Vanderbilt University has named Yolanda Pierce, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity and a prominent leader on the role of religion in public life, as its next dean of the Divinity School, according to C. Cybele Raver, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
Pierce, whose appointment is effective July 1 pending approval of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust, has served as dean and professor of religion at Howard University since 2017. She will succeed Emilie M. Townes, a leader and innovator in the re-envisioning of theological education, to become the 17th dean in the history of the school.
“During the search process, Yolanda Pierce stood out for her outstanding national leadership at the intersection of religion and public life,” Raver said. “Dean Pierce is not only an outstanding public leader, but also a deeply personal writer and scholar who will bring her profound insights to the role of faith and spirituality in society, particularly in the context of African American culture, to Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is the ideal candidate to continue Emilie Townes’ path breaking work in what we boldly call ‘Scholar Prophetarum, School of the Prophets’—preparing our students to be 21st-century ministers, teachers and community leaders in a challenging world.”
A graduate of Cornell and Princeton universities, Pierce was selected by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture to found the Center for African American Religious Life. As a public theologian and scholar, she has been recognized as a member of the American Academy of Religion and received numerous awards, including fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Mellon Foundation and the Pew Foundation.
Pierce is a native New Yorker and first-generation college student who earned a doctorate in religion and literature at Cornell. She taught at the University of Kentucky, earning tenure as a faculty member in English and African American studies, before moving into theological education. She then joined the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, where she was associate professor of religion and literature and founding director of the Center for Black Church Studies.
Pierce was the first woman selected to lead Howard School of Divinity, where her priorities have included growing the number of students and expanding the school’s programs and initiatives. Under her watch, Howard has launched a chaplaincy/clinical pastoral education program certified by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. In addition, the doctor of ministry program transitioned from residential to online. Pierce also has focused on securing funding to support enhanced student financial aid and program expansion.
“Dean Pierce has been instrumental to a period of growth at Howard School of Divinity, and she is committed to helping our Divinity School flourish through cross-institutional and community partnerships while, at the same time, advancing the university’s commitment to belonging and inclusion,” Raver said.
“As one of our four original schools, the Divinity School holds a special place at Vanderbilt,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said. “It has also played a crucial role in facilitating civil discourse and open inquiry on our campus. Yolanda Pierce will strengthen that tradition as an influential faith leader in the public square. She also brings the invaluable interdisciplinary perspective of one who has been a faculty member in both theological institutions and schools of arts and sciences. We are thrilled to welcome Dean Pierce to Vanderbilt and look forward to the Divinity School’s next chapter under her leadership.”
Pierce is the author of In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit and Hell Without Fires: Slavery, Christianity, and the Antebellum Spiritual Narrative. Her forthcoming book, Religious Ecstasy and African American Cultural Expression, continues her focus on the historical and contemporary significance of the African American religious tradition. She is a contributing writer for Christian Century and also has authored pieces for Time and Theology Today, among other publications.
Pierce, an ordained Christian minister, was selected in 2015 as one of The Root 100 Most Influential African Americans. She is a member of several professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association, the American Academy of Religion and the American Historical Association.
“I am honored and excited for the opportunity to become dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, an innovator in 21st-century theological education, and to work with dedicated faculty and staff in the preparation of outstanding ministers and scholars,” Pierce said. “I have long heard about the school’s rich history as an advocate for racial and social justice, and I look forward to building on the strong foundation that Emilie Townes and others have established to form this treasured community.”
Raver expressed thanks to members of the Divinity School Dean Search Committee, which was chaired by Lorenzo F. Candelaria, the Mark Wait Dean and professor of musicology at the Blair School of Music, for their guidance and collaboration.