After turbulent years, optimism at Divinity

After five difficult years at the Divinity School under Dean Richard Wood GRD ’65, students and professors hope the recent appointment of a new dean will reunite the campus.

The departed Wood’s tenure as dean, which saw the Divinity School rocked by allegations of racial discrimination among students and an alleged rape case, led to internal questioning of the dean’s ability to manage crises. Wood left the Divinity School last December — six months earlier than expected — and last week, Emory provost Rebecca Chopp was named the first female dean in the history of the Yale Divinity School.

The Divinity School is now emerging from a five-year-long period of transition, a controversial time which has nonetheless seen its physical plant renovated, a group of top senior professors hired and the budget balanced. Indeed, Wood, who took over as dean in 1995, has been credited with putting the Divinity School back on its feet.

But Wood’s relations with the Yale administration were reportedly strained, and some students contend he mishandled an alleged incident of racial discrimination.

New dean, high hopes

Wood decided in January 2000 his work at Yale was done.

That month, he announced he would not seek another five-year term as dean and would retire after another year and a half. Then, last October, he informed Yale President Richard Levin he would be leaving the University in December for the presidency of the United Fund for Christian Higher Education in Asia. Levin named Harry Adams ’47 GRD ’51 to serve as acting dean until a permanent replacement could be found.

After a faculty committee spent months scouring the nation for candidates, Levin named Chopp as the permanent replacement.

Chopp, an ordained Methodist minister, will inherit an uneasy situation which has calmed only somewhat. A highly respected authority on women’s theology within a liberation theology framework, Chopp’s administrative experience as a provost is cited by those who believe her leadership will prove more stabilizing than her predecessor’s.

There have been encouraging signs. Chopp is said to support increasing financial aid for students, a popular measure which would bring Yale in line with highly respected institutions such as the Princeton Theological Seminary. Moreover, her experience as a provost at Emory provides her with the necessary administrative experience.

“People are very enthusiastic about her appointment,” said Nicholas Wolterstorff, who was head of the Divinity School dean search committee. “The situation’s entirely different this time. When Dean Wood was appointed, there was a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the school.”

The Wood Years

When Wood took over as Divinity School dean in 1995, the school faced serious problems. Decrepit buildings were literally falling apart, admissions numbers had plummeted and morale was low. Furthermore, the administration was not receptive to Wood’s leadership style, as well as to his handling of the Divinity School’s budget.

“It was a tough time … a lose-lose situation,” Wood said in a recent interview. “I at times grew very frustrated because I didn’t have the authority to do the things I wanted to do.”

But Wood also accomplished much. In 1995, when he assumed his post, administrators were unsure whether to renovate the existing school or to relocate downtown. Wood orchestrated a successful plan to completely refurbish the school.

The $41.8 million project — $6 million of which is funded by the Lilly Endowment, a philanthropic organization — is providing for the conversion of eight dormitories into office and classroom space, as well as the renovation of the school chapel and the construction of a new library. The first phase of the renovations should be completed this fall.

All the activity has faculty and students alike excited. Rev. Jaime Lara, a professor of Christian art, raves about what the refurbished buildings will mean for his students.

“It’s really an interior renovation,” Lara said of the make-over, in which exterior changes will be limited to repainting and cosmetic alterations. “We are now the cutting edge, [with] exciting performance space.”

Samuel Osungbeju DIV ’03, a pastor from Nigeria, said he too was happy with the pace of the renovations, as well as with how Wood had handled them.

“Classrooms are spacious enough,” said Osungbeju, who added he had not in any way felt cramped since arriving in September.

Wood also oversaw the hiring of several of the Divinity School’s most prestigious senior faculty, including professors John Collins, an authority on the Old Testament, Adela Collins and Harold Attridge, experts in New Testament studies, and Bryan Spinks, who specializes in liturgy.

“Without exception, the faculty appointments he has made have been excellent,” said Adams, whose association with Yale dates back to the early 1940s.

A year of shocks

Some students, however, have criticized Wood, especially for his handling of last year’s three controversial sexual and racial incidents.

The alleged rape of a woman last January, the alleged assault last spring of Nigerian student Nicholas Otieno DIV ’02 and the expulsion that February of Christopher Harris DIV ’01 — a handicapped African-American — called the Divinity School’s reputation into question.

