As a high school senior, Kyle Gillette ’01 only applied to one school during his college search.
“I had a really emotional feeling about Trinity, that this place had a sense of belonging, a sense of creativity,” says Gillette, a longtime professor of Human Communication and Theatre and former acting dean for the School of Arts and Humanities. “At Trinity, you can take so many different disciplines and have deep discussions.”
Now, Gillette is ready to help students, faculty, staff, and community members continue to feel that sense of confidence and belonging—while also feeling safe to explore tough, challenging conversations—through a newly created position as Special Adviser to the Provost for Expression and Civil Discourse, run out of Academic Affairs.
“I would like this to be a campus where people come with an open mind and an appreciation of nuance and complexity to engage with perspectives that challenge what they think. Yes, that can be political differences, but that can be lots of other things too,” Gillette says. “Civil discourse is not at all just ‘politeness in how you talk.’ Rather, it's the foundation of democracy that we can listen with curiosity and attention to people with diverse perspectives. And I think that's at the heart of a liberal arts education, too, as is freedom of expression.”
Through this new role, Gillette wants students, faculty, and community members to fall in love with Trinity as a space for civil discourse, discovery, and growth, just like he did. He’s already planning on bringing new speakers to campus, collaborating with community partners to bring Trinity students out into other parts of the world, and exploring all sorts of digital avenues for discourse, including a podcast.
“I'm excited to bring back public debates on big topics. I'm excited about the possibility of reopening difficult dialogues. I see the University as a place to rehearse for democracy, where students are becoming citizens insofar as they are thinking together about how to make decisions, how to try to understand the world more deeply and how they might affect it,” Gillette says.
Understanding Gillette’s new role—and what it means for Trinity—takes a bit of getting to know Gillette himself. Classmates, colleagues, and students will know this passionate, energetic performer, researcher, and educator from many places, from the English and theater classes and stage productions he took part in as an undergraduate to his current courses in theater history, dramatic literature seminars, and performance laboratories.
Graduating from Trinity in 2001, Gillette headed west with a U-Haul and earned his Ph.D. in drama at Stanford in 2007. Gillette then returned to Trinity in 2008 as an assistant professor in the Department of Human Communication and Theatre, rising to associate professor in 2014 and then full professor in 2021. Beyond his role as a Trinity professor, Gillette served as a director of theater from 2014-2017, and rose to acting dean of the School of Arts and Humanities in Fall 2023.
True to his background, theater is a perfect lens through which to view Gillette’s take on his new advisory role:
“Through the stage, I found a really interesting way to explore stories and images, to have conversations about topics, and to be able to imagine yourself into other people's perspectives,” Gillette says.
And his liberal arts experience at Trinity—where students and faculty build bridges between disciplines and perspectives—gives him an ever-present sense of creating connections.
“At Trinity, theater is a space that’s a laboratory for the liberal arts where you can ask questions of psychology and history, of language, and even physics, and you can see how forces interact on stage. You come to love seeing it all integrated.”
So, as Gillette sets out to bring a strong, diverse, inclusive, and rigorous slate of programming to Trinity’s campus through his new position, you can still see these wheels turning—thinking of ways to connect subjects, disciplines, and perspectives in new ways, all from an elevated stage.
“A big part of Trinity’s programming is championing the fact that we have artists, thinkers, speakers, and students who can talk about something important in the world, and instead of remaining siloed off from each other, we can engage in a dialogue around all these different forms of expression.”
Gillette says Trinity students, faculty, and staff can anticipate programming that continues to connect the University to the surrounding community, the city of San Antonio, and the greater world as he grows into his new role. And much of it is simply a matter of building on already solid community partnerships.
“Right here in San Antonio, there is already amazing programming happening at the San Antonio Museum of Art, the McNay, the San Antonio Public Library, Gemini Ink, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and so many others. So, some of my work has to do with bringing these together in the form of artistic festivals and humanities conferences,” Gillette says. “Trinity can also create opportunities for students to go out to those places and learn. We can create discussion panels and roundtables where people from the city come to talk with faculty and students about certain topics.”
Right off the bat, Gillette has plans to connect students with upcoming events through a partnership with the San Antonio Public Library and to invite local librarians to campus.
He will give opening remarks for an upcoming symposium on academic freedom in February and help plan a “Humanities Unbound” conference in April—headlined by a series on banned books, interdisciplinary panels and keynote speakers such as artist and writer Sandra Cisneros and political scientist Danielle Allen.
And Gillette, who’s spent the past fall semester building strategic ties with faculty and Trinity leadership during his stint as acting dean for the School of Arts and Humanities, also plans on initiating big internal discussions with Trinity faculty through departmental chairs retreats, where he says faculty will get to “think through issues that relate to academic freedom and difficult dialogues.”
“I'm excited now to move beyond the School of Arts and Humanities,” Gillette adds, “to understand how discourse plays out in the School of Social Science and Civic Engagement, and the sciences and business administration. And also beyond Academic Affairs: How can we interface co-curricular things happening in lower campus with student life?”
The one bittersweet fact of Gillette’s new position is that he says he’ll have less time for teaching, writing, and research.
A prolific publisher who’s written three books (exploring topics related to theater in urban spaces and the hidden dynamics of cities), he says he’s still working on a fourth, called The Death of Theater. “That’s looking at how different theater cultures have vanished, yet then had afterlives in literature and philosophy,” Gillette says.
But don’t worry, Trinity students—Gillette’s still going to be available in the classroom. “I really love teaching, and I won't completely stop,” he says. “I love the sense of a seminar class where 15 students are sitting around a table, and we're exploring a play or an article, and I ask open questions, and they really think through different elements together.”
Regardless of the stage, Gillette says he’s looking forward to continuing an era of openness, growth, and discovery at Trinity that will stem in partnership with the rest of the Trinity community.
“So much of this new role is going to help shape the way Trinity communicates with the outside world,” Gillette says. “And so, the more I learn from my colleagues, so many of whom are already doing this, the more humbled I am by how imaginative and intelligent and interesting people are, and the more I feel really hopeful about our future together.”