Published June 16, 2022
The UB Humanities Institute (HI), the single most important entity supporting the humanities in Western New York, is welcoming a familiar face back into the director’s role, but it will take roughly a year for the new leadership structure to be in place.
Elizabeth Otto, professor of art history and visual studies, College of Arts and Sciences, who previously served five years as HI’s executive director, is the institute’s new director. Her three-year term, however, will begin in fall 2023 following completion of a fellowship from Germany’s Gerda Henkel Foundation, which supports research and scholarship in the humanities. Otto will also have a fellowship for two months this fall at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“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, titled “Bauhaus Under Nazism,” while also co-curating with two colleagues in Germany a major exhibition to be held at the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar called “Bauhaus and National Socialism.”
Otto, author of the 2019 Peter C. Rollins prize-winning “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 big impact on her, and on humanities faculty more broadly. Otto sees the director’s position as an instrument for serving others, and she’s looking forward to continuing the tradition of service, excitement and community engagement that has grown through the work of her predecessors.
“I’m delighted and honored to stand on their shoulders, and keep HI vibrant as it approaches its 20th anniversary,” she says.
As part of the leadership transition, Christina Milletti, associate professor of English, will move from her current position as HI executive director to serve as interim director until Otto assumes those responsibilities in fall 2023. Meanwhile, Lindsay Brandon Hunter, associate professor of theatre, will join the HI team for the year in the role of interim executive director.
David Castillo, professor of Romance languages and literatures who served as HI director since 2016, recently stepped down to become co-director of the new UB Center for Information Integrity.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to have a talented team in place as we await Libby Otto’s return. Our job this year will be to continue amplifying our humanities programming as we wrap up our theme of Life (in the Age of Artificial Intelligence) at our Fall Humanities Festival — in person at Silo City — and begin a new theme year of Community,” says Milletti, author of the Juniper Novel Prize-winning “Choke-Box: A Fem-Noir” and an expert in contemporary American fiction.
“Given the recent horrific events in Buffalo, the question of ‘reality literacy’ and the influence of social media echo chambers on the very lives of our communities has never been more important,” Milletti adds. “With the help of our partners, this year’s gathering will be comprised of panels that will address some of the most difficult challenges our society is facing … and also celebrate life through joy and community interaction.”
Milletti says a key component of that programming involves extending and enhancing HI’s community reach.
“HI has been pivotal in connecting the UB campus with the larger Buffalo community by creating opportunities for discussions surrounding 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 significant bodies of faculty research.”
Part of that mission involves reflecting on how HI has programmed in the past and how it might improve and further engage various communities in the future.
“One of the shifts our audience might see at the Fall Humanities Festival is increased forums for discussion in the place of one-way, single-speaker events,” says Milletti. “Right now, our feeling is that we need more opportunities for conversation and exchange in order to build improved ethical platforms for community dialogue.”
In terms of that community impact, Otto says keeping HI’s signature event, The Buffalo Humanities Festival, strong and vibrant is a priority, but HI’s vision should look within UB at the same time it’s looking outwardly at the communities surrounding UB.
“Just as Christina has mentioned bridges to various communities, we also want to maintain and enhance our standing partnerships with other local colleges and universities,” says Otto. “At the same time that we’re bridging to those communities we also want to create more supportive pipelines within UB, including supporting the research and scholarship of underrepresented minority scholars.”
Milletti and Otto acknowledge that HI’s nearly two decades of existence has run parallel to questions regarding the humanities’ value in the emerging digital and technical realities of the 21st century.
“We’re looking to expand HI’s capacity for messaging,” says Otto. “Our mission is to support faculty and graduate student research, but while we’re doing that it will become easier to reach more undergraduates through broader messaging.”
Otto says long-range planning of major events allows for faculty to work that material into their classes. Past conference 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 let faculty know far enough in advance so they can build thematic classes and their students will be ready for the annual conference,” says Otto. “These themes are all relevant and we’re attracting scholars from around the world to discuss them. That makes it easy to integrate undergraduates into this programming and get them excited about high-level humanities research.”