel funds.
  • Travel and living expenses for short stays by visiting scholars and the costs of coordinating the seminar, including those incurred for speakers and their travel, may also be included. 
  • Funds may not cover released time for regular faculty participants, or indirect costs.

Proposals are judged on the significance of the subject of inquiry, the aptness of plans for seminar meetings, the opportunities they present for comparative study, the rationale for the comparisons, and the scholarly accomplishments of the participants.

For more detail about this opportunity, please click here to view the invitation sent to Provost Holloway. More information about the Sawyer Seminar program and funded seminars can be found here.

Northwestern’s Sawyer Seminar Proposal History
  • In 2016, Northwestern was invited to apply for this opportunity, but our nominee was not ultimately selected for funding by the Mellon Foundation.
  • In 2013, a Northwestern group (Sanford Goldberg, Fabrizio Cariani, Steven Epstein, Jennifer Lackey, and Uri Wilensky) was funded to run a Sawyer Seminar series in 2015-16: "What Do We Know? Theoretical Issues in Social Epistemology."
  • In 2008, Northwestern's Department of Classics was funded for “Theatre after Athens:  Reception and Revision of Ancient Greek Drama.” The leadership group included Kathryn Bosher, Reginald Gibbons, Marianne Hopman, Richard Kraut, and Sara Monoson.
  • In 2003, Northwestern Law School’s Center for International Human Rights received funding for "Comparing Truth and Reconciliation Processes in their Historical and Cultural Contexts," led by Douglass W. Cassel, Jr.

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