More Black Women Land Leadership Roles At Divinity Schools—and Beyond

A wave of Black women stepping into leadership positions at top divinity schools is making sure their voices are heard over the historical noise of racism and sexism in academia. 

Vanderbilt University’s new divinity school dean Yolanda Pierce, a specialist in womanist theology, which examines the role of women in faith, scripture, and ministry, is excited about the surge of Black females heading top divinity schools.

“I’m excited—not just about me, but because there are so many things happening,” Pierce told The Christian Century.

“Womanist theology took seriously the questions that women pose to text,” she added. “They’re also taking very seriously the questions that the marginalized, the least of these, the outcasts in society, are posing to their sacred texts and sacred traditions.” 

In the same way, Black females were historically shunned from academic leadership positions. Others have recently challenged a painful history of exclusion by stepping up to the mantle. The Christian Century noted that Danielle R. Holley became Mount Holyoke College’s 20th president the same day this year—July 1 —that Pierce’s appointment began.

Melissa Gilliam, a physician and provost at the Ohio State University will begin a term as president at Boston University in July 2024, and Claudine Gay was inaugurated as the 30th president of Harvard University on July 1.  

All three are the first Black person to lead their institutions. Gilliam is Boston University’s first woman president.

Before Vanderbilt, Pierce was a professor and dean at Howard University School of Divinity. The Cornell and Princeton graduate succeeded Emilie Townes, the first African American to serve as Dean of Vanderbilt School of Divinity in 2013.

Townes had previously broken gender and color barriers as the first African American and first woman to serve as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Yale Divinity School, according to a bio on Vanderbilt’s Graduate Department of Religion webpage.

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