Top of page
Skip to main content
Main content

History of the ILA

This history is a work in progress and will be added to as time goes by. If you would like to share a memory or add to this work, please email Kim Loudermilk.

This history was collected by Kim Loudermilk, Elizabeth Goodstein, and Bree Beal. Earlier work was done by Dana White and Jean Wynn.


  • The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA) is founded by Ernest Colwell, vice president and dean of the faculties. The ILA is located in the Graduate School and is meant to extend and enrich graduate education in the humanities. Colwell says the interdisciplinary institute will help students face contemporary problems “with an understanding of how the problem has been faced in the past. We are going to make a program for the individual student in the light of his [sic] interests, . . . and we hope to avoid the rigidity of a standard program with a special subject.”(1) View Article
  • Ernest Colwell appointed first director of the ILA. Faculty from across the university join the institute with one-third time appointments.
  • George Cuttino joins the ILA as one of the first faculty members. Harvey Young and William Beardslee join shortly thereafter. Beardslee claims the ILA is “the first university program of its kind in the nation.”
    First interdisciplinary seminar, entitled Freedom vs. Authority, traced the dynamics of these concepts from classical times through the twentieth century. The seminar was attended by faculty from across the university as well as prominent Atlantans, including Ralph McGill, Pulitzer Prize–winning editor of the Atlanta Constitution.


Interdisciplinary methodology class introduced.


  • Second interdisciplinary seminar on Time, Literature, and the Self begins. Future seminars focus on Theories of the Liberal Arts; Truth, Myth, and Symbol; and Thought, Religion, and Society.
  • The ILA admits its first female student, Alice Benston, who went on to become a professor of theater studies at Emory University.
  • The ILA begins its collaboration with the Atlanta University Center, welcoming African American students and faculty into its seminars. Emory University as a whole did not begin admitting African American students until 1963.


The ILA grants its first PhD. Philip M. Allen graduates with a dissertation entitled “The Sociology of Art in America.” In his dissertation, Allen examined the emergence of a sociological discipline concerned with art in the United States. He provided a critical review of recent American publications that had had a bearing on the achievement of the sociology of art, and he constructed a theoretical and methodical foundation for the new discipline. View Article


The ILA sponsors its first open colloquium to encourage “frank discussion of moral and religious issues which are of compelling interest to uprooted and searching students throughout the university” and to discuss vital issues not discussed in the classroom. The colloquium was organized by Thomas Altizer, and George Cuttino was the first speaker, presenting a paper entitled “An Historian Looks at Religion.” Other programs focused on topics as varied as the beat generation and existentialism.


First full-time faculty member hired with the help of a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. Gregor Sebba’s research focused on literature and philosophy, and he is most well-known for his work on DesCartes.


  • ILA completes self-study.
    The institute includes forty-six students, seventeen affiliated faculty and one full-time faculty member.
    At this point, the ILA has conferred five PhDs in nine years of existence. Students may concentrate in any of the following areas: Comparative Literature, American Studies, Theology and Literature, Medieval-Renaissance Studies, and History and Philosophy of Science.
  • James M. Smith becomes the director of the ILA. He serves in this role until his sudden death in 1973.


The ILA publishes a book that grew out of one of its seminars, Truth, Myth, and Symbol, edited by Thomas Altizer, William Beardslee, and Harvey Young. (Englewood Hills, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1962).


“God is Dead.” Thomas Altizer, a professor in the ILA and the department of religion, published a book in 1965, entitled The Gospel of Christian Atheism. The book made national news when Time magazine discovered the book and featured it on the cover with the headline “God is Dead.” The work quickly attracted the attention of fundamentalists across the nation, and Emory and Altizer found themselves at the center of a controversy. In a strong show of support for academic freedom, Emory supported Altizer and his work.


The ILA and the Atlanta University Center launch the Interinstitutional Program in Social Change, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The program aimed to initiate within the academic community a dialogue between blacks and whites; to apply academic insights from the humanities and social sciences to urban issues; to increase involvement with the Atlanta community; and to strengthen programs in both schools by pooling resources. The program provided ten full fellowships per year: four to students pursuing a master’s degree at Atlanta University and six to students pursuing the PhD at Emory.The program was closed in the early 1980s.


Seventy-five students are enrolled in the ILA, and approximately twenty new students are admitted each year.
Robert Detweiler and Dana White join the faculty, hired with the help of an Interinstitutional grant.


