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Internationally recognized theater historian Harvey Young, whose work centers on race, history, and performance, officially begins his new role this month as dean of the BU College of Fine Arts.
Young comes to BU from Northwestern University, where he was a professor and chair of the School of Communication department of theatre and held appointments in African American studies, performance studies, and radio/television/film.
Jean Morrison, BU provost and chief academic officer, says Young’s dynamic leadership will help advance the University’s arts reputation and programming.
“Dr. Young is among the nation’s most respected scholars in theater and the black experience, with a demonstrated record of leadership, interdisciplinary collaboration, and advocacy advancing excellence and broad engagement in the arts,” Morrison says. “He brings enormous talent, energy, and creativity to this role, and we are confident in his ability to further elevate CFA as a national destination for artistic study and creation.”
It’s no accident that Young’s CFA corner office on Commonwealth Avenue offers a prime view of the new Joan & Edgar Booth Theatre and College of Fine Arts Production Center. Every student needs to be exposed to the arts and all the University has to offer, Young says, no matter their major. That may mean expanding the curriculum to include a first-year course about the arts or finding another way to build broad awareness at student Orientation.
“What is it that makes life worth living?” he asks. “Culture, music, these transformative experiences that give you a perspective from another person’s point of view. I challenge anyone to live their life without music and the arts and see what happens.”
A passionate advocate for the arts and arts education, Young has served as a trustee and a board member of several national and Chicago-area arts organizations and has published seven books on the aesthetics of art, including Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (University of Michigan Press, 2010). That book won the National Communication Association Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance Studies and the American Society for Theatre Research Errol Hill Award in 2011.
Parts of the book unflinchingly chronicle the lynchings of black men and women in the decades after the Civil War, describing the ritualistic and disturbing ways that white communities treated such events. For example, Young documents from archived newspapers how white children sold the fingers or toes of deceased victims as mementos.
He has said that his work is “a means of working through my own complicated relationship with this image while simultaneously spotlighting an often-neglected area of lynching scholarship.”
The new dean has long been interested in the ways that people talk to one another about race and gender and is currently editing a book on the performance of race. Another book project, in its early stages, is about the way people write about race, whether during the heyday of mailed postcards or in contemporary platforms, such as Twitter.
“Our assumptions of what race and gender are don’t come from conversations with people,” he says. “People don’t come up to me and say, ‘What’s your life like as a black man?’ What happens is you consume media and you have a sense of what that other person’s reality must be like based on what you’ve consumed.”
Young, who was selected as dean of CFA after a two-year search, graduated from Yale University in 1997 with a BA in film studies. He later earned a master’s degree and PhD in theater at Cornell University, before joining the faculty at Northwestern University 15 years ago. During his tenure at Northwestern, he oversaw a number of initiatives including the renovation of the University’s performing arts complex. He also became a sought-after pop culture commentator, appearing on CNN, and ABC’s 20/20 and Good Morning America, where he discussed topics from Trump’s presidency to former student Meghan Markle, who is now engaged to England’s Prince Harry.
Rafael Ortega, a School of Medicine professor of anesthesiology and associate dean for diversity and multicultural affairs, sat on the eight-person CFA dean search committee. Ortega says Young brings a multidisciplinary perspective with fresh ideas. He was also impressed by Young’s desire to create new programming in collaboration with other schools across campus.
“Students will find his ideas inspiring and gain a better understanding of how the arts can be used as an instrument of change in society and how we can use the arts to open up difficult conversations,” he says.
Young, who will also be a CFA professor of theatre and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, takes over from Lynne Allen, who has been dean ad interim since Benjamin Juarez left in 2015 after five years as dean. Allen, a CFA professor of art, will resume her post as director of the School of Visual Arts.
Search committee member Kristen Elizabeth Hall Coogan, a CFA associate professor of graphic design, says Young will build upon the important work of his predecessor, who made the arts program more open and forward-thinking.
“The committee is thrilled over the appointment of Dr. Young,” Coogan says. “Dr. Young shared incredible vision for connectivity between the college and those it serves, from BU students, faculty, and administration to local and national arts audiences. We believe in Dr. Young’s universal advocacy for the arts and specific mission for our institution.”
Young says that CFA should be an integral partner with other BU schools and that he will reach out to deans to further strengthen those ties. And he looks forward to a full slate of programming at the University’s new 250-seat theater.
The theater and production space, with an abutting outdoor arts plaza, opened in November 2017 and will be home to arts programming that he hopes will draw audiences from not only the BU community but across the metropolitan region.
“There are lots of universities in the Boston area, but there’s an opportunity here for BU to be the University that is known for the arts at large,” Young says. “That’s my goal. That’s my commitment.”
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.