Emilie M. Townes, a distinguished Yale University scholar and administrator, whose areas of expertise include Christian ethics and ‘womanist theology,’ has been named dean of Vanderbilt University Divinity School effective July 1, 2013.
Townes, an ordained American Baptist clergywoman, succeeds James Hudnut-Beumler, who will take a year’s sabbatical after serving as the school’s dean since 2000.
Townes, who will be the 16th dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, pending approval by the Vanderbilt board of trust, has been appointed to a five-year term, according to Richard McCarty, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. She will also hold an endowed chair as a tenured faculty member.
“Emilie Townes is an amazing scholar, a wonderful mentor to students, and a leader in theological education,” McCarty said. “She is also ready to lead, and I am delighted that she has accepted our offer to be the next dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School. Her impact as dean will be felt in the Divinity School and across the university as well as nationally and internationally. I look forward to welcoming her to the Vanderbilt community.”
Townes is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology and associate dean of academic affairs at Yale Divinity School. Previously, she was the Carolyn Williams Beaird Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.
Carolyn Dever, dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of English, chaired the search committee for the new Divinity dean.
“In every aspect of her profile, Emilie Townes epitomizes the Vanderbilt Divinity School’s dedication to renowned scholarship, ecumenical leadership and commitment to social justice,” Dever said. “We warmly welcome her to a community that is passionate about the scholarship and teaching of religion, and about empowering students to change themselves, and the world, for the better.”
“I look forward to working with the faculty, staff and students of Vanderbilt Divinity School to engage in university-wide conversations as we explore the role of religion and values in a university setting and beyond,” Townes said. “I am excited and honored to be asked to lead and guide a school with a long commitment to helping clergy and laity prepare for Christian ministry. It’s working to re-envision ministry to meet the needs of our times by combining spiritual and intellectual growth with a sense of social justice and the formation of new generations of scholars. With its hallmarks of academic excellence, diversity, faithfulness, networking in a university setting, and a collaborative spirit in teaching and learning, the Divinity School is positioned to be an even greater voice in theological education and world Christianities in a world of religious pluralism.”
The pioneering scholar in the field of womanist theology is the author of Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope (Scholars Press, 1993) and In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Abingdon Press, 1995). Her most recent book is Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2006). In addition, she co-edited Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Her other broad areas of teaching and research include Christian ethics, critical social theology, cultural theory and studies, and postmodernism and social postmodernism.
Topics of particular interest to Townes include health and health care; cultural production of evil; exploration of the linkages among race, gender, class and other forms of oppression; and development of a network between African American and Afro-Brazilian religious and secular leaders and community-based organizations.
In her teaching, Townes strives to “move students beyond the strictly academic into a realm where words are wedded to belief and action,” according to an article on the Yale University website.
Townes received her Bachelor’s degree in religion and the humanities at the University of Chicago. She then earned her Master of Arts and Doctorate of Ministry from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.
She also received a Ph.D. from the joint Northwestern University/Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary program.
A former president of the American Academy of Religion, she currently serves as president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion (2012–16). Townes was inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.
Vanderbilt Divinity School is one of only five university-based interdenominational institutions in the United States and the oldest one in the Southeast.
The school seeks to engage men and women in a theological understanding of religious traditions; to help persons, both lay and ordained, re-envision and prepare for the practice of Christian ministry in our time; to encourage individuals in their spiritual and intellectual growth; to prepare leaders who will be agents of social justice; and to educate future scholars and teachers of religion.