When Cathy Davidson took the position of vice provost for interdisciplinary studies early last year, organizing and drafting a humanities initiative was one of her top priorities.

The idea for a center to help spur intellectual exchange on campus was championed by former English department chair Stanley Fish and has been batted around the faculty and the upper administration for years.

Often, however, it has been pushed aside in favor of less expensive or more timely initiatives such as Curriculum 2000.

But Davidson was still interested in the idea and she found many like-minded administrators and professors.

"When I decided to call the center the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, I found another group of faculty trying to form a center and call it the John Hope Franklin Academy of Arts and Letters."

Although Davidson's project held race as just one of its many foci, the other proposal suggested a principal focus on race.

After exchanging a series of proposals, the organizers-including Karla Holloway, director of the African and African-American Studies program and University Librarian David Ferriero-blended their ideas into the Duke Humanities Initiative.

This proposal, completed last month, outlines a five-year plan culminating in the creation of a full-fledged humanities center.

This fall, the University will take the first step in the initiative, beginning a series of four one-year-long faculty seminars.

This program-which allows participants one semester of release time from teaching and places them in a year-long, intensive, themed seminar-will focus the research and writing of faculty members on areas fundamental to the initiative's goals.

The seminars will encourage their six to eight participants to share and collaborate on ideas within an assigned topic.

"I think it's terrific," said Fish, now dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "The themes make a great deal of sense given the University's strengths."

Next year's faculty chairs-Professor of Literature Jan Radway and Associate Professor of Romance Studies Alberto Moreiras-and other participants have already been chosen.

The provost and the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences will select the directors to lead each of the three remaining seminars, which have predetermined themes.

The chairs will choose the remaining participants.

In addition to the seminars' intellectual goal, they also serve an institutional purpose, Davidson said.

Each of the seminars will conclude by establishing institutes or programs that will eventually be included in the humanities center.

Next year's seminar, titled "Race and Nation-Building in the Americas," will lead to the creation of an Inter-Americas Studies program that redefines the scope and purpose of American Studies.

By 2003, Duke administrators hope to incorporate a center modeled after successful ones at Princeton and Harvard universities.

Harvard's Barker Center houses the English and foreign language departments, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African-American Research, several think-tanks and several large public lecture rooms.

Although funding for the seminars is already secured, an endowment for the center is not.

Officials hope that Trent Drive Hall will house the institute, but Davidson is unsure whether that goal will be realized.

The answer depends on the center's endowment and the retirement of Trent as a residential space.

Wherever the Franklin Center is finally placed, administrators hope the project, which has drawn much attention within the University, will help keep Duke on the map as an innovator in interdisciplinary studies.

"This project represents the next generation of University thinking-reconceptualizing intellectual life across departments," Davidson said.