The Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities opened a decade ago against the backdrop of dwindling interest in the study of the humanities on a national scale. Students seemed locked into the data-rich social sciences at the expense of such core humanistic subjects as English, foreign languages, philosophy, and history.
Kerill O’Neill, Colby’s Julian D. Taylor Professor of Classics and a specialist in Greek mythology, worried what a liberal arts education might look like without the humanities firmly at the core.
“The humanities had been pushed to the periphery,” he said. “We wanted to bring them back to the center.”
O’Neill and his colleagues from the Humanities Division used a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create the Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities, which opened in 2012. In the decade since, the center has become a vital plank in Colby’s public identity and integral to its educational mission. Most important, it has placed the humanities at the heart of the Colby experience. Today, because of the range and reach of the center’s activities, it’s nearly impossible for Colby students not to incorporate a humanistic perspective into their studies and daily lives.
“The center has had exactly the effect we hoped it would have,” said O’Neill, who recently stepped aside as founding director. He called its success “the greatest joy of my academic life,” and attributed that success to the collaborative spirit of students, faculty, and staff across the College. “I am a big believer in collective wisdom, and when that wisdom is produced by a group that is diverse in every way, it is a wonderful experience and also more likely to succeed.”
Those who have worked alongside O’Neill said he deserves credit for the center’s success. Philosophy professor Lydia Moland cited his “almost pathological commitment to consensus” and his patience with his ability to bring people together for a common goal.
“It took all of us to do this,” Moland told her colleagues at a reception for O’Neill, “(but) none of it would have happened without Kerill. He beautifully combines vision, collaboration, and inspiration. He is a wonderful mentor, an excellent administrator, and a reliable source of infectious energy and fun.”
The new director is Dean Allbritton, associate professor of Spanish. The center’s past associate director, Allbritton began as director at the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year.
The center’s influence reaches far beyond the student population. It hosts internationally known thinkers and scholars for public lectures and discussions, and this past spring featured Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Past speakers have included social activists and environmentalists Cornel West, Winona LaDuke, and Bill McKibben.
The center arranges public programs that revolve around annual themes, creates labs for ongoing academic inquiries, and provides research money for faculty and students alike. The theme of the past academic year was “Freedom and Captivity,” with workshops, lectures, exhibitions, webinars, and other activities by abolitionists, philosophers, and artists that focused on the humanistic impact of mass incarceration and displacement. Colby faculty created 25 courses related to the theme.
Allbritton, who has been at Colby since 2011, intends to build on the center’s strong foundations while exploring new opportunities related to diversity and inclusion.
As a first-generation-to-college professor with ties to his Latinx roots, Allbritton thinks about diversity in his daily life, and he explores it in his research. Those sensibilities are evident already in his work at the center in the Critical Race Collaborative, which is building a network among scholars working on race and identity at Colby to encourage new ideas.
What he loves about the center is what he loves about Colby: Opportunity. The Mellon Foundation grant established the center, and Colby has continued its funding. “We sometimes overuse the word, but there is so much possibility available here,” Allbritton said of Colby. “Our faculty are eager to explore new things and have such dynamic and exciting ideas. And because we have the funding and the willingness to make these ideas a reality, we are able to support both our faculty and students in their creative engagement with the world.”
Though he is no longer the center’s director, O’Neill remains active with issues related to the arts and humanities across campus and across the region. At Colby, he is the new special assistant to the provost for humanities initiatives. He recently became director of the New England Humanities Consortium, ensuring Colby’s stature as a regional hub for humanistic pursuits.
In August, he will help lead the latest Colby Summer Institute in the Environmental Humanities, which is part of the center’s larger and ongoing Environmental Humanities Initiative. For a week in August, top international environmental humanists will gather at Colby to give lectures, lead workshops, and discuss climate change and other environmental crises.
“It’s a wonderful thing for Colby, and it gives me some hope,” O’Neill said. “Multiple Colby colleagues will be rubbing shoulders with the best and the brightest working on the biggest issue of our age. We have known the science of climate change now for decades, but the problem has only gotten worse. Maybe we need a liberal-arts response to fix this global crisis.”
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