New Head of School to promote critical role of the humanities

20 Nov 2018

Advocating for academic freedom is an issue Professor Timothy O’Leary is well versed in.

The Professor of Philosophy previously spent 17 years at the University of Hong Kong, where he served as Associate Dean of Arts (Research & Postgraduate), Head of the School of Humanities and was an elected member of the Hong Kong University Council. He was also a founding member of the recently relaunched writers group PEN Hong Kong.


Professor Timothy O'Leary at the University of Hong Kong. Photo: Jamin Asay

In that time, he also led a silent protest with over 2000 Hong Kong University staff and students in defence of institutional autonomy.

“In any political system you have to continuously stand up for the values you believe in, even if you think it is hopeless. It is very important for people to exercise their freedom of speech, both for themselves personally and for the community”, said O’Leary.

The philosopher and scholar started his new role at UNSW as the Head of the School of Humanities and Languages in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences in August.

Professor O’Leary completed his BA at University College Dublin, did a Masters in Philosophy at the University of Paris and moved to Australia where he completed a PhD at Deakin University. He is also a qualified counsellor, having completed a Masters in Counselling through Monash University in 2011.

His work on contemporary European philosophy focuses on ethics and aesthetics, particularly the French philosopher Michel Foucault. For a number of years, he also led a research project on “Happiness East and West” at the University of Hong Kong.

In his new role at UNSW he aims to promote the critical role of the humanities in contributing to a range of issues facing 21st century humanity. These include: the enormous changes being brought about by accelerating climate change; the challenges of intercultural understanding in a world of mass migrations; and the historical and ethical aspects of an increasingly splintered and polarised politics in many nations around the world.

In relation to climate change, for example, O’Leary says the humanities can lead an inter-disciplinary approach to contributing to solutions.

“It's a challenge that even though the science is very clear on what's happening and why it’s happening, politically, socially, culturally, we haven’t caught up with that [climate change],” he says.

One of the things the study of the humanities and languages does, he says, “is provide the next generation with a sophisticated, critical understanding of the complex worlds we inhabit. Philosophy, history, and the study of language and culture all contribute to what I see as this ‘basic training’ of the university graduate.”