Letter from the Director

Letter from 2023


After almost thirty years at the University of Kentucky, I felt a warm welcome to the University of Miami in the Fall of 2022 as I started my new responsibilities as a faculty member in the Department of History.  I feel tremendously fortunate now to be asked to serve as the new Director of UM’s Center for the Humanities. As I sit down to write I feel properly humbled, as of course I still have much to learn about UM and about the Center. But it’s more than obvious to me that the Center is an invaluable asset that has made itself integral to the study and promotion of the humanities on our campus and far beyond. Its programming is remarkably rich, and its Faculty and Dissertation Fellows’ programs have facilitated the research of a great many and a wide variety of scholars. Building on this tradition of excellence is an honor and a privilege. It will also be very good fun! And while I’m still relatively new to UM, I come with relevant experience that might be useful. Prior to my arrival in Miami, I was serving as Chair of the University of Kentucky Department of History. Over the span of my lengthy career at UK, I also served for several years as Associate Dean of Faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences, as Interim Dean of Arts & Sciences, and as Interim and founding Dean of UK’s Lewis Honors College. Most pertinent of all is my experience as Director of UK’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. I’ve often oscillated between full-time and half-time administrative work and full-time faculty work, for I like to encourage colleagues’ and students’ work as much as I enjoy my own research and teaching. This sort of facilitation is at the heart of the Director’s job as I see it.

The first duty of the new Director is to preserve the remarkable momentum established by Mihoko Suzuki, Hugh Thomas, and the Faculty Advisory Board since the Center’s creation in 2008. It sponsors or co-sponsors a rich and remarkable assortment of lectures, book talks, workshops, and seminars. It fosters and provides support to a growing variety of interdisciplinary research groups. It stimulates the research programs of a critical mass of humanities faculty and graduate students each and every year and helps them build intellectual community with each other. These initiatives are now securely established, and preserving their health and longevity is an obvious and critical objective. While preserving and enhancing the Center’s established initiatives, I also look forward to partnering with you to explore and implement how the Center might best complement and facilitate undergraduate and graduate instructional efforts among the humanistic disciplines, as well as interdisciplinary efforts that extend across the broad reach of UM’s campus.

Finally, it’s crucial for the Center to continue working closely with its allies to make the public arguments for the value of the liberal arts and of humanistic education at a time when that value is being widely questioned. The core of that argument should be not only that a wide-ranging liberal-arts education is a great preparation for an enormous variety of good careers that put a premium on broadly transferable skills – such as communicating with clarity and precision, or making compelling sense of a broad range of data points. It’s also, and no less crucially, about making us better human beings – more empathetic, more community- and service-oriented, more skeptical of claims that are not based on factual evidence. As the then president of Barnard, Judith Shapiro, once said, “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” The cultivation of intellectual curiosity is an imperative that must inform everything we do in a university. And it needs to be one of the arguments that we tirelessly make, along with the more “practical” ones, for the humanities and the more humanistic social-science disciplines that have been suffering erosion nationwide for some time now. The Center has an important role to play in making those arguments, in close partnership with the College and all the humanities departments.

Championing the humanities is and must be a broad collective endeavor, and I’m deeply grateful to the great folks who make the Center go. My first debt of gratitude is to Christina Larson, the Center’s Assistant Director, and to Ony Dunnam, its Conference Coordinator, who work tirelessly and very fruitfully to help conceive and carry out everything we do. I’m hugely grateful for the support of the Center’s past directors, Mihoko Suzuki and Hugh Thomas, from whose experience and wisdom I’ve already drawn deeply, and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead. I’m likewise grateful for the collective support and wise counsel of the Center’s Faculty Advisory Board. I’m also deeply grateful for the undergraduate Student Assistants and graduate UGrow Fellows of the recent past and near future who have provided (and will continue to provide) the Center with such invaluable assistance, notably Claire Richie, Lyric Johnson, Craig Scully-Clemmons, and Vanessa Rodrigues Barcelos da Silva. As always, we greatly appreciate the ongoing support and leadership of the College of Arts & Sciences: Dean Leonidas Bachas, along with Associate Deans Jennifer Ferris-Hill, Josh Cohen, and Caleb Everett. We are likewise grateful to Interim Provost and Executive Vice President Willy Prado for the funding his office provides.

Because you’re reading this message, I’m also deeply grateful to you as a friend of the Center. It’s not only my fond hope but my expectation that together we shall continue to advance from strength to strength. Many thanks indeed for your confidence and your support!



Phil Harling
Director, Center for the Humanities