In memoriam: Derek Allen (1947-2023)

Published: May 4, 2023

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The Department of Philosophy is deeply saddened by the unexpected loss of our colleague and friend Professor Emeritus Derek Allen, Honorary Fellow Trinity College, University of Toronto. Allen was a respected scholar, consummate educator, and talented administrator who served for 16 years as Trinity College’s Dean of Arts & Vice-Provost. He passed away on April 27, 2023, from the effects of a head injury he had sustained in March. 

Allen’s life was intricately interwoven with the University of Toronto, especially Trinity College, from an early age: He graduated with an honours bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and History in 1969, receiving a Rhodes Scholarship and a Governor General ‘s Award for the highest standing in the humanities in Trinity’s graduating class. After studying politics at Oxford University for two years, he returned to U of T to complete a master’s degree in 1972. Appointed lecturer at Trinity in 1973, he simultaneously pursued his doctoral studies at Oxford, earning his DPhil in 1979, the same year he received tenure at the University of Toronto. In 1995 he was promoted to full professor.  

Allen officially retired in 2015, after 42 years of distinguished and influential service to the University, including as Trinity’s Dean of Arts & Vice-Provost from 1996 to 2012. 

As a scholar, Allen specialized in informal logic and Marxist philosophy (he wrote a doctoral thesis titled “Distributive Justice and Utility in Classical Marxism”). His colleague and friend Professor Emeritus Danny Goldstick remembers Allen’s “daring assertion—in print in the Journal of Philosophy in 1974—that Marx was an ethical utilitarian.”  

Yet the soft-spoken, unassuming scholar’s interest in fairness and clarity translated above all into his award-winning teaching. “When Derek Allen taught, he taught for the students,” Goldstick says; “he cared about every one of them.” 

And the students noticed. As Professor Donald Ainslie recalls: “I was well-acquainted with Derek’s reputation as a superb teacher before I became chair of the Department of Philosophy, but when I did take on that role, and had to review our colleagues’ teaching evaluations, I was stunned to see that, in a class of approximately 100 students, every single student gave Derek the highest possible rating on his work as a professor.” In a department “with many excellent teachers,” Ainslie says he saw a lot of strong teaching evaluations, but Allen’s “remained the only ones that had unanimous student raves.”  

One of the department members who can personally attest to Allen’s outstanding qualities as an educator is University Professor and Jackman Distinguished Chair in Philosophical Studies Tom Hurka. Hurka took a fourth-year seminar on Hegel and Marx in Allen’s first year of teaching and remembers an “astute, inspiring, and meticulously prepared teacher” who also engaged warmly with his students and “had the right degree of tolerance for our sometimes feeble jokes.”  

In recognition of his instructional excellence, Allen received numerous teaching awards: from the Ontario Confederation of University Teaching Associations (1992), the Faculty of Arts & Science (1993), and the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada (1995).  

His quiet assuredness, care, and deep commitment to higher education also served Allen in his role as a university administrator. Professor Emeritus Wayne Sumner speaks of Allen’s “serious commitment to Trinity,” as well as “his manner: quiet, understated, gentle, with a sense of humor both sly and dry.  He was, as we say, a class act.”  

So when Ainslie took on the role of principal at University College, he looked to his senior colleague for guidance: “Derek’s calm and thoughtful leadership of our principals’ group (we called ourselves a ‘statement of principals’) was exemplary; I relied on his advice and mentorship throughout my term.” To Ainslie’s mind, Allen “embodied the best of U of T’s college system, with his emphasis on how smaller communities and interdisciplinary programs (including first-year programs such as Trinity One) allow undergraduate students to thrive in the context of a very large research-intensive university.” 

In 2013 Allen received the Vivek Goel Faculty Citizenship Award for “a faculty member who has served the University of Toronto with distinction in multiple leadership capacities in diverse spheres over many years.” And in 2019, Trinity College bestowed on Allen its highest tribute, an Honorary Fellowship. The citation recognized “an esteemed academic leader, a respected colleague, and a generous mentor to students at both Trinity College and the University of Toronto.” 

Like so many, Professor Mark Kingwell, who shared an office corridor with Allen at Trinity, benefited from this generosity and mourns its loss. “My lasting visual memory of Derek,” Kingwell writes, “summons that long hiker’s stride as he made his way down the hall. He was the ideal colleague, a meticulous and precise administrator but, better, an imaginative and lively thinker in all things. His drop-by conversations, whether about informal logic, politics, or scaling the hills of New Hampshire, lit up my day.”  

“Derek loved Trinity,” Kingwell continues, and remembers Allen years ago giving him “an academic gown, green with age, that had belonged to a late colleague. I wear it still, but now in memory of two scholars of distinction. I will miss him.”   

As will the entire Department of Philosophy. Our thoughts are with Allen’s wife Margaret, his family, and his friends at this sad time.  

You can read Allen’s obituaries at Trinity College, in the Globe & Mail, and atHumphrey Funeral Home 

His funeral service will be held in the Trinity College Chapel on Friday, May 5, 2023, at 11:00 am, followed by a reception. For those unable to attend the service in person, there will be a live stream of the funeral. On May 5, the flags on the Trinity campus will be lowered to half-mast in Allen’s honour.