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Duke Divinity School dean steps down as diversity struggle continues

The interior of Goodson Chapel at the Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy Creative Commons

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) — Duke Divinity School’s first woman dean, Elaine Heath, has stepped down after a brief and rocky two-year tenure marked by student protests and struggles to build diversity on campus.

The school announced Thursday (Aug. 2) that Heath would be replaced by L. Gregory Jones, who served as dean of the school from 1997 to 2010.

Elaine Heath was hired in 2016 and oversaw the United Methodist-affiliated seminary with some 600 students and six degree programs during a turbulent time in which both African-American and LGBTQ students protested a lack of inclusion and diversity among faculty.

Elaine Heath. (Photo by Les Todd/Duke University)

No official reason was given for the change, but Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, told the Duke Chronicle, the university newspaper: “The leadership of the University and the Divinity School agreed it was important to make transition now so they could begin the academic year by working in close collaboration with faculty, staff and students on the School’s current challenges and future opportunities.”

Heath will remain at the school as professor of missional and pastoral theology but will be on sabbatical until January 2019.

Seminary education has been under strain in the past few years as fewer admissions and shrinking budgets have led to consolidations and mergers. As a divinity school embedded in a larger university, Duke has been shielded from some of those strains, but it has faced pressures to diversify its faculty, as have other schools.

Earlier this year, some students protested Heath’s State of the School speech by walking out as she was speaking. The students were pressing for a course in queer theology and more affirmation of LGBTQ students from the faculty.

In recent years, the school has seen the departure of three prominent African-American faculty, though only one, J. Kameron Carter, left on Heath’s watch. This past year, Heath made concerted efforts to hire new black faculty, including Patrick Smith, a philosophical and medical ethicist, and David Goatley, the new director of the Office of Black Church Studies.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the divinity school’s student population was 16 percent African-American, 6 percent Asian and 4 percent Hispanic.

But Heath’s attempts to improve the school’s diversity also came with a measure of controversyLast year she sparred with another faculty member, Paul Griffiths, a professor of Catholic theology, who urged other faculty not to attend a school-wide diversity training, saying it was “intellectually flaccid” and had “totalitarian tendencies.” Heath accused Griffiths of “unprofessional conduct,” and he stepped down shortly afterward.

L. Gregory Jones. (Photo courtesy Duke University)

Duke is not the only school to face student protests related to a lack of diversity. Last spring, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., faced a wave of protests over lack of racial diversity in which students said the culture at the seminary was “toxic.”

In an email to faculty and staff, Jones said he would continue Heath’s efforts to diversify the faculty: “We have important challenges to address, including continuing the work of diversifying the faculty, staff and student body, and building an ever-more inclusive and welcoming environment for all, so that we may have a richer common life.”

The school is expected to launch a national search for Heath’s successor.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

18 Comments

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  • And precisely how have the theology faculty at Duke Divinity in the last 10 years (not to mention 2 years under her tenure) advanced the study of theology?

    Chasing mindless “diversity” isn’t going to do anything.

    The center for ethics at Duke has done more in the last year than the divinity school has done in 20.

  • It would seem that this piece would have been far better had the author thought to explain a bit more about the various issues. Was Elaine Heath replaced because she could not manage disagreements with more finesse, or was there something else at work? This article explains very little.

  • Asia for the Asians…..Africa for the Africans…..White Nations are open to everyone and we will even pay your bills.
    Racial Diversity is NOT a strength. It is ruining this Nation. And this is no accident.
    NO White GeNOcide

  • Hopefully Dean Jones will take the opportunity offered by Heath’s resignation to show reconciling and gracious leadership by inviting Paul Griffiths back to his position as the Warren Chair in order to rebuild Duke’s damaged reputation for intellectual excellence, viewpoint diversity, and commitment to student and faculty academic freedom.

  • Why bother with said school when the following update vitiates all of their teachings:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

  • The Ethics department at Duke, under the Arete program, has done some great good exposing sheltered naive students to the world of good discourse.

  • And Jesus taught them to pray, saying:

    Our non-gender specific Parent,
    Who art in heaven,
    Diversity be thy name…

  • On this Diversity Issue. If you are a person who feels that they have received a Call from God to minister. Please remember to read 1:Corinthians 6:9 and following. This is the New Testament’s teaching relating to ALL types of Diversity. If God has issued a calling on your life focus on that Calling-According To Scripture NOT SOCIAL PRESSURE when it is clearly out of order with the World of God.

  • They should change the Duke Motto from “erudito and religio” (knowledge and religion) to “erudite and hom-o”

  • Blessed are the Marxists for they shall inherit the campus.
    Blessed are the feminists for they shall see Goddess.
    Blessed are the little snowflakes for they shall be comforted.
    Blessed are the pure of dogma for they shall be called progressives.
    Blessed are the virtue signallers for they shall be self-satisfied.
    Blessed are they who protest for they shall be called the children of privilege..
    Blessed art they who are persecuted for gender’s sake for theirs is the presence of the absence.
    Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for “social justice” for they are full of it.

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