Obituary: Mark Rollins, professor emeritus of philosophy, 76

Mark Rollins in the Danforth University Center at Washington University

Mark Rollins, a professor emeritus of philosophy in Arts & Sciences and former dean of University College at Washington University in St. Louis, died Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Columbia, Mo., following a battle with cancer. He was 76.

Rollins joined Washington University in 1987 as an assistant professor of philosophy, becoming chair of the department in 2002 and professor in 2006. During his more than three decades at Washington University, Rollins served on or chaired virtually every major academic committee and held numerous administrative roles, including as associate dean in Arts & Sciences and as one of the first faculty fellows in the Office of the Provost.

He served as chair of the philosophy department from 2002-2010, during which time the department had an impressive period of growth, including the addition of 14 full-time faculty members. Also during his tenure as chair, the department rose significantly in the rankings of philosophy graduate programs, and the number of applications to its graduate program quadrupled.

Rollins was also a professor in the Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology (PNP) program, which he helped create in the early 1990s, and he served as chair of the Performing Arts Department from 2012 to 2018.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Mark Rollins was the most important chair in recent history for the philosophy department, and many of us would not be here but for the foundation that he laid,” said Ron Mallon, chair and professor of philosophy and of philosophy-neuroscience-psychology and director of the PNP program.

“He had a kind of gift for seeing and exploring possibilities for the department and the university,” Mallon said. “Mark was also a valuable mentor for those of us who came along later in his career — a ready source of wise advice based on his broad experience. He has left us with a legacy of growth and excellence.”

Rollins’ academic interests included topics at the intersection of aesthetics and cognitive science, among them theories of picture perception, the role of attention in aesthetic experience and a cognitive psychology of artistic style.

He was the author of “Mental Imagery: On the Limits of Cognitive Science” as well as the editor of “Danto and His Critics” and co-editor of “Begetting Images: Studies in the Art and Science of Symbol Production.”

While dean of University College, now the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS), from 2016-19, he helped increase enrollment of adult learners in St. Louis through a variety of initiatives, including improved data collection, new avenues of student support, new academic programming and a strategic marketing effort.

At the time he was preparing to step down, Rollins reflected on his time as dean. “As a philosopher, I believe that we have a responsibility to share knowledge broadly and to use it to address the many social problems we confront,” Rollins said. “This is something I care deeply about. Further opening a Washington University education to the larger community has been a very gratifying experience for me.” 

Rollins also had served as associate dean in University College and director of its Summer School from 1997-2001. While director, the Summer School introduced faculty teaching grants, increased enrollment and developed a strong high school summer honors program.

Among his other university service, Rollins had chaired the Faculty Senate Council, the Faculty Council for Arts & Sciences and the Arts & Sciences Curriculum Review Committee and served as a member of the Arts & Sciences Academic Planning Committee.

“Mark was a terrific person and a distinguished member of our faculty,” said Mark S. Wrighton, the James and Mary Wertsch Distinguished University Professor and chancellor emeritus. “He was remarkably talented in very different roles, including his core contribution in philosophy but also in leading the Performing Arts Department and then University College. I very much enjoyed working with him as an academic leader.”

Rollins, who had held a courtesy appointment in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, curated a Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum Teaching Gallery exhibition on “Art and the Mind-Brain” in 2012.

He received the Arts & Sciences Distinguished Leadership Award in 2014 and attained emeritus rank in 2020.

He is survived by his wife, Cynthia Richards; daughter, Alison Lee Rollins (Valerie Lee Rollins); and his sister, Jenibel Rollins.

A memorial service will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made in his honor to TREE House of Greater St. Louis or the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Leave a Comment

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.