Philip Watts, GSAS ’91 and former chair of Columbia’s French department, died July 20 at his home in New York. He was 52.
Colleagues remember Watts, who specialized in 20th century French literature and film, as a gentle leader and a dedicated professor who made lasting contributions to the French department.
“The department has been shaped by what he has done,” Antoine Compagnon, a French professor who had known Watts since he was a graduate student at Columbia, said.
Watts joined the faculty in 2007 after a stint as the chair of the French and Italian departments at the University of Pittsburgh. He succeeded Pierre Force as chair in 2008 at a time when new faculty members comprised most of the department.
“It was a challenging time because you had all these people not knowing each other. Everything needed to be reinvented,” Vincent Debaene, a French professor and a close friend of Watts, said. “The department is now in very good shape, mainly, I would say, thanks to his work.”
Watts made it a priority to seek feedback from his colleagues in decision-making.
“He always managed the department by consensus,” Force said. “He was eager to get everybody’s opinion, mediate between people when there was a conflict—he did that extremely well. He had a very kind, gentle personality. At the same time, he was no pushover.”
During Watts’ tenure, he implemented major changes to the Ph.D. curriculum, organized forums that brought prominent French theorists to campus, and hired a new head of Columbia’s Maison Francaise.
Watts, who inherited his passion for the language from his French mother, earned acclaim for his 1999 book, “Allegories of the Purge,” which examined the role of literature in World War II. Before his death, he was working on a book about Roland Barthes and a film in the 1950s, which colleagues are considering publishing posthumously.
Watts was married to Sophie Queuniet, a professor in the French department, and leaves behind two daughters. He was an avid squash player and close friends with many of his colleagues.
“He was very soft, very sweet. I saw him stress about work, but I never saw him angry,” Debaene said. “He was immensely caring for his colleagues and caring for his students.”
Elisabeth Ladenson, GSAS ’94, succeeded Watts as chair of the department last year.
“As everyone who knew him immediately understood, he was tremendously knowledgeable, witty, kind, and generous,” Ladenson said in an email.
“I can only say that I have never met anyone more likable,” she added.
A memorial service, open to the entire Columbia community, will be held Sept. 9 at 3:30 p.m. at St. Paul’s Chapel.