The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation identifies and develops
leaders and institutions to meet the nation’s critical challenges.
The History of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation
Origins: A national need
In 1945, as it became clear that the G.I. Bill would soon bring unprecedented numbers of students onto college campuses around the United States, Princeton University professor Whitney Oates worried that promising scholars who had left the academy to fight in World War II would not return to pursue advanced degrees and become college teachers. He and Princeton’s graduate dean, Sir Hugh Taylor, persuaded Miss Isabelle Kemp, a private donor, to support the first of a group of graduate fellowships that would attract veterans back to academic careers.
Soon leaders nationwide realized the urgent need for a new generation of outstanding college and university professors. In 1949, the Carnegie Corporation granted Princeton $100,000 to extend its fellowship program nationwide, and the new program was named after Woodrow Wilson as Princeton’s most famous president and a proponent of excellence in college teaching. The effort remained small until 1957 when the Ford Foundation granted $24.5 million to support 1,000 fellowships each year for five years. That program thus became a new independent nonprofit, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
Over the subsequent decade and a half, the Foundation selected and supported more than 15,000 Woodrow Wilson Fellows. These Fellows became intellectual leaders not only within the academy, but also in government, the corporate world, and the nonprofit sector. Today, they include 15 Nobel Laureates, 41 MacArthur Fellows, 21 Pulitzer Prize winners, and hundreds of other distinguished individuals—as well as everyday classroom heroes.
In June 2020, the Board of Trustees of the Foundation voted unanimously to rename the organization and to remove Woodrow Wilson from its name. The Board took this action because the racist policies and beliefs of Woodrow Wilson are fundamentally incompatible with the Foundation’s values and work.
As new educational opportunities opened to women and people of color in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation broadened its commitment to opportunities in higher education for the best students from all walks of life. New programs of the era included the Martin Luther King Fellowships, which prepared African-American veterans for public service careers, the WW Women’s Studies Dissertation Fellowship, the first and still the only national program supporting young scholars in gender studies.
Even as the Foundation continued to draw outstanding young scholars into higher education and public service, it also recognized that the nation had growing needs in elementary and secondary education. Programs of the 1980s and 1990s, like the Leadership Program for Teachers and Teachers as Scholars, created bridges between K–12 teachers and university faculty, seeking to reinvigorate teachers’ intellectual interests and offering them new understandings to use in the classroom.
For information about the Foundation’s past programs, click here.
Individual excellence, institutional innovation
In recent years, the WW Foundation has continued to cultivate talented emerging leaders for both the academy and public service, administering programs like the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowships, the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships, and the Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellows (MMUF) Dissertation Grants and Travel/Research Grants. Various other Foundation initiatives have sought not only to prepare leaders but to transform institutions, addressing the need for change in American doctoral education (the Humanities at Work, the Responsive Ph.D.) and in school-university partnerships that promote the transition to college (Early College High Schools).
Continuity and change: the best minds for the nation’s most important challenges
The early 2000s saw Woodrow Wilson building upon its legacy of excellence, maintaining its historic commitments, and attacking one of the nation’s most urgent contemporary challenges: the pervasive achievement gap between Americans, by race and income. Using the prestige of its historic fellowships as well as harnessing new resources, the Foundation developed the WW Teaching Fellowships to both recruit exceptionally able individuals to careers in high school teaching and create new models for preparing such promising teachers to teach in low-income communities and high-need schools. WW focused too on preparing leaders for these schools through the WW MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership.
The Foundation today still supports the fields it has helped to establish and strengthen over the years. It continues to invest in the essence of its early work: providing personal and professional development opportunities and strengthening a network of intellectual leaders who bring their talents to bear on critical national needs.
Current programs continue to support young scholars at critical junctures of their careers. By investing in these scholars through programs like the Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader Awards, the Mellon-Mays Gap Assistance Program, and the Career Enhancement Fellowships, the Foundation helps boost Fellows’ own scholarly and intellectual momentum, and also supports their retention in the academy.
The Foundation has recently been expanding the scope of its work to focus on civic education and the promotion of a more informed, productively engaged and hopeful citizenry able to sustain the reality of a democratic republic.