Research News

New generation of African American scholars seek leadership roles

A new generation of African American theology scholars are striving to define their place at the intersections of religion, social causes and education. Next month, more than 40 of them from across the country will gather at Vanderbilt University to discuss the challenges on this formidable road.

The doctoral students selected by The Fund for Theological Education will gather for a leadership development conference June 5-7.

The event – “Religion, Social Justice and the Post Civil Rights Era: The 21st Century Challenge” – will connect top African American doctoral students with leading faculty for mentoring and support on the rigorous road to teaching in the academy. Results of a 10-year investment by FTE show promise for their success.

To tackle concerns about the lack of diversity among faculty who teach religion and theology, the FTE has since 1998 awarded competitive fellowships to outstanding African American doctoral students. Hailing from top-ranked academic programs nationwide, they will convene at Vanderbilt to discuss common goals and challenges to achieving their dream of teaching as a professor.

“The diversity deficit in this discipline remains pervasive and student-scholars are on a road that is often long and lonely,” said Sharon Watson Fluker, FTE vice president of doctoral programs and administration. “”But this program demonstrates that change is possible. Having diverse voices and perspectives at the table in theological education requires increased support for students of color in the Ph.D. pipeline. The work is not finished. We must provide support that mitigates the financial hardships of doctoral study and connects rising scholars with faculty of color who can show them ways to open doors that seem closed.”

About a third of North American theological schools report they do not have a minority on their faculties. Fewer than 10 percent among all graduate religion and theology programs are non-Caucasian, according to a survey by the American Academy of Religion. In addition, the costs and demands of lengthy doctoral study create economic and social hardships for minority students.

“This is an issue Vanderbilt Divinity School takes very seriously, and we’re glad to lend our facilities and some of our faculty to this important event,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History. “The work of the FTE is extraordinary.”

Four Vanderbilt University Divinity School scholars will serve as conference faculty, alongside colleagues from the University of Rochester, Chicago Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, Belmont University and Drew University Theological School.

Participating Vanderbilt faculty are Victor Anderson, professor of Christian ethics, African American and Diaspora studies, and religious studies; Stacey Floyd-Thomas, associate professor of ethics and society; Forrest Harris, assistant professor of black church studies and director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies; and Herbert Marbury, assistant professor of Hebrew bible.

In addition, students will take a “memory tour” of Nashville civil rights sites and hear a keynote speech from civil rights leader the Rev. James Lawson, a Distinguished University Professor at Vanderbilt.

Over the past decade, FTE has awarded about $4 million in support to 214 doctoral students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, representing 402 fellowships. The awards accelerate completion of degree programs and provide support for finding teaching jobs. A 2009 FTE report shows that 79 percent of its Doctoral Fellowship recipients now teach at theological schools or universities. FTE says increased investment and creating affirming campus environments are needed to create impact on a large scale.

“Campus environment impacts student success,” Fluker said. “Vanderbilt University tops the list of academic institutions where FTE Doctoral Fellows have chosen to enroll since 1998.”

FTE is an ecumenical advocate for excellence and diversity in pastoral ministry and theological scholarship. Its work supports the next generation of leaders among pastors and scholars, providing $1.5 million annually in fellowships and support to gifted young people from all denominations and racial/ethnic backgrounds. Since 1954, FTE has awarded nearly 6,000 fellowships to develop qualified leaders for the church, academy and society.

Reporters wishing to cover the event should contact Kerry Traubert at (404) 727-1170 or

Media Contact: Kerry Traubert, (404) 727-1170

Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS