After spending over 20 years at the University as both a student and a teacher, Divinity School professor Serene Jones DIV ’85 GRD ’91 will leave Yale this fall to become the first female president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Jones’ appointment to Union, which was announced in late February, will halve the number of American Indian professors at Yale — leaving history professor Alyssa Mt. Pleasant the sole American Indian faculty member at the University. Though administrators emphasized that efforts to diversify Yale’s faculty are ongoing, her departure underscores the opportunity to isolate specific minority groups in the recruiting process, students and other administrators pointed out.
The New York Times reported in February that Jones’ appointment makes her only the fourth female president of a mainline, independent theological school in the United States.
Jones said she plans to build on Union’s progressive reputation for social-justice work and hopes to create programs that address religion’s intersection with health care and environmental issues.
“I think the time is right for re-invigorating a vision for progressive Christianity in North America,” Jones said. “It’s a historic moment and Union’s the place to do it.”
Jones said she is prepared to take the helm at Union because of her time at Yale — namely her examination of the political significance of female religious practitioners through the MacMillan Center for Area and International Studies and her current role as the acting chair of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department.
Jones, who is a member of the Cherokee tribe, is currently one of just two American Indian professors at the University. She suggested that while the University should have “broad minority recruiting efforts” for faculty, it may also prove beneficial to focus on recruiting severely underrepresented minority members, such as American Indians, to Yale. These groups are less likely to reach the highest levels of academia, she said, because they are often disadvantaged at every step of their academic development.
“It’s a systemic problem that relates directly to our continued effort to make education acceptable and available and open and attractive to a wide spectrum of people that make this country so wonderful,” she said.
Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge and Yale College Dean Peter Salovey emphasized the University’s ongoing commitment to recruiting new minority faculty members. In 2005, the University announced a seven-year diversity initiative that aimed to add 30 new minority faculty members.
“It’s no less true for groups in the faculty that are quite underrepresented, like Native Americans,” Salovey said.
But students and professors who advocate for greater American Indian representation on campus said that students are missing out on not having more professors from that minority group on campus right now.
Yale College Assistant Dean and Native American Cultural Center Director Shelly Lowe said having more American Indian faculty members creates a more inviting campus for the American Indian students and faculty members already here.
“One particular way faculty benefit is by not having to be the one or the one of a few who are constantly called upon to speak and advocate for Native issues on campus,” Lowe wrote in an e-mail.
Nolan Smith-Kaprosy ’10, the president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, agreed, adding that Yale’s American Indian community appreciates recent steps by University administration to provide more resources for students. But he maintained that the current situation is far from ideal.
“There is a lot of pressure placed on the few Native American faculty here because there are so few of them,” Smith-Kaprosy said. “I think it decreases the breadth of the amount of courses we have. With our growing programs like Ethnicity, Race and Migration, I think that Native studies is something that is truly lacking on campus.”
The 2007-’08 Yale College Programs of Study listed nine courses related to American Indian history, culture and religion.
Divinity School and University colleagues praised Jones’ commitment to feminist religious issues and her scholarship in the Calvinist tradition.
Divinity School professor Thomas Ogletree said he was not surprised to see Jones honored for her leadership qualities by the offer of a presidency. When the Divinity School was considering a new dean in 2001, Ogletree said if Jones had been a bit further along in her career she would have been a serious contender for the position.
“I simply see her as an articulate and imaginative leader,” Ogletree said. “She seemed to know how to organize and get things done.”
“It of course pains me to see a professor of Serene Jones’ quality depart from the University,” Salovey said. “But we should remember it’s still a very good thing for higher education in this country whether she’s at Yale or at Union Seminary.”
Jones is ordained in both the Christian Church and the United Church of Christ.