An Honest Thinker
Kirk E. Pillow ’89 transitions to new position as provost of the Pratt Institute
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Kirk Pillow stands in front of wooden interior modern architecture

Kirk E. Pillow knows that a college education is a significant investment—in time, effort, and money. As a student, professor, interim president, and now as the newly chosen provost of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., Pillow respects that investment.

Pillow transitioned to the Pratt Institute this July after serving as interim president at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since January 2015 and as UArts provost since 2011. Pillow looks forward to meeting Pratt’s students, faculty, and staff, and to working diligently to ensure that behind every Pratt diploma is a quality university experience.

A product of Houston, Pillow spent his freshman and sophomore years of high school on the Croatian island of Krk and in a Swiss school before returning stateside. In Houston, Pillow was introduced to philosophy by a high school physics teacher who would share short philosophical readings with his class.

Pillow was hooked. He entered Trinity in the fall of 1985 and immediately felt at home in the classes of philosophy professors Lawrence Kimmel and Curtis Brown. Pillow calls Kimmel and Brown great “influences” on his career. He credits Brown’s seminar on Immanuel Kant and Kimmel’s course on aesthetics as “absolutely key to his intellectual development.”

Immediately after graduation, Pillow began work on his doctorate at Northwestern University and attributes Trinity with his relatively easy transition into graduate studies.

“Within a semester or two of being at Northwestern, it became clear to me that I had gotten an excellent preparation for graduate school from Trinity,” Pillow says. “I was able to write and argue very well thanks to my Trinity education, and I’m grateful for that.”

Pillow earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1995 and transformed his Northwestern dissertation into the book Sublime Understanding, published by MIT Press in 2000. The book provides a theory for how people respond to works of art and finding meaning through them. Pillow gives reinterpretations of philosophers Kant and Hegel’s aesthetics before crafting his own model of an aestheticized understanding.

In 1996, Pillow joined Hamilton College as a faculty member and was awarded tenure there in 2003. He then joined the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he served as provost, interim president, and was among the senior management of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. During his time at Corcoran, Pillow oversaw a 28 percent rise in enrollment and a revision of the undergraduate curriculum.

As provost at Pratt, Pillow is most excited to join the “really creative people” on-campus and to be located in the innovation hub that is Brooklyn. He will be responsible for Pratt’s overall academic programs, supervising the deans and other academic leadership and managing hiring, reappointments, and promotions.

He is also eager to join his friend Thomas F. Schutte, who has served as president of the Pratt Institute since 1993. Pillow arrives at Pratt in the midst of the Institute’s implementation of a new strategic plan, which was first endorsed by trustees in 2012.

“I’m very interested to learn more about the Institute, as I know they are making a number of changes to their programs and rethinking their foundation year as we did at the University of the Arts,” Pillow says. “Hopefully I will be able to contribute to that process.”

Founded in 1887, the Pratt Institute educates both undergraduates and graduates for careers in design, art, information and library science, architecture, and liberal arts and sciences. Pillow was attracted to Pratt because of its diverse programs and the “remarkable and fertile” Brooklyn location.

Described as a patient listener by faculty and friends, Pillow says that a key element to collegiate administrative work is speaking with alumni about their university experiences and hearing what they wish they had learned as undergraduates. In rethinking any university curriculum, Pillow says it is important to consider the best way to prepare students for future careers.

Pillow recognizes the public’s fear about the value and expense of an undergraduate education and says that private institutions in particular have to make a good case for the quality of degrees they provide. As for his own Trinity education, Pillow says the value of a liberal arts education remains in communication, critical thinking, and analysis skills.

“At Trinity, I found what I wanted to focus my intellectual interests on,” Pillow says. “I just loved the environment of the school.”

A world traveler, who’s been everywhere from Japan to Scotland, Pillow is also an avid reader, a “big fan” of classical chamber music and opera, and a firm believer in the role college wields in creating responsible and engaged lifelong learners.

Carlos Anchondo '14 is an oil and gas reporter for E&E News, based in Washington D.C. A communication and international studies major at Trinity, he received his master's degree in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

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