Emilie M. Townes reappointed as dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School

Emilie Townes headshot
Emilie Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School (Daniel Dubois / Vanderbilt University)

Emilie M. Townes, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society, has been reappointed as dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Her second five-year term as dean will begin July 1, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan R. Wente announced today.

“Under Dean Townes’ leadership, the Divinity School has launched programs that speak to the school’s historic commitment to social justice and unveiled a new, more flexible curriculum to prepare 21st-century ministers and scholars,” Wente said. “In addition, Dean Townes has recruited outstanding new faculty and provided strong support for trans-institutional programs with faculty and students from other schools and colleges.”

Wente noted that Townes’ standing as a renowned scholar has brought increased visibility to the school, positioning her to spearhead successful grant applications such as the one from the Henry Luce Foundation for the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative. The $1 million in funding brings scholars, students, activists and public servants to the school for three years to work on eradicating racism and all of its reciprocal forms of injustice and hatred.

“Dean Townes has provided patient and steady leadership to craft strategic directions as the Divinity School rises to meet the financial challenges facing divinity programs across the nation,” Wente said. “In addition, she has led the effort to secure funding to support the school’s addition and renovation, which will provide a more collaborative environment for learning and creating change.”

Dean Emilie Townes speaking at this spring’s Schola Prophetarum giving society reception (Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt University)

One of a small number of university-based divinity schools in the United States, the Divinity School, named a Seminary that Changes the World for 2017–18 by The Center for Faith and Service, was founded in 1875 as the Biblical Department of Vanderbilt University. It operated under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, until May 1914. Since that date, it has carried on its work as an ecumenical theological school under the leadership of the university’s Board of Trust.

“I am honored to continue serving this remarkable school, which shares my passion for spiritual and intellectual growth while being a prophetic and pastoral voice for social justice,” Townes said. “We continue to hold fast to our mission to educate and train future ministers, scholars and community leaders during these turbulent times.”

Townes is a pioneering scholar in womanist theology, which incorporates class, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation and race as the critical lens through which to examine issues as an ethicist. Her research-based interests include health and health care; exploration of the linkages among race, gender, class and other forms of oppression; and the cultural production of evil.

Townes was installed as the 16th dean of the Divinity School Aug. 23, 2013. She came to Vanderbilt from Yale University, where she was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology and associate dean of academic affairs. She is an ordained American Baptist clergywoman.

She earned a doctorate in philosophy from the Joint Garrett–Evangelical Theological Seminary/Northwestern University Program in Religious and Theological Studies in 1989. She also received a doctorate in ministry from the University of Chicago in 1982. Previously, Townes earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees at the University of Chicago.

Townes is the author of the groundbreaking book Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. Other books include In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness and Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope. She co-edited Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader with Katie Geneva Cannon and Angela D. Simms. In addition, Religion, Health, and Healing in African American Life was co-edited by Townes with Stephanie Y. Mitchem.