“I thought he did a horrible job and that he was violating all ethical standards,” said Kevin Thompson DIV ’01, a member of the Divinity School’s student council. “He made one statement after another that was just incensing people.”

Thompson specifically accused Wood of mishandling the expulsion of Christopher Harris. Harris, a blind African-American student, was ordered to leave last February after dropping all of his classes amid allegations he had harassed his female neighbors. Harris denied the accusations of harassment, claiming the Divinity School reneged on its pledge to provide him assistance for his disability. He subsequently filed suit in federal court.

Wood denied allegations that he had acted improperly.

“Chris Harris had effectively withdrawn from school before he was asked to leave the school,” he said. “He had a lot of support from Yale’s Office of Disabilities.”

While serving as dean, Wood also had to deal with the case of Nicholas Otieno, who was allegedly assaulted by classmate Derek Nelson DIV ’02 after the two had attended a campus party Jan. 28, 2000. A committee headed by professor James Dittes placed Nelson on probation for a year and ordered him to undergo alcohol counseling. Rumors of a hate crime swirled at the time, since Otieno is black and Nelson is white, and the incident hurt the Divinity School’s reputation.

The incident in question also followed an unrelated alleged rape, in which an anonymous student was assaulted in October 1999 and the suspect, a Divinity School student, was suspended for three terms.

Wood, an expert on Japanese society and culture, is now president of the United Fund for Christian Higher Education in Asia, which was founded to spur the establishment of Christian theology programs in East Asian universities. Reflecting on his tenure at Yale, Wood said he had no regrets.

“I took it [the job] because there was a particular need at Yale to manage a crisis,” he said.

Healing the community

Chopp’s selection as dean has been well received by members of the Divinity School community who hope she can bury whatever hatchets remain in their midst.

One of her priorities, she said, will be to increase the level of financial aid for students.

“Seminary students can carry enormous debt loads,” Chopp said in a recent interview. Moreover, she said, “the Divinity School really deserves the finest students.”

David Bartlett, the school’s dean for academic affairs, agreed improving financial aid packages is essential.

“Princeton Seminary pays the full load for all its students,” Bartlett said. “Most students [at Yale] get something better than 50 percent on tuition,” Bartlett said. “The issue is a recruitment point.”

At a ceremony held at the Divinity School March 20, Chopp said she seeks to better integrate the Divinity School — which has been criticized by professors like Wolterstorff for being too isolated — into the Yale, national and global communities.

It is important, Chopp said in her speech, that the Divinity School “meet[s] the pressing needs of the culture and the world.”

“My sense is there is an air of real excitement and energy,” she added in the interview. “The time is right for new visions of theological education.”

Lara speculated that — depending on political conditions — Chopp may choose to address the social implications of President George W. Bush’s proposed cuts in social programs or the unraveling of the peace process in the Middle East.

“I think she’ll be especially sensitive to minorities,” Lara said. “In addition to writing on women’s theology, she has written on Latin American liberation theology.”

Lara said he believed Chopp’s appointment would do much to calm the waters after five tumultuous years under Wood.

“I was one of several faculty that suggested we find a woman as dean because of the issues we had last year,” he said. “I thought a woman might bring a healing to the community.”

R. W. Franklin, a Divinity School associate dean and dean of the related Berkeley Divinity School, echoed those sentiments. He spoke of Chopp as someone who could reinvigorate the school.

“We have got to create a life within these new buildings,” Franklin said. “[Chopp’s] clearly seen as a leader of theological education in the U.S. — a seasoned administrator, close to the life of the churches.”

Like many Divinity School administrators, Franklin had little to say about past scandals.

“I would rather just concentrate on the positives and say that during that time [Wood’s] there was some major progress achieved on the institution,” Franklin said.

Students on the whole remained optimistic about Chopp.

“We’re very happy to have her come,” Peggy Niederer DIV ’01 said.

The Divinity School's physical plant is still in the process of being renovated, a project that was initiated during former Divinity School Dean Richard Wood's tenure. Wood left Yale in December 2000.
Marissa Kellogg
The Divinity School's physical plant is still in the process of being renovated, a project that was initiated during former Divinity School Dean Richard Wood's tenure. Wood left Yale in December 2000.

Comments