Vanderbilt Magazine

Joseph C. Hough Jr., Vanderbilt Divinity School dean in the 1990s, has died

Close-up shot of Dean Joseph C. Hough, with his hand resting on his cheek. Black and white shot.
Dean Joseph C. Hough Jr., dean emeritus of Vanderbilt Divinity School (Vanderbilt University Special Collections and Photo Archives)

Joseph C. Hough Jr., who led the Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1990 to 1999, died May 15 in Claremont, California, after a long illness. He was 89. 

Hough was installed as dean and professor of Christian ethics at the Divinity School in January 1990. When he arrived at Vanderbilt, he confronted a significant financial deficit that had plagued the Divinity School for more than 40 years. His talents at fundraising helped the school raise around $18 million during the Campaign for Vanderbilt, a six-year effort that ended in 1995. During his tenure, the school tripled its endowment, erased its deficit and created endowed chairs in Wesleyan, Catholic and Jewish studies. He also helped create the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality at the Divinity School. Within Nashville, Hough built ecumenical relationships, strengthening interfaith ties and bringing white and Black clergy together to define and work on common goals.    

Two smiling men, one white, one Black, in a black and white photo taken at a reception
Dean Joseph Hough with Samuel Proctor, 1990–91 Wilson Professor, at the installation reception honoring Hough, Sept. 4, 1990 (Photo by Richard Crichton, courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections and Photo Archives)

“The hallmarks of Joe Hough’s deanship were getting costs under control, reversing a long-standing deficit, and his unflagging commitments to interfaith, interracial, LGBT and ecumenical inclusion,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History and dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School from 2000 to 2013. “His own religion often evidenced itself in his motto, ‘No one has an exclusive corner on the truth.’”  

At his installation as dean, Hough noted his wish to establish a program to address professional ethics. He worked with Cal Turner Jr., at that time the chairman and CEO of Dollar General Corp., to create the Cal Turner Program in Moral Leadership, now known as the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in the Professions. The program investigates cross-disciplinary topics within the law, divinity, medical and business schools at Vanderbilt, and more broadly within Middle Tennessee’s professional communities, to produce leaders who represent high achievement in their spheres of influence and who lead for the common good.  

“Joe Hough was a giant as a plain-spoken, effective leader,” Turner said.  

Hough retired as dean emeritus and professor of Christian ethics emeritus in 1999. Soon after retiring from Vanderbilt, he was called to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was the 15th president and the William E. Dodge Professor of Social Ethics from 1999 to 2008. During a time of financial upheaval for the institution, he stabilized its finances through creative agreements to lease some of its buildings to Columbia University and transfer ownership and responsibility for its library.  

He was asked to return to Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, as interim president in 2009. This served as a homecoming for him and his wife, Heidi, to the place where they had raised their family. Hough started his academic career as a professor at the Claremont School of Theology in 1965, and over the course of 23 years he was chair of the Department of Religion, dean of the School of Theology and acting director of the Center for Humanities in the years prior to his tenure at Vanderbilt. During his time as interim president from 2009 through mid-2010, he guided the university through difficult financial decisions during a recession while increasing enrollment and philanthropy. At commencement in 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Claremont in recognition of his leadership.   

Later in his career, Hough addressed the crisis of poverty in America by increasing awareness and organizing events to mobilize action. He believed it was a moral obligation to eradicate poverty, which he saw as the root cause of many of society’s difficulties.  

Black/white photo of a man in a suit at the lectern of Benton Chapel at Vanderbilt with rays of light on the wall behind him
Dean Joseph Hough (Vanderbilt University Special Collections and Photo Archives)

“Joe Hough was never one to shy away from a challenge—he saw it as an opportunity to dream big rather than shrink back in the face of vexing situations,” said Emilie M. Townes, dean emerita of the Divinity School (2013–23) and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society. “His was a faith that spoke volumes into the public realm in encouraging us to help create a more just world, and we will miss his passion and vision in the challenging times we now face.” 

A native of North Carolina, Hough attended Wake Forest University as an undergraduate and earned a bachelor of divinity (1959), master’s (1964) and Ph.D. (1965) from Yale Divinity School. He was an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and began his career as an associate minister at First Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tennessee. Books authored, co-authored or edited by Hough include Black Power and White Protestants (Oxford University Press, 1968); Christian Identity and Theological Education (Scholars Press, 1985); Beyond Clericalism: The Congregation as a Focus for Theological Education (Scholars Press, 1988); and Theology and the University (SUNY Press, 1991).  

Hough was awarded numerous honors over the years, including an honorary doctor of divinity from Wake Forest University and the Centennial Medal for Distinguished Service from Claremont in 1986. He also received the Joshua Award from the Jewish Federation Council in 1986 for outstanding contributions to human relations.   

In 2007, Hough was the recipient of the Alumni Award for Distinction in Theological Education from Yale Divinity School, and in 2008 he received the “Urban Angels” Award from New York Theological Seminary. He was also the 2008 recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada. This award, given every two years, recognized Hough’s contributions to the institutions he had served and to the wider work of theological education.  

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Heidi Nussbaumer Hough; two sons, Joseph Mark Hough, JD’94, and Dr. David Mathew Hough, and four grandchildren. 

A memorial service will be held June 25 at 2 p.m. (Pacific time) at Claremont United Church of Christ.