Nora Youngs waited at the designated time for the “tenure call.” When she answered, Provost Margaret McFadden informed her that not only had she been granted tenure but she also received a two-year, $100,000 grant as part of the Haynesville Project. The innovative, experimental program is unique to Colby and provides newly tenured faculty with financial support for creative, high-impact research.
“It was very overwhelming,” said Youngs, an associate professor of mathematics. “Tenure was exciting, and then having this additional gift … it changes the way you look forward.”
That’s the reaction Trustee Cathy Tinsley and her husband, Tom, hoped for when they established the Haynesville Project at Colby in 2021.
With their original gift, the Tinsleys have funded 17 Haynesville Project Fellows over three years. They have recently committed to continue the program through 2027 to fund an additional four cohorts of tenured faculty. By 2027, the Tinsleys will have funded approximately 50 professors, constituting about 40 percent of Colby’s tenured faculty.
Their new commitment totals $2.4 million, and with the support of Colby and other donors the Haynesville Project at Colby will be funded at more than $4 million.
“It has been so gratifying to see the Tinsleys’ vision for the Haynesville Project being fully realized with undeniable impact,” said Colby President David A. Greene. “Their generosity allows our newly tenured faculty to take their research and teaching in exciting new directions. It is truly like winning a mini-MacArthur ‘genius grant’ when being awarded tenure.”
“Colby has been an impressive partner in the Haynesville Project,” the Tinsleys said in a statement. “We are pleased to support Colby’s commitment to the tenure process and to these wonderfully different, creative, and curious professors.”
The program’s goal is to help mid-career professors consider new avenues and take chances at a pivotal point in their careers. Professors may use their funds entirely for research purposes or up to 40 percent for personal expenditures. The grants require no boxes to check, reports to file, or milestones to meet. It’s a form of venture capitalism that the Tinsleys call disruptive philanthropy.
“The disruptive part,” said Tom Tinsley, “is that there are no strings attached.”
Some of the 17 Colby professors who are now Haynesville Project Fellows described the grants as “transformative” and “expansive,” fostering a “freedom to explore” and an “excitement to continue pushing in different ways.”
Said Britt Halvorson, associate professor of anthropology, “It’s given me the license to dream.”
An idea rooted in experience
The Haynesville Project is named for Tom Tinsley’s late father, James A. Tinsley, who grew up in Haynesville, La., and taught history at the University of Houston for 42 years. He believed tenure is both a recognition of professors’ previous work as well as an institution’s commitment to their future scholarly growth.
“My life was really altered through the tenure process,” said Tom Tinsley, now retired from General Atlantic. “When Dad got tenure, it gave stability to our family and set a number of things in motion.”
The Tinsleys’ novel idea to combine the stability of tenure with financial support is an “incredibly generous and creative gift,” said McFadden. While there are immediate returns on the investment, some of them will be further out. “Scholarly and artistic projects take a long time to develop,” she said.
Measuring the ripple effect
The Tinsleys understood that when they agreed to a three-year pilot project at Colby. Even so, they’re eager to get acquainted with each cohort of fellows (2020-21, 2022, and 2023) and learn about their ideas. Cathy Tinsley and Marshall Eakin, the project’s board chair and a distinguished professor of history at Vanderbilt University, have begun interviewing each fellow to both connect and collect data. They also occasionally meet with the entire group of fellows.
With other philanthropists and institutions watching and considering replicating the Haynesville Project, it’s important to provide some kind of assessment. How does one measure the impact of such an open-ended program? Are there metrics for traits such as curiosity and risk-taking? Collecting data is tricky, Cathy Tinsley said, since most of it is anecdotal.
She imagines outcomes that would define success in her mind, such as professors becoming so popular that students clamor to take their classes. Or professors and their families having time to become engaged Waterville residents. These are ripple effects that would make her “very happy” even though collecting that information could prove challenging.
Based on their interviews, the Tinsley have noticed that the recipients thus far have “displayed a noticeable re-invigoration in their research efforts and personal growth,” adding that they’ll find it rewarding to continue monitoring the development of the fellows.
McFadden will be interested to see what happens at the next level of promotion when the fellows apply to become full professors. Do their projects look very different? How have the Haynesville Project funds enabled that?
