Yale Theologian Is Drawn to Lead a Divinity School With a Progressive Edge

Vanderbilt U.

Emilie M. Townes
February 25, 2013

Emilie M. Townes

Age: 57

New job: Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, beginning July 1

Position she's leaving: Professor of African-American religion and theology and associate dean of academic affairs at Yale Divinity School

Highest degree: Ph.D. from the Joint Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary/Northwestern University Program in Religious and Theological Studies

Why I moved: I knew that Vanderbilt Divinity School was looking for a dean, and one of the search-committee members asked if I would be interested. My first response was, "Absolutely not; too much pressure." But the member kept asking. After I looked inside the institution and at the possibilities there, and realized the school was very different from Yale, where I am now, I found myself persuaded to apply for the position.

From Vanderbilt Divinity School's earliest days, a strong part of its mission was to be socially active in issues of the day, and the school has been a kind of conscience. I wouldn't call Vanderbilt a radical fringe by any stretch of the imagination, but it has this progressive, forward-looking edge that I like, while Yale is more traditional.

And as a scholar who likes to work with others, I see that there are more opportunities to do that at Vanderbilt. At Yale, every professional school is in its own silo, but at Vanderbilt they've broken down the silos, and I have more conversation partners not only internal to the divinity school but throughout the university.

Now, what I did at Yale as associate academic dean was shift my pedagogy to my administrative position, and I will do this in my new position. I'm a social ethicist who uses womanist ethics to do my work—meaning I look at race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and so forth to figure out what we should do to create just worldviews. When working with committees, I would break down the issue as I would a social problem, looking at the context, the history, who has been and has not been involved, how they talk about it, what we hope for, and what are the other options.

What I always want to do, both in the classroom and as an administrator, is be in conversation, give people a sense that there's more than one way to talk about religion, and help the school move into the world in a more active and public way than it is already doing.

I learned when I was a pastor, working in Illinois in the late 1980s, that I can't make anybody do anything they don't want to do. Instead, what works is if I and others live and work in ways that model what we say we want to do. It's slow work, but it's necessary because people don't change for abstraction. They change for something they can see tangibly.

When I went through the process of deciding whether to accept the position, the question was always about how I could live my life, career, ministry, and witness in ways that are faithful to God's call. And that is found in the unfolding of the work that's before me. This isn't a case of leaving because I could no longer be at Yale. It's far from that. It's responding to a call.