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BUFFALO, NY – The University at Buffalo Humanities Institute (HI), the largest entity supporting the humanities in Western New York, welcomes a familiar face in the role of director, but it will take about a year to the new management structure be in place.
Elizabeth Otto, PhD, Professor of Art History and Visual Studies in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences, who previously served as HI’s Executive Director for five years, is the new Director of the institute.
His three-year tenure, however, will begin in the fall of 2023 following a scholarship from Germany’s Gerda Henkel Foundation, which supports research and scholarship in the humanities. Otto will also receive a two-month fellowship this fall at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
“I know everyone says these things, but it really is a dream come true for me to lead HI,” says Otto, who is currently working on a new book called “Bauhaus Under Nazism,” while co-hosting with two colleagues from Germany, a major exhibition to be held at the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar entitled “Bauhaus and National Socialism”.
Otto, author of the 2019 Peter C. Rollins Award “Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics,” started at UB in 2004, the same year HI was founded. She says the institute has had a great impact on her and the humanities faculty in general. Otto sees the position of Director as an instrument of service to others, and she looks forward to continuing the tradition of service, enthusiasm and community involvement that has grown through the work of her predecessors.
“I am delighted and honored to lean on their shoulders and to maintain the momentum of HI as it approaches its twentieth anniversary,” she said.
As part of the leadership transition, Christina Milletti, PhD, Associate Professor of English, will leave her current position as Executive Director of HI to serve as Interim Director until Otto assumes these responsibilities in the fall of 2023. Meanwhile, Lindsay Brandon Hunter, PhD, associate professor of drama, will join the HI team for the year in the role of interim chief executive.
David Castillo, PhD, a professor of Romance languages and literatures, who had served as HI’s director since 2016, recently stepped down to become co-director of UB’s new Center for Information Integrity.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have a talented team in place as we await the return of Libby Otto. Our job this year will be to continue to amplify our humanities programming as we wrap up our life theme (at the artificial intelligence era) at our fall humanities festival — in-person at Silo City — and begin a new thematic year on community,” says Milletti, author of the Juniper Novel Prize “Choke-Box: A Fem -Black” and expert in contemporary American fiction.
“Given the recent horrific events in Buffalo, the issue of ‘reality awareness’ and the influence of social media echo chambers on the very lives of our communities has never been more important,” adds Milletti. . “With the help of our partners, this year’s gathering will feature panels that will address some of the toughest challenges facing our society…and also celebrate life through joy and community interaction.”
Milletti says a key part of this programming is expanding and improving HI’s community reach.
“HI has played a pivotal role in connecting the UB campus to the larger Buffalo community by creating opportunities for discussions on issues related to equity and social justice,” she says. “Our job this year, quite simply, is to amplify those connections even further by connecting them to important faculty research bodies.”
Part of this mission is to reflect on how HI has programmed in the past and how it could improve and engage more diverse communities in the future.
“One of the changes our audience might see at the Fall Humanities Festival is the increase in discussion forums instead of single-speaker events,” says Milletti. “Right now, our sense is that we need more opportunities for conversation and exchange in order to build improved ethical platforms for community dialogue.”
In terms of community impact, Otto says keeping HI’s flagship event, the Buffalo Humanities Festival, strong and vibrant is a priority, but HI’s vision should focus on UB at the same time it looks towards outside to the surrounding communities.
“Just as Christina mentioned bridges to diverse communities, we also want to maintain and improve our ongoing partnerships with other local colleges and universities,” says Otto. “As we connect with these communities, we also want to create more supportive pipelines within UB, including supporting the research and scholarship of scholars from underrepresented minorities.”
Milletti and Otto acknowledge that HI’s nearly two decades of existence have paralleled questions about the value of the humanities in the emerging digital and technical realities of the 21st century.
“We are looking to expand HI’s messaging capability,” says Otto. “Our mission is to support faculty and graduate student research, but as we do this it will become easier to reach more undergraduates with broader messaging.”
Otto says that long-term planning for major events allows professors to integrate this material into their lessons. Past lecture themes have included civil wars, pain, and the founding and history of women’s studies at UB.
“My hope for the future is that we can notify professors well in advance so that they can create thematic courses and have their students ready for the annual conference,” says Otto. “These themes are all relevant and we attract scholars from around the world to discuss them. This facilitates the integration of undergraduate students into this programming and inspires them for high-level research in the humanities.