Duke Divinity dean steps down with no explanation. She had sparked some controversy.

Elaine Heath stepped down as dean of Duke’s Divinity School without explanation Thursday.
Elaine Heath stepped down as dean of Duke’s Divinity School without explanation Thursday. Duke University photo

Elaine Heath, dean of Duke Divinity School, left that job Thursday, according to a story published on the university’s website.

The announcement was made by Provost Sally Kornbluth, who informed the Divinity School faculty and staff in a message Thursday, according to the Duke Today story.

Meanwhile, the school’s former dean, Greg Jones, professor of theology and Christian ministry, will resume the role, the university announced. He served from 1997 to 2010 as dean and will help the school prepare for a national search for a new dean, the announcement said. Kornbluth called Jones an experienced leader and said he is “devoted to our shared goals of excellence and inclusion.”

Heath, a professor of missional and pastoral theology, will stay on the Divinity School faculty.

There was no explanation for Heath’s departure, but she had been the target of criticism about the school’s treatment of lesbian, gay and transgender students at the United Methodist Church-affiliated seminary.

On Saturday, Heath said by email that she had sent this message to the Duke Divinity School community:

“Serving as Dean of Duke Divinity School for two years has been a privilege, and the work has been very meaningful to me. I am delighted to now be able to resume research, teaching, mentoring, and service. In particular I am eager to develop more courses that integrate Christian spirituality, pastoral theology, and missional theology, which will help our students as they prepare for complex ministries. I have long held strong interest in the theory and practice of Christian community as a means of healing societal and individual wounds caused by trauma. Part of my work moving forward will be to continue to serve as senior strategist for the Neighborhood Seminary. This is a pilot project that the Divinity School launched last year, that is grounded in fostering authentic community. The project, which is a two year program in lay theological education, is already proving successful and is scaling out under the capable leadership of Dr. Heidi Miller. Along with this initiative I plan to develop more projects in the years ahead that will contribute to the strength of the Divinity School as it bridges from academy to the church and world. My sabbatical will provide time to prepare for Spring classes and begin working on my next research project.

“I wish Dean Jones every blessing as he takes up the challenging work of leading our institution in the days ahead. Thank you to all of you who have been supportive over the past two years through your work, prayers, contributions, and friendship.”

In February, student protesters stormed a state-of-the-school speech by Heath. She later formed a task force at the school to work on issues the students had raised..

Nicole Williams of Durham, 30, a rising third-year student at the Divinity School, said she was one of four students who led the protest at Heath’s speech in February. Williams, who is African American and identifies as queer, said Thursday she was surprised to learn Heath is stepping down but felt it was in the best interest of the school.

“I was one of those who had high hopes when she came,” Williams said. “But then, it seemed as if she was almost a puppet for the white males to control. She played along with whatever agenda the school has historically had as it relates to the students it’s supposed to serve.”

Williams said that while Duke as a whole has been increasingly welcome to African American and LGBTQ students, the Divinity School seems to be mired in what she called the United Methodist Church’s plodding approach to deciding what its doctrine should be regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. Just this week, after years of discussion, the church released its final proposals on the matter, called, “A Way Forward,” which will be presented at the February 2019 General Conference.

Meanwhile, Williams said, African American staff and faculty have been leaving the Duke Divinity School and LGBTQ students have seen no meaningful additions to the curriculum that deal with their sexuality in the context of faith and the church. Whenever students have complained, Williams said, Heath’s response was to create a task force in which she encouraged others to talk about the problem.

“She would just step out of the spotlight and back into the shadows,” Williams said. “She is a beautiful person within herself. She just wasn’t equipped to do the job.”

In March, in an op-ed published in The News & Observer, Heath wrote: “Even as we recognize our strength, we also acknowledge that our history and practice have at times mirrored the same structural sins that are evident in the church and society at large: sexism, racism and other forms of exclusion and oppression of minorities that hurt real people and fall short of the generosity to which God calls us. With the rest of Duke University, the Divinity School is working to address these structural injustices in multiple ways.”

In only two years as dean, Heath had seen her share of controversy. She was embroiled in a dispute with a professor who was disciplined after he complained in a school-wide email that diversity training was “a waste” and “anti-intellectual.” The professor, Paul Griffiths, resigned in protest after he was targeted with disciplinary proceedings. He said Heath had banned him from faculty meetings and threatened to pull school funds for his travel and research.

On Thursday, Kornbluth’s statement said that she and Duke President Vincent Price “are grateful to Elaine for her leadership over the past two years, and we share her excitement about continuing as a member of the Divinity School faculty to advance her work on several emerging initiatives that bridge the academy to the church and the world, including the Neighborhood Seminary.”

Jones emailed the school’s faculty and staff with this statement, according to Duke’s website: “We have important challenges to address, including continuing the work of diversifying the faculty, staff, and student body, and building an ever-more inclusive and welcoming environment for all, so that we may have a richer common life. We need also to build bridges across various divides in the church, the academy, and across society. Christian faith can play a significant role in this bridge-building.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989

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