A departure… and a deanship

After a near miss at Yale, an offer to run Vanderbilt’s divinity school.

Frank Poole

Frank Poole

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Last year, Emilie M. Townes was one of two finalists for the deanship of Yale Divinity School, where she is associate dean of academic affairs. Townes was obviously a strong candidate—the only inside candidate. An American Baptist minister, she is a leading practitioner of “womanist ethics,” a feminist ethics that draws wisdom from African American women’s experiences. She is the author of several highly regarded books, including Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. She would have been the school’s first black dean, and its first openly gay dean.

Now Townes, who was passed over at Yale in favor of Gregory Sterling, will have a deanship of her own. On July 1, she becomes dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Townes said that after last year’s near miss, she did not expect ever to be a top div dog.

“I thought, ‘I did that,’” Townes said, referring to the Yale search. But when Vanderbilt came calling, she was intrigued. She learned about the school’s historic “commitment to social justice issues—particularly in the South, where this was not popular when the school was founded in the late 1800s.” Townes, who is from Durham, North Carolina, “began to realize” that she and Vanderbilt “might be kindred spirits.”

Then, after she was offered the job, and she found out how well it paid—“very well”—she had second thoughts. “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I doing this because of the generous package offered, or because it’s what I am called to do?’”

She decided it was what she is called to do. Her goals include founding a center to study religion and values in the university, in religious communities, and in society—not a modest ambition, but one befitting a woman with her own school to run at last.