McFadden is reveling in how she’s witnessed the fellows change. “I just love the ways that they start to see themselves and their work differently because there’s this whole new set of resources. It’s just a beautiful thing. It really is. I think it means so much to the faculty, and it is so enabling of them,” she said.
Executing on dreams
Since becoming a Haynesville Project Fellow in 2022, Halvorson has been conceptualizing her research in new ways. She welcomes the grant as “an incredible boost of support” for her long-term research as an anthropologist of religion contrasting Christian medical aid in communities in the United States and Madagascar. Her current project, which she has just begun, focuses on piecing together the life history of a Malagasy anti-colonial activist central to the fight for independence in Madagascar. She’s planning to take archival research trips to France, Madagascar, and the United States over the next five years.
“The Haynesville grant helps with resources for this kind of time-intensive, wide-ranging geographic work,” she said. “I think it will also help me incorporate students in that work, too.”
Halvorson’s expanded research is just one example of how the Haynesville Project is making possible scholarly work that would be hard to do otherwise. With it, scholars can not only dream, they can execute.
The importance of faculty research
For Associate Professor of English Aaron Hanlon, the Haynesville Project grant is “truly transformative” for his career path. A scholar of British literature during the Enlightenment, Hanlon plans to launch his research and teaching in a completely different direction—applying data science to the study of literature.
Previously, Hanlon applied unsuccessfully for a major foundation grant to fund this fresh approach. He had all but given up, he said, because that type of project “is not really on the radar of funding bodies. It doesn’t seem that far-fetched if you want people to innovate and do interesting work for their entire careers. But what opportunity is there for somebody in the middle of their career to go and learn those tools?”
Now that he has that opportunity, he will retrain himself with courses in programming and statistical modeling and engage in collaborative research at Cambridge University in the UK during an upcoming sabbatical. He’ll bring the new technology and tools he learns back to Colby.
“I would love for this to be a jumping-off point for building a cluster of courses in the English Department and then hopefully engaging students interested in humanistic material, but coming at it from a computational standpoint.”
McFadden calls a project like Hanlon’s a “virtuous cycle” that ultimately benefits Colby students. “Faculty research is really important,” she said, “not just because it advances knowledge in the world, but it also keeps the faculty at the cutting edge of their fields, which contributes to making sure that their classes and their teaching are at the cutting edge of the field.”
The best is yet to come
What strikes many of the fellows is the level of trust shown by the Tinsleys’ gift.
“Sometimes in math, there is an idea that a lot of your best work happens when you’re young,” said Youngs. “To me, [the Haynesville grant] feels like, ‘We are trusting you that there is still good to come. We don’t believe your best days are behind you.’”
This fall Youngs is on leave from Colby and in residence at Brown University participating in a thematic semester in theoretical neuroscience. The fellowship she received from Brown isn’t enough to offset her salary, so she’s using her personal funds from the Haynesville Project to cover the remaining amount.
“It’s an exciting opportunity,” said Youngs, whose research sits at the intersection of mathematics and neuroscience. “I can be part of discussions all semester and hopefully get involved in a number of different projects. It’s like new directions after tenure.”
Economist Jim Siodla will spend his sabbatical reflecting on how to use the bulk of his grant. For now, he’s used a small percentage to pay a firm to enter data from 100-year-old books laden with information on municipal bonds. Having the resources to purchase a custom-made dataset allows him to move more quickly in his research on urban governance.
“I have ideas for papers. I have an idea for a book. This will provide funding for all those things I see myself doing in the next four or five years,” said Siodla. “I’m looking forward to continuing to push the parameters a little bit and push myself into different territory. This has given me the freedom to explore and to potentially take risks with data.”
The Tinsleys certainly encourage that spirit of risk-taking.
“We have told all of them to use the money to fail. Don’t think that you have to be perfect in your design of what you do with the money,” said Tom Tinsley.
Despite that directive, the fellows feel a sense of responsibility to use their grants wisely.
“When you give money like this with such open-ended use to it, you want to show that people do do good things with it,” said Youngs. “They don’t squander it on frivolity.”
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