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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Harvard update on Emerson UUA professorship.

On August 21, Harvard Divinity School dean William Graham distributed a letter announcing an update in the school's search for a Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professor of Divinity. The letter itself is not online, as far as I can tell.

It reports that a faculty committee decided, after conducting an initial search in the 2006-2007 academic year, to redefine the professorship as a "Professor of the Practice" and reannounce the search. Why? Graham explains:

First, the most attractive candidates identified in the original search — and there were very attractive ones — fit best into that category for the purposes of Harvard University's hiring processes. Second, the faculty realized that, given the increasingly successful enhancement of our MDiv curriculum and ministry studies program in general, as well as the oft-mentioned desire from UUA alumni and friends for more consistent and focused training of UU ministers by HDS, we have a golden opportunity in the Emerson search to align the person chosen for the position with other prominent ministry professors . . . Above all, it should be noted that the designation "Professor of the Practice" is increasingly being utilized across the University as a way to bring professors to Harvard whose life and professional experience outside academia can be available — and properly valued — as a rich educational resource for today's most talented students.

The faculty opening describes the position this way:

A Professor of the Practice in this position may be a scholar in a pertinent field or a senior practitioner, preferably with a doctorate, who has a distinguished record of ministry or public service and a demonstrated ability in the practices of ministry (e.g., worship, pastoral counseling, preaching, social justice) or another profession (e.g., education, journalism, government, medicine, law) that are relevant to the needs of the School. This is a renewable five-year term appointment intended to advance studies in liberal religion, broadly construed.

For background, see's April 2006 story, "Harvard announces professorship in Unitarian Universalist studies."

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 6 September 2007 at 5:20 PM

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Jeff W.:

September 6, 2007 08:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hmmmm. I don't like the sound of this new call, compared to the original one.

Despite Graham's claims otherwise, academic searches that put out a second call almost invariably do so because they failed to find qualified candidates in the first round.

There is a deep tension in this call between advancing liberal "studies," i.e. research, teaching, and publishing on the history and phenomena of liberal religion (the focus of the original call and an aim still at least nominally retained here), and the practice of ministry, i.e. the implementation of a certain spiritual vision through the pastoral and preaching arts. These two aren't necessarily opposable, but they involve different training and usually different career paths. A focus on ministry skills makes it more likely that someone with lesser skills in UU history (i.e. the need the professorship was designed to meet) will be appointed than if a straightforward call for an academic position were made. The expansion of the call to allow ministers without Ph.D.s suggests that no qualified professor of Unitarian Universalism could be found, probably because the field is so attenuated at this time. That's too bad. I hope the eventual appointment will prove my fears unfounded.

It's also unclear to me what this isn't a tenured position. Endowed, named, senior professorships that are on a renewable appointment basis are unusual.

Totally off the subject: Chris, do you intend to publicize UU/liberal AAR sessions and events again this year? Did you see the announcement of the Friday night panel on UU theology in context?


September 6, 2007 08:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff, you're hearing the same disturbing undertone in Graham's letter — but I am not surprised. I also hadn't heard, until I read the new call, that it was a renewable, non-tenture-track position.

Yes, I did just hear about the UU scholars events at the AAR and will be publicizing them, although I won't be in San Diego myself this year.

Jeff W.:

September 6, 2007 09:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

I wonder if the there isn't a connection between the non-tenure track nature of this position and the inability to fill it. In fact, I'd be willing to wager money that this is precisely the main factor here.

The call was for a senior academic to fill a highly prestigious position. Without exception, only a professor who had already achieved tenure could have also acquired the experience and skills to meet the primary call--they are the same skill-set. It is almost inconceivable that a tenured professor would ever under any circumstances leave their position for a non-tenured job, no matter the nature of that job.

Therefore, it seems likely that the Emerson professorship as written is in fact unfillable. Only by either making it a tenured position or by reducing the requirements could it possibly be filled. Harvard appears to have chosen the latter course, to the detriment of the field.

It's probably relevant that Harvard is apparently experiencing some sort of internal crisis over tenure positions. I'm not privy to the full details but colleagues there say that it has become a serious issue. But I personally know of no senior scholar who, after spending years of labor establishing his/her tenure, would give it up for a temporary appointment, even one at Harvard, even if it had Emerson's name on it.


September 7, 2007 01:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

Naming it after Emerson might have been the root of the problem. In retrospect of the Lord's Supper Sermon, I wonder if there isn't a deeper nexus between Emerson and non-tenure that can't be broken by mere mortals. But why didn't they just try renaming it the Eliot professorship first? That would be good joss. You could take your pick of Eliots. Especially at Harvard.


September 7, 2007 06:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Despite Graham's claims otherwise, academic searches that put out a second call almost invariably do so because they failed to find qualified candidates in the first round.

Not necessarily true. When I was at U of C, pretty much every job search failed on the first round because the faculty couldn't agree on what they were really looking for until they got a sense of who was out there. The first round, they would be deliberately vague in the description, and then refine it for the next year.

But I agree that this particular announcement, especially the non-tenure part, is rather odd.


September 8, 2007 12:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have been following this, and I also wasn't aware that it is a non-tenured position. I'll ask around and see if there is an explanation......


September 9, 2007 08:38 AM | Permalink for this comment

RWE is said to have often gotten lost in the woods, on his way to pastoral calls. And once, visiting a dying parishioner, Emerson expostulated on the possible origins of the bedside lamp at length until the dying man told him to come back when he knew what he was doing.

So, an "Emerson Professor in the Practice of Ministry" doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

I'd hoped this professorship would mean a leader in the new theology we desperately need, so I was also disappointed by the letter (and assume HDS must be getting flack for the decision, if they're taking the step of sending letters out to non-contributing alums like little ol' me).

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