The ILA is the subject of criticism from campus conservatives, who believe the program too counter-culture and too willing to enroll students with “nonacademic” interests. Criticism was so strong that the dean of Emory College attempted to close the department. As a result, the institute restructured, hiring Bill Fox as assistant director, tightening admission standards, increasing the number of required credit hours, and bringing in nationally known scholars as visiting professors.


Detweiler appointed director of the ILA, a position he held until 1981.


ILA sponsors a four-year lecture series entitled Shapers of Modern Thought.


Elizabeth Stevenson joins the ILA as the first female faculty member in the Institute. Although Professor Stevenson held no advanced degrees, she had already won an important award, the Bancroft Prize, for her biography of Henry James. She went on to write many more biographies and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. View Article [Link to: 1975 Reviews of Elizabeth Stevenson's Work.pdf]


  • The ILA begins an undergraduate major, liberal studies, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Although the major began small, by 1980, it boasted thirty majors.
  • Robert A. Paul joins the faculty. Paul served two terms as director of the ILA and went on to become first dean of the Graduate School (2000–2001) and then dean of Emory College (2001–2010). He is an accomplished interdisciplinary scholar, whose book Moses and Civilization: The Meaning behind Freud’s Myth (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1996), won the Heinz Hartmann Award in Psychoanalysis, the L. Bryce Boyer Award in Psychological Anthropology, and the National Jewish Book Award in the area of Jewish Thought. He is a certified psychoanalyst, who maintains a private clinical practice.
  • An internal study shows that nearly half of all Emory PhDs awarded to African American students at Emory had been granted by the ILA.


The program continues to grow, with 130 active PhD students enrolled in the ILA.


  • The ILA publishes a second book, The Crisis in the Humanities: Interdisciplinary Responses (Potomac, MD: Studia Humanitatis, 1983), edited by Robert Detweiler and Sara Putzell-Korab (an ILA graduate).
    The ILA celebrates its thirtieth anniversary.
  • The ILA receives grants from the NEH and Volkswagen to bring distinguished visiting professors from other institutions to the ILA, including such luminaries as literary critic Kenneth Burke and feminist theorist Jane Gallop.
  • During the 1980s, about half of the graduate students were female and about one-third were African American. In response to the interests of these students, the ILA expanded its graduate areas of concentration to include African American studies and women’s studies along with theories of interpretation, religion and literature, and American studies.


African American studies and women’s studies have been established as separate departments. The ILA consolidates the concentrations into two: culture, history, and theory; and American studies.


The undergraduate major is renamed and becomes interdisciplinary studies in society and culture.


  • The ILA introduces the major in American studies.
  • The ILA celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with a weekend-long symposium. James Harvey Young, one of the founding faculty members of the ILA, served as the keynote speaker for the 50th anniversary celebration. In his speech, he gave a short history of the ILA and focused on the topics and personalities involved in the first few graduate seminars. Papers from one of those seminars were collected and published under the title Truth, Myth and Symbol (Prentice-Hall: 1962). View Speech


The dean of Emory College, Robin Forman, announces that the ILA will be restructured, the graduate program will be suspended indefinitely, and the tenured faculty will be moved to new tenure homes in departments across Emory College.


The ILA celebrates its sixtieth anniversary with a major symposium, Interdisciplinary Futures. Approximately two hundred alumni from across the country and the world attended, participating in a series of roundtable discussions led by notable alumni. The keynote address was given by Robert Pippin, from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.


  • The ILA becomes the Institute for the Liberal Arts, housing the undergraduate majors in interdisciplinary studies and American studies.
  • Mark Risjord becomes the director of the ILA. Faculty include Kim Loudermilk, Peter Wakefield, and Arri Eisen.
  • The ILA develops a new undergraduate fellowship, IDEAS (Interdisciplinary Exploration and Scholarship), which includes students from any major who want to learn to think across and between disciplines and who seek to make their liberal arts experience more coherent.
  • Programs that began in the ILA and went on to be established as separate departments: art history (graduate study); comparative literature; women’s, gender and sexuality studies; African American studies; psychoanalytic studies; film and media studies; science and society; digital scholarship.

(1) “New Graduate Humanities Institute to Open Here,” The Emory Wheel, September 25, 1952, pg. 1.
rticipating in a series of roundtable discussions led by notable alumni. The keynote address was given by Robert Pippin, from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.