George Washington University has been awarded an $800,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to hire humanities professors, purchase books and pursue related projects, NEH officials announced yesterday.

Like all the NEH challenge grants, the university's will be awarded over a period of three years, in increments which must be matched at a ratio of three-to-one with private monies.

The NEH announced a national total of $24 million in challenge funds for this year. George Washington's is the second largest of the first-year grants. Boston University received the largest -- $1 million over three years.

This year, 122 institutions will receive $7.9 million as first-year grantees. Another $16.1 million will be appropriated to 188 institutions in the second or third year of funding.

The grants went predominantly to universities, but libraries, historical organizations and museums in 35 states also received funds.

GWU will use the money to endow three chairs for humanities professors in areas involving philosophy, religion, literature and history. "But they will only be occupied by people who can relate what they're doing [in the humanities] to professional studies," said Roderick French, project director and director of the division of experimental programs at GWU.

The resulting courses will relate the humanities with business, medicine and various policy studies. "We have declining enrollment in humanities but a burgeoning program in business," said French. "We have about 1,200 people in our MBA [master of business administration] program. We'd like to develop an ethics in business and a history of business course. We would also be open to someone in bioethics."

GW also has a group of policy programs for degrees in science policy, educational policy, environmental policy and energy policy, among others. "We would like to have individuals capable of relating humanities to all those fields," said French.

"We'd like to do all we can to keep the liberal arts here healthy," he said.

"It's clear with the shifting student interest and the new professionalism that the humanities are in for a relatively hard time. We'd like to strengthen them -- but so that they travel around the university."

French, who also is chairman of the D.C. Community Humanities Council (a local grant-making agency funded by NEH), said his two roles do not represent any conflict of interest. "None," he said. "They're entirely different sections of the Endowment and there are also very elaborate review processes. I asked someone in the Endowment about it."

French said that the university expects to raise the matching funds from foundations, individuals and the annual alumni fund-raising campaign.

GW will use about a fourth of the $3.2 million it expects to have (by the time they match the grant) to buy books and periodicals.