Robert Ingram

Robert Ingram

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Thomas W. Smith Foundation commits $300,000 to the George Washington Forum

In its first year, the George Washington Forum brings America’s founding principles to OHIO’s students, faculty and region

The way that the American people understand citizens’ freedoms and free institutions is often shaped by what is taught in colleges and universities. In its first year of operation, the George Washington Forum on American Ideas, Politics, and Institutions (GWF) at Ohio University has provided opportunities for individuals to become educated on America’s foundational principles in their Western intellectual, political and institutional contexts.

According to Robert Ingram, associate professor of history and director of the GWF, the forum is grounded on the idea that “students facing an increasingly globalized world need to understand what characterizes and distinguishes the nation in which they live and the civilization from which it emerged.”

“You cannot actually understand how the country you live in and the civilization from which that country emerged actually relates to the rest of the world unless you understand the nature of the civilization itself,” Ingram said. “The curriculum of this university and many universities in general, will never require everyone to take an American history class, so we have found a way to voluntarily provide extra resources.”

Open to all students and to the community, the GWF helps individuals become enlightened citizens by introducing them to the classic works of American and Western civilization, exposing students to the works of scholars from a range of perspectives and organizing conferences, public lectures and publications. Additionally, the GWF provides continuing education for southeast Ohio primary and secondary teachers in American history.

“In terms of intellectual diversity, I think the thing that is distinctive about the GWF is that we have had very conservative and very liberal people come and give presentations this year. We really do provide a whole gamut of intellectual opinion, and I think that that is singular on this campus,” Ingram said.

Recently, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation announced that it will fund a post-doctoral fellow in American legal and constitutional history to support the GWF for the next three years. Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, that fellow will be offering two classes in his or her specialty, as well as a two-course survey of U.S. constitutional history, from the beginning of the nation to the present.

“Those courses were not currently being taught and have not been taught on this campus for nearly a decade,” Ingram said. “The Smith Foundation grant has opened a whole area of history because, in these budgetary times, we cannot afford to hire a tenure-track faculty member to teach American legal and constitutional history. This is going to be value-added for not only history majors in pre-law, but also for pre-law students in every department and in every college in the university.”

In the GWF’s first year of operation, Ingram raised more than $374,000 in funds, including $10,000 of undergraduate research fellowships funded by different grants and open to all majors.

According, to Eric Burchard, director of corporate and foundation relations for University Advancement, the GWF has received funds from five different private foundations, none of which had previously given to Ohio University.

The GWF’s future success depends on the support of foundations and private individuals who share the program’s commitment to civic education and intellectual diversity, according to Ingram.

“Ohio University has 20,000 students, a really good faculty, great students and people who are committed to civic education and intellectual diversity,” Ingram said. “This is a great place to give to, and I hope that once [potential donors] have met some of our faculty and once they have gotten to know more about the Washington Forum, they’re going to want to help support what we’re doing to help out with undergraduate education here.”

The Washington Forum is a participant in The Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History, a nonprofit educational organization that works with educators in response to requests for resources to strengthen the teaching of America’s founding principles and history. The Miller Center began work in 2004, became an independent, private operating foundation in October of 2007 and now has more than 300 Miller Center faculty partners on more than 150 college campuses across the country.
“One of the interesting things is that, outside of the Ivy League schools and the public Ivys, we’re one of the few programs that are funded,” Ingram said. “I think that’s a testament to the quality of our history department.”

According to the 2009 Task Force on Centers of Excellence in Graduate and Professional Education produced by Ohio University, the History Department was ranked “Excellent,” the highest ranking possible. Additionally, the department was the only humanities/ social science program on campus to receive this rating. According to Ingram, this is the sort of research excellence that makes the GWF attractive to foundations.

“The forum propels the civil exchange of ideas and fosters debate on important historical and contemporary issues in the United States and the world,” said Patrick Barr-Melej, associate professor and chair of the History Department. “As a result of its remarkable fundraising effort, the forum will be able to expand and extend the ways in which it encourages such inquiry, exchange and debate.”