Whitney Humanities Center gains new leader

Professor Gary Tomlinson will serve as the Whitney Humanities Center’s director for five years.
Professor Gary Tomlinson will serve as the Whitney Humanities Center’s director for five years. Photo by Yale.


A new director took the helm of the Whitney Humanities Center this academic year, with broad but currently undetailed visions for strengthening the humanities at Yale.

The University appointed music and humanities professor Gary Tomlinson to a five-year term as the center’s director in April, and he assumed the post in July. Now three months into his tenure, Tomlinson said he is still in the “listening stage” and declined to offer specifics on any of his initiatives for the 2012-’13 academic year, but said he generally hopes to makes the humanities more central to discussions about the future of education at the University.

“A university without the humanities at its heart is going to be an impoverished university,” he said.

Founded in 1981, the Whitney promotes the study of the humanities at Yale through lectures, concerts, conferences, film screenings and other events. The center is also responsible for overseeing the humanities major and the Directed Studies program.

Tomlinson came to Yale as a visiting professor in 2010 after previously teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, and with 32 years of experience in the Ivy League. He served as a fellow of the Whitney for two years before taking over as director.

Over the past two decades, Tomlinson said the humanities have been perceived as increasingly impractical. Students today tend to be focused on the pragmatic value of education, he said, rather than the intrinsic value of learning.

“There is a sense even among Yale students that education is about something very pragmatic — what’s the immediate gain, where’s it going to take me next year,” he said.

Tomlinson said he has also perceived a “disconnect” between the discourse of humanists and the rest of “academic culture,” and that he hopes to help bridge that gap.

Since his appointment in April, Tomlinson said he has been speaking to his colleagues about their ideas and their hopes for the future of the Whitney. He said he does not expect to make any immediate changes to programs such as Directed Studies, and wrote in a Tuesday night email that he is “unwilling to make public right now the specifics of plans that are very much in the early stages of formation.”

The center’s previous director, María Rosa Menocal, oversaw renovations of the Whitney, relocated the Directed Studies program to the center, and opened the Whitney fellowship to faculty, staff and graduate students in non-humanities fields including the sciences, economics and the School of Medicine.

Starting in November, Tomlinson will be charged with shaping the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities — a program first announced in the spring that will host lectures and discussions aimed at integrating the sciences and the humanities.

Despite his broad goals to improve the humanities at Yale, Tomlinson said he does not think it is the Whitney’s responsibility to “lead the humanities forward at Yale.” Rather, he said, the center should serve as a “fundamental center of gravity for conversations about the humanities.”

Members of the Whitney’s executive committee said they are optimistic about Tomlinson’s appointment as director.

“He is a strong personality with a brilliant mind,” said Francesco Casetti, a professor of humanities and film studies. “His idea is to move forward and make the Whitney Center the great forum for debate on campus.”

Deputy Dean of Yale College Joseph Gordon wrote in a Saturday email that he expected Tomlinson to be “a collegial leader” and “receptive to the ideas and suggestions of others.”

David Gore ’15 said the Whitney has been a positive part of his Yale experience, but that he hopes the center begins to advertise its events better under Tomlinson’s leadership.

“Whenever I hear about a thing that’s going on, it always seems really cool,” Gore said. “But I wish things were better advertised at a more central location.”

Other students described the center an integral part of their time at Yale. Serena Candelaria ’14 said students interested in the humanities at Yale have a “wealth of resources” available to them, including the Whitney.

The Whitney is located at 53 Wall St.

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