Founding director of Townsend Center for Humanities dies at 80

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Paul Alpers, a longtime UC Berkeley English professor and the founding director of the UC Berkeley Townsend Center for the Humanities, passed away on Sunday after a battle with cancer. He was 80.

A pioneer of interdisciplinary studies on campus and an expert in Renaissance literature, the professor of 38 years was known for expanding the scope of scholarship within his department and helping bridge divides between siloed academic departments.

“He was a scholar, a gentleman — seriously committed to the academic enterprise at Berkeley and making it work, not only at his own department but across boundaries into different departments with different people and different interests,” said Randy Starn, director of the Townsend Center from 1996 to 2000.

Alpers came to Berkeley in 1964 after receiving his master’s degree and doctorate in English from Harvard University. As a professor of comparative literature and English, he quickly built a rapport with colleagues and students as one of the school’s most respected faculty members, winning the 1972 Distinguished Teaching Award, the top teaching award at UC Berkeley.

“He had a warm, generous and rigorous intelligence,” said Anthony Cascardi, dean of arts and humanities in the College of Letters and Science. “He spoke to you as a colleague and as a teacher, and he always seemed to preserve his interactions with his colleagues and his students. He was the essence of what it means to be a humanist.”

Emblematic of Alpers’ focus on interdisciplinary studies was the founding of the UC Berkeley Townsend Center for the Humanities, created in 1987 to more efficiently connect disparate talent on campus.

Rather than bringing in outside talent, the focus of the center was on fostering and developing relationships with various campus humanities departments, offering support for its members through fellowships, scholarships and publishing papers.

“He saw the need for interdisciplinary studies,” Cascardi said, “and he saw the need for interdisciplinary studies long before it was fashionable to do that.”

As founding director of the center from 1987 to 1992, Alpers helped lay the groundwork for the burgeoning organization’s sustained success.

“Paul felt we needed an internal center for the people that were already at Berkeley,” said Christina Gillis, associate director of the center from 1988 to 2004. “Berkeley was such a lively place. We needed more connection between the faculties here, and that was right. That is what we needed at Berkeley.”

Alpers also used this interdisciplinary mentality as an English professor, pioneering the department’s extension with scholars of literature from around the world.

“He was really important in the reinvention of the English department as it existed then and exists today,” Starn said. “He completed its transition from being a local department with its roots in a fairly parochial vision of what literature was like.”

The author of books on the Faerie Queene and pastoral poetry, Alpers was a founding editor of the journal Representations, a multidisciplinary journal first published in 1983 with articles from various social sciences.

“That was a highly, highly respected journal,” Gillis said, “and a highly respected group of people on that board.”

Alpers’ wife, Carol Christ, served as Berkeley executive vice chancellor and provost from 1994-2000 and was named president of Smith College in 2002. Alpers retired from Berkeley that year, assuming the title of Class of 1942 Professor of English Emeritus. At Smith, Alpers became a professor in residence and an unofficial ambassador for the college.

Alpers is survived by Christ as well as his sons, Benjamin and Nicholas Alpers; his stepchildren Jonathan and Elizabeth Sklute; four grandchildren; two brothers, David and Edward Alpers; and his former wife, Svetlana Alpers.

Contact Chris Yoder at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @christiancyoder.