Creating a more generous orthodoxy at Duke Divinity School

Elaine Heath stepped down as dean of Duke’s Divinity School without explanation Thursday.
Elaine Heath stepped down as dean of Duke’s Divinity School without explanation Thursday. Duke University

In describing his approach to faith and scholarship, the 20th century theologian Hans Frei coined the term generous orthodoxy to name a way of attending to the core of what loving God requires while recognizing the differences, gifts and ambiguities of human cultures, traditions and histories.

The term has often been used to describe our work at Duke Divinity School, and as I near completion of my second year as dean, I understand that generous orthodoxy continues to guide us as we work to provide a welcoming and safe place for students to learn and prepare for ministry.

Even as we recognize our strength, we also acknowledge that our history and practice have at times mirrored the same structural sins that are evident in the church and society at large: sexism, racism and other forms of exclusion and oppression of minorities that hurt real people and fall short of the generosity to which God calls us. With the rest of Duke University, the Divinity School is working to address these structural injustices in multiple ways.

One of my first acts as dean in July 2016, was to designate a space for the work of Sacred Worth, the LGBTQIA+ student group in the Divinity School. I also began to focus Divinity Magazine toward a more inclusive vision for theological education and ministry, and last year I invited Sacred Worth to give a presentation to the faculty about the experience of being a sexual minority in classes at Duke. Faculty welcomed and took seriously the presentation of the students.

Every year our curriculum includes courses on sexuality, gender and the Bible. These courses are taught by several of our faculty who are allies to the LGBTQIA+ community. These courses will continue and additional courses will be launched in the coming months

In 2016 we implemented mandatory training to recognize implicit bias for all teaching assistants. That same year, I appointed a faculty diversity and inclusion committee, which has worked diligently to identify ways to make systemic change for greater equity for all minorities in our community.

We saw one of the outcomes of the committee’s work in the spring of 2017, when the Divinity School hosted a two-day Racial Equity Institute (REI) training experience for faculty and staff. We are hosting another such training this year, and now ask all newly hired faculty to go through REI as part of their orientation. Many units within the Divinity School such as Leadership Education at Duke Divinity now routinely conduct a range of training events to foster a welcoming, diverse and equitable environment.

Since the fall of 2016 I have met regularly with the student leaders of the Black Seminarians Union along with their advisers and student services staff to address issues of concern regarding the racial climate at the school. As a result, we have implemented a pilot project in what is called “anonymous grading” to protect against bias in student evaluation.

A significant concern in the Divinity School – for students and faculty alike – has been the recent departures of some of our black faculty due to retirements and new opportunities at other academic institutions. This year we conducted four faculty searches to hire colleagues in African-American theology or ethics, faculty directors for the Office of Black Church Studies and the Center for Reconciliation, and a position in pastoral care. Two of these appointments have been made with faculty from minoritized communities, and the other two are still underway.

We are working to increase diversity not simply for diversity’s sake, but because it will contribute to intellectual rigor and will more faithfully prepare our students for ministry in a diverse world. I am heartened when faculty and staff who have worked at the Divinity School for a long time remark that we have made substantial progress. Yet we still have work to do and at times, it feels like progress is achingly slow. I am heartened by the continued commitment and engagement of our students and faculty to discourse – even when it is difficult – because I know that this is how we, together, will create an even more generous orthodoxy for this generation of students and for all those to come.

Elaine Heath is the dean of Duke Divinity School.