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Winter named executive director of Humanities Institute

By BERT GAMBINI

Published July 6, 2017

“The two things I’m most concerned about are interconnected: One is the set of environmental issues facing the planet. And the other surrounds issues of gender, racial and economic inequality.”
Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies and executive director
Humanities Institute

Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies, has been named executive director of the university’s Humanities Institute (HI), a multidisciplinary center within the College of Arts and Sciences that serves as one of the most important entities supporting and promoting the humanities in Western New York.

Winter is serving in the position for one year, effective July 1. Her temporary appointment fills a vacancy created when Libby Otto, associate professor of modern and contemporary art history and current executive director, accepted a residential fellowship at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina.

“Though we’re temporarily losing Libby to a great cause, Kari brings a wealth of experience, expertise and an ability to organize complex events,” says David Castillo, professor of Romance languages and literatures and HI director. “Her connections to the community are as strong as her connections to the university. At a time when we’re trying to stress the idea of public humanities, Kari’s leadership in this area will be invaluable.”

Winter and Castillo will co-lead the institute during an ambitious 12-month schedule that includes the upcoming annual Humanities Festival with its keynote speaker, environmentalist Bill McKibben; Winter’s second forum in as many years for scholars and descendants of authors of slave narratives, titled “Reclaiming Our Ancestors”; and a spring visit from novelist and activist Margaret Atwood.

They have worked productively together since they organized a conference on human trafficking in 2007 and share a commitment and belief that the humanities have a major role in providing alternative paradigms to the existing societal course that is creating a dangerously uncertain future.

“The two things I’m most concerned about are interconnected: One is the set of environmental issues facing the planet. And the other surrounds issues of gender, racial and economic inequality,” says Winter, who coincidentally has stepped down from her role as director of UB’s Gender Institute, according the institute’s bylaws, following the conclusion of her second three-year term. “I believe that society needs to turn to more humanities-based values and away from capitalistic, individualistic and rapacious cultural practices.

“Focusing for a year intensely on building university/community collaborations around these issues is meaningful to me and why I agreed to step into this role,” she says.

Ironically, in serving as HI executive director, Winter is filling in for a colleague who is on sabbatical while she is, in fact, a year overdue for a sabbatical herself. But after some urging from Castillo, she accepted the opportunity to channel her enthusiasm with the chance to establish bridges between disciplines and constituencies in various communities to help address problems stemming from what she calls “an inhospitable social environment.”

“The mission of universities is on the side of the common good,” she says. “But authoritarian regimes throughout history have always threatened our centers of learning and this is the case in our current historical moment, where the racism, xenophobia, misogyny and religious bigotry that characterize public discourse in relation to the White House and much of the country represents savage social inequalities that are profoundly at odds with the mission of universities.”

Castillo says Winter foregrounds the opportunities they have leading HI.

“In the past few years we have witnessed the birth of a myth claiming the humanities are in crisis,” says Castillo. “That’s not true. What’s in crisis is our society’s commitment to education. Do we really believe that education ought to be only, or even primarily, about honing technical skills to better fit the needs of corporations? What’s in crisis is the planet through climate change denialism. What’s in crisis is democracy around the world through the collusion of alternative facts and what I call in my own scholarship ‘market fundamentalism,’ the notion that you can only find value in terms of how the market measures your activity.”

And acknowledging the reality Castillo mentions is where the humanities can have great effect, Winter points out.

“We need the space, the emotional imaginative space, that’s created by the humanities and the arts to ask the ethical questions,” she says. “What are we doing? What are the consequences? How can we do things differently to reflect values other than those which are causing so much harm in the world?”