The Origins of the Scherer Center

The following feature article (together with associated video and photos) was originally published on the University of Chicago's website in 2008.                                                                                                                                                        

The Origins of the Scherer Center:

How a Master’s Thesis Created the University’s First Center Devoted to the United States

Karla Scherer’s mind-expanding epiphany occurred at some point during her 62nd year.

At a time when many of her peers were contemplating retirement options, Scherer was a graduate student in Hyde Park, a 60-something among 20-somethings in the University’s Master’s Program in the Humanities (MAPH).

It all happened, as Scherer tells it, while she was working on “How Artists Defined American Women: 1763 to 1912.” She was struggling over her master’s project, spending many sweaty summer days in the back rooms of the Art Institute of Chicago, examining works by painters such as James Peale and John Singleton Copley, when Judith Barter, Curator of American Art at the Art Institute, and then a visiting professor at Chicago, kept pushing her.

“She encouraged me to take a broader view,” Scherer recalled, of her master’s advisor. In addition to aesthetic analysis of the paintings, Scherer was urged to explore the historical, political and cultural context of each painting. For instance, with Peale, she examined the social history of earlier colonial families, the role of primogeniture, and the changing mores for women at the turn of the century.

This approach—employing political science, history, economics, sociology, law—was for Scherer a wildly different approach to art history than what she encountered almost 40 years ago. “I had never really been taken by art history,” she recalled. But this new multidisciplinary look at American culture was, for Scherer, a “brand new way of studying and learning. It was mind-expanding.”

Just five years later, Scherer’s passion for this approach has evolved into the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture.

Thanks to a multi-million gift last month, the Scherer Center will be the nexus for dozens of Chicago scholars studying a variety of aspects of American culture—ranging from American painting of the 18th Century, the great American novels of the 19th Century, and the linguistic origins of Native American dialects to the history of hip hop music.

In addition to increasing financial support for research, spurring faculty collaborations and creating a central home for scholars of American culture, Scherer’s gift will endow a professorship.

The idea for the Center was very much shaped by Scherer’s own first-hand experience.

The daughter of Robert P. Scherer, the inventor of the machine that revolutionized the manufacture of soft elastic gelatin capsules, Scherer is perhaps best known as an advocate of shareholder’s rights. In 1989, following her successful proxy fight for control of the Scherer Corporation, Scherer established a foundation whose original purpose was providing scholarships for women pursuing degrees in economics and finance. But while running the program, Scherer, who handpicked scholarship recipients, discovered that the strongest candidates often had a strong background in the humanities.

Scherer, who attended Wellesley College and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1957, became increasingly interested in humanistic scholarship. In 1998, she enrolled in the MAPH program. The experience was transformative. “People often tell me, ‘I’ve never seen you happier than when you were at Chicago,’ ” Scherer said.

Two years ago, Scherer approached Danielle Allen, who was then Dean of the University’s Division of the Humanities, on how best Scherer could fulfill her interest in supporting the study of the United States from a cultural perspective.

Allen conferred with faculty about Scherer’s idea for a center, focused on American culture, and found great enthusiasm. Of her focus on the United States, Scherer said, “It’s simply because there is such a rich abundance of material here.”

By Josh Schonwald