Following the announcement of Provost Ben Polak’s University-wide diversity initiative in 2015, Dean of Yale Divinity School Greg Sterling took a gamble, hiring seven faculty members in one year — five of them people of color without any guarantee of financial assistance.
Though the $50 million diversity initiative provides support for the recruitment of diverse faculty throughout the University, a school must commit to making a hire before the University will confirm whether or not the initiative will provide funding, Sterling told the News in an interview. Still, the diversity initiative served as justification for the Divinity School to be more aggressive in the recruitment process, he said.
A year and a half later, the hiring move has made the Divinity School’s faculty the most diverse at Yale. As of Sept. 30, 2016, 19 percent of the Divinity School ladder faculty are from underrepresented minorities, at least twice as many as at any of the other professional schools or the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In 2016, the Law School’s faculty was 8 percent underrepresented minorities, the School of Medicine’s was 7 percent and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ was 8 percent.
“I think that the Divinity School has a clear sense of not just a legal responsibility, but also a moral responsibility, to be more diverse,” Sterling said.
According to Jennifer Herdt, senior associate dean of academic affairs, diversity of race and ethnicity, denomination and nationality is one of the pillars of the Divinity School’s strategic plan. To remain one of the leading divinity schools in the country, Herdt said, an increase in diversity and inclusivity is key. She added that the provost’s diversity initiative in particular allowed the school to create a “critical mass of faculty of color,” which she called “essential” for minority faculty retention.
The recruitment of minority faculty is part of a more comprehensive strategy to strengthen the “larger range of diversity within the experience of the Divinity School,” according to Sterling. In the past two years, the Divinity School has sought to promote diversity in its curriculum through the establishment of both a new Master of Arts in Religion concentration in Latinx Christianity and a Black Church Studies program. The school has also prioritized changing the iconography of the school’s walls to better reflect the diversity of its students and faculty members.
Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies Willie Jennings, who was appointed in 2015, said the Divinity School’s commitment to diversity was a “very important” factor in his decision to come to Yale. He called the efforts under Sterling and senior faculty to recruit diverse faculty “excellent” and noted that it was rare for a university-affiliated divinity school to have several women of color on it faculty, especially given that three out of the four women of color on the Divinity School’s faculty are of African descent.
“The one thing I think that is always important to remember with the conversation about diversity is the continuing challenge of convincing people that diversity is not simply an add on to an excellent education,” Jennings said. “It really is now what defines an excellent education, and I think it’s a challenge across the board at all institutions to help the ecology of a school to make that fundamental shift because that fundamental shift is crucial now if we’re going to do excellent education.”
Stephanie Addenbrooke ’17 DIV ’20, a former editor-in-chief of the News, said that this is probably her first semester at Yale in which all her professors are people of color. She added that it was particularly exciting for a lot of the student body that women and people of color teach many of the required introductory courses at the Divinity School.
The fact that divinity and theological studies are accessible to a wide range of people contributes to the diversity of the divinity school, she said, as a great deal of the issues approached in the classroom are informed by personal faith perspectives. According to Addenbrooke, this creates an environment in which “every voice is valid.”
But she stressed that the diversity of the Divinity School also stems from its overarching commitment to diversity.
“There is a commitment which is so clear throughout how the community functions … that I feel like for us to not have a diverse faculty would be antithetical to the mission of the divinity school,” Addenbrooke said.
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