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Campus mourns Professor Preston Covey’s death

Associate professor of philosophy Preston Covey, esteemed scholar and husband of library faculty member Denise Troll Covey, died at home last Monday. He was 64.

Covey’s contributions are well-ingrained into the foundation of Carnegie Mellon’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences (H&SS), and will continue to offer students some of the innovative opportunities for which the college is best known.

He was the recipient of the Elliott Dunlap Smith Award for Teaching and Educational Service in 1983 based on his role in creating the first core curriculum for H&SS. He also served as director of the philosophy program, in the Department of History and Philosophy from 1982 to 1985, and witnessed the induction of philosophy as a separate department in 1986.

“Preston continued to throw his full energy into the concept of the new department and took major strides to develop centers that complemented both his own background in ethics and the university’s mission in computation and technology,” said philosophy professor Kevin Kelly, referring to the passion with which Covey engineered the philosophy department. Covey hired Kelly in 1985.

The students who knew him best were those whom he advised in the ethics, history and public policy program, an interdisciplinary major between the history and philosophy departments that Covey helped design. The program is currently the philosophy department’s most popular major.

“If there is one thing that I think Preston will be remembered for, it is the profound way that he invested his time and energy in so many of his students and advisees,” said philosophy professor Alex London.

Through his research, Covey sought to make an active contribution to applied ethics education. From 1988 to 2005, Covey served as director of the University’s Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics. This institution seeks to develop interactive media applications for bioethics, research ethics, and more recently, political philosophy, social choice theory, moral theory, and methodology.

The center will continue Covey’s mission of enabling students to experience the process of ethical judgment via interactive multimedia technology.

Covey had always been a forward-thinking proponent of applied ethics education. He was active in both the American Philosophical Association Committee on Computing in Philosophy and the Center for the Design
of Educational Computing at Carnegie Mellon from the late ’80s through the early ’90s. From the early days of computers, Covey was able to develop interactive devices to add another dimension to the teaching of ethics, conflict resolution, and aesthetics.

Covey’s colleagues within the philosophy department, many of whom had known him for his entire tenure at Carnegie Mellon, recalled his dynamic personality, sense of humor, and passion for his discipline and his students.

“Preston was a man to whom ethics meant going far beyond the theoretical, whether in teaching, in administration, in understanding the boundaries of lethal force, or in just being a true friend,” said Dana S. Scott, a friend of Covey’s since graduate school and professor emeritus of computer science, philosophy, and mathematical logic. Scott also described Covey’s warmth to him when he joined the faculty in the ’80s.

Philosophy department head professor Richard Scheines recalled an eight-hour car trip from Pittsburgh to New York he and Covey took when the two were colleagues at the Center for Design of Educational Computing in 1987.

“We spent a few hours talking ethics, a few talking educational computing, a few talking family .... It did not take long to figure out that he was one of those characters in life who cannot really be described,” Scheines said.

“There should be a special medal for Preston’s energetic and creative support for his department, colleagues, and students,” Kelly said. “Collegiality is far too pale a word to describe it.”

The philosophy department is planning a memorial service for the campus community. The date and location have not yet been decided.