For YDS students, questions of diversity central to search for a new dean

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

In case you have not heard, after a decade of outstanding leadership as the Yale Divinity School dean, Harold Attridge has decided against considering another five-year term at the helm. Who will take Attridge’s place when this academic year comes to a close next May? What qualities, concerns, and priorities do YDS students expect the next dean to have? What will the next dean’s vision for the future of YDS be?

Town MeetingThese were the kinds of questions that were on everyone’s lips during a Sept. 20 Town Hall meeting called by the search committee for a new dean, which is chaired by John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation.  Held in the YDS Common Room, the meeting was aimed at gathering student input and to answer student questions about the search.

What became clear at the meeting was that, for many students, questions related to student, faculty, and staff diversity at YDS—with respect to race, gender, faith orientation, sexual preference, as well as other measures—should be central to the search for a new dean.

In response to one student’s question, Collins confirmed the committee’s commitment to taking questions of diversity into account but noted, “If we had to choose between diversity and superior ability, we’d go with superior ability.  But we are considering a diversity of candidates.”

Another search committee member, Professor of Liturgical Studies Teresa Berger, recalled that diversity was one of the four topics Dean Attridge had suggested as important for the committee to weigh in its deliberations.  The others, Berger said, were the changing landscape of religious traditions in North America and around the globe; the shifts in learning styles and educational needs; and the ability to confront the financial realities of our times.

“While we are a Christian institution, there are a growing number of non-Christian students here,” commented student body President Jared Gilbert ’12 M.Div. “And something a lot of students would like to focus on is how to make YDS a place more open and robust to non-Christians.”

Joan Javier, a Unitarian Universalist also completing her M. Div. degree, echoed those sentiments, expressing hope that the next dean would help YDS “better reflect our multi-faith world.”

At the same time, a number of students voiced concerns that, in promoting a diverse and inclusive environment at YDS, care be taken to ensure that YDS’s distinctive identification as a Christian community be maintained.  Collins offered assurances that the next dean will be fully aware of the YDS mission statement and its emphasis on both the Christian tradition of the school and the “global, multi-faith context” of the 21st century.

During the latter half of the meeting, Thomas Troeger, the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lanz Professor of Christian Communication, recalled the conversation Yale President Richard Levin had with the search committee.  While the committee will present candidates to Levin, it will be Levin who makes the final decision on the appointment.  Levin, Troeger said, had told the committee that what he will look for a new dean who has both an acute sense of his or her strengths and a strong sense of when to ask for help when it might be needed. And Nora Tubbs Tisdale, the Clement-Muehl Professor of Homiletics, added that Levin encouraged the committee to be open to “thinking outside the box” in its deliberations.

Other topics of student concern included how YDS would continue its progress in exploring the relationship between faith and the environment; maintaining a healthy and strong relationship with Berkeley Divinity School; and educating students in global Christianity’s current trends.

When questions were raised about the new dean’s commitment to spiritual life at YDS as well as academic life, it was noted that Dean Attridge believes one of his most significant practices as dean is his participation in the spiritual and ecumenical life at Marquand Chapel.  During his tenure as dean, Attridge has attended virtually all of the chapel services, held daily, Monday through Friday.

“We may have to court the person we want, because the person that is best for the job may not immediately want it,” cautioned Troeger.  Although this elicited chuckles from the crowd, Troeger, who was formerly a dean of a seminary, said it was a “very real issue” that search committees often face. Asked by the committee what might be said to candidates to encourage them to come to come to YDS, one student lifted up the “tremendous amount of untapped energy among the faculty and students on issues of diversity and thinking globally, and we need someone to tap that keg of possibility.”

As the Town Hall meeting concluded, some students wondered if they would able to meet the candidates. Collins explained that that would not be possible, since many of the individuals being considered for the position are currently deans, presidents, vice presidents, or leading faculty members of other institutions, requiring confidentiality up until the new dean is hired.  The committee hopes to present its recommendations to Levin by Christmas.

Posted: 09/05/2011