Dean’s legacy honored

As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Robin Kelsey prepares to finish his term as dean of arts and humanities and return to full-time teaching as the Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography in the fall, an appreciation for the last eight years had come sharply into focus.

“I have loved this job,” Kelsey said. “Lately, I’ve realized even more profoundly what this job has meant to me. I have loved this job because of the people I have had a chance to work with, and the dreams that we’ve been able to dream together and, sometimes, bring to fruition.”

Kelsey, who took the role in July 2016, leaves behind a legacy of championing the humanities while striving to bring the arts into the heart of the undergraduate curriculum. Kelsey’s colleagues gathered at Loeb Hall earlier this month to honor his tenure, with a celebration that included a performance of Beethoven and Debussy by the Parker Quartet.

“Robin has dedicated himself to thinking about the arts and humanities and their place within higher education in new and innovative ways,” said Hopi Hoekstra, Edgerley Family Dean of the FAS. “We can look almost anywhere on campus and see the impact of Robin’s vision and influence. Robin has helped create new spaces, new frameworks, new mechanisms for putting the arts in intentional dialogue with academic community. He has been instrumental in blazing new trails to amplify the ways in which the humanities contribute to public discourse.”

Dean Hopi Hoekstra
Hopi Hoekstra.

As dean, Kelsey is known for his positivity even in the face of adversity, his collaborative nature, and his infectious laugh.

“We have loved Robin’s optimism and his ability to find the positive in almost every situation,” said Gretchen Brodnicki, administrative dean for arts and humanities. “We love his can-do approach to solving problems and how he regularly asks each of us for our advice and help in finding creative solutions. We love his sincerity, his honesty, his integrity, his patience, his humility, his innate goodness, and tireless dedication for our community and to our team.”

In his years as dean, Kelsey has been instrumental in recruiting outstanding scholars to the faculty and in establishing six new endowed professorships. He has spearheaded the creation of new initiatives such as The Intergenerational Humanities (I-HUM) Project, the College Fellows program in Media Practice, the Transcript Project and its Taliesin Prize, and the Environment Forum at the Mahindra Humanities Center.

He chaired the Faculty Advisory Committee for the University’s Presidential search in 2017, and the FAS Task Force on Visual Culture & Signage in 2020. With then-Executive Vice President Katie Lapp, he oversaw the creation of the ArtLab on the Allston campus and helped oversee renovations to 485 Broadway, which houses the History of Art & Architecture Department.

In recent years, Kelsey led the division in a thorough and extensive strategic planning process, a multitiered, multiyear initiative to assess the structure of the Division of Arts & Humanities and to make sure its organization is equipped to support the intellectual interests and administrative needs of its future community.

Suzannah Clark, director of the Mahindra Center and Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music, called Kelsey an inspiring model of leadership. Clark co-taught HUM90 with him in 2020, and said the students from that cohort still turn to Kelsey for advice, both personal and professional.

“You have worked behind the scenes to really change the idea that Harvard had about what it meant for arts to be fully incorporated into an institution like ours, and that is a real legacy,” Clark said.

As interest in the humanities declined, Kelsey has worked tirelessly to reconfigure the boundaries of academic disciplines and come up with innovative ways to bring humanities education to students.

His love for arts and humanities extends beyond his role. Chair of the Department of English Glenda Carpio, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature, shared an anecdote about how she checked in on Kelsey during a particularly challenging time and found him reading about America’s Reconstruction period while listening to Erroll Garner’s complete album “Concert by the Sea.”

“He doubles down on truth and beauty precisely at the moments of most crisis,” Carpio said.

When he leaves his post June 30, he will pass the divisional baton to Sean Kelly, the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy, and return to the classroom and to his research.

Drew Gilpin Faust, president emerita of Harvard and the Arthur Kingsley Porter Research Professor, said in a statement read by Hoekstra that Kelsey, with whom she worked to implement the young Theater, Dance & Media concentration, has changed the “place and the meaning” of the arts at Harvard.

“You have made this place different and better in ways that will endure,” Faust said. “Your deanship itself has been a work of art, I would venture to say, a masterpiece.”

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