Sean Kelly named dean of Arts & Humanities

Sean Kelly, a distinguished scholar of philosophy, has been appointed dean of Arts and Humanities by Hopi Hoekstra, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He will begin his new role July 1.

Kelly, who joined the faculty in 2006, is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy. His research focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human existence.

“I could not be more delighted to welcome Sean into this new role and to have his partnership in advancing the extraordinary possibilities of our academic community,” Hoekstra said in her message to the FAS community Wednesday. “Throughout his career, Sean has sought to bring people together across a broad range of academic backgrounds to advance teaching and learning for the benefit of all.”

Kelly has taught courses on post-Kantian European philosophy, philosophy of mind, cognitive science, perception, imagination and memory, aesthetics, and philosophy of literature. He is the co-author of The New York Times best-seller “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age” (2011) with Hubert Dreyfus, and author of “The Relevance of Phenomenology to the Philosophy of Language and Mind” (2001). His forthcoming book is “The Proper Dignity of Human Being.”

“It’s an enormous privilege,” Kelly said. “I’ve been incredibly happy in the Division of Arts and Humanities for the last 18 years. It’s got a very, very exciting future ahead of it, and I’m super proud to be involved in that.”

Kelly was named a Harvard College Professor for excellence in undergraduate teaching in 2021. Currently, he serves as Faculty Dean at Dunster House, alongside his wife, Cheryl Chen, senior lecturer on philosophy, and chairs the FAS committee charged with reviewing the request to de-name Winthrop House.

During his time at Harvard, Kelly has led a psychology lab, co-directed the Standing Committee on Mind, Brain, and Behavior, chaired the General Education Review Committee, and served on the Presidential Committee to Review College Policies on Mental Health and Community Policing, and the Presidential Search Committee for the new chief of Harvard University Police Department.

Kelly holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics and computer science and a master’s in cognitive and linguistic sciences from Brown. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley.

Having found his calling as a humanities scholar later than usual — during his doctoral studies — Kelly has what he calls the “fervor of the convert” when it comes to championing arts and humanities.

“I’m really excited about being able to help people understand the importance of the questions we ask and the work that we do,” Kelly said. “I think that the arts and humanities are the soul of higher education. They speak to the spirit [and] they help orient us in our understanding of what we could and should aspire to be.”

Kelly will take the divisional dean helm from Robin Kelsey, Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography, who has served in the role for the past eight years.

“During his tenure, Robin has championed the many ways in which the humanities bring essential perspectives to the most pressing issues of our time,” Hoekstra said.

Kelly also believes it’s critically important to be vocal in explaining the value that arts and humanities hold.

“We help people think about what is important and significant and meaningful in our world and in the lives that we lead,” Kelly said. “We help to interpret that, we help to communicate it, and we hope to get others to take it seriously. In a world where those kinds of deep humanistic questions about who we are often not taken seriously, I think we have a huge role to play.”

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