Harvard Divinity School to welcome 1st Black female dean

Marla F. Frederick is the incoming dean of the Harvard Divinity School Dean (Photo Courtesy of Emory University)

Harvard Divinity School is set to welcome at its helm the first woman and first Black female in its 207-year history.

Marla Frederick, whose scholarship is focused on the African-American religious experience, will become dean of the famed theological institution on Jan. 1, 2024, Harvard University President Claudine Gay announced Aug, 24.

While Frederick currently serves as a professor of religion and culture at Emory University, she is no stranger to Harvard. She joined the school’s Department of African and African American Studies in 2003, received tenure in 2010 and, in all, spent 16 years there as a professor. Her departure from Harvard in 2019 to join the faculty of Emory University’s School of Theology came at a time when many Black faculty members opted to exit Harvard for peer institutions, the Harvard Crimson reported.

“We are thrilled to welcome Marla Frederick back to the University,” Gay said in a statement. “Her scholarship and her leadership have been distinguished by wide-ranging curiosity and engagement, and I am confident that those qualities, as well as her deep devotion to the mission of Harvard Divinity School, will make her an outstanding dean.”

Frederick said in a statement that she is “honored” to return as dean of HDS, which she described as “a place bustling with conscientious faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends who are committed to the work of justice and human flourishing informed by deep study.”

“I look forward to joining the HDS community in developing religious and civic leaders for our increasingly complex and diverse society,” she added.

In her previous stint at Harvard, Frederick served in various leadership roles, including as interim chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion, a member of the provost’s academic leadership forum, and as director of graduate studies and chair of the admissions committee for the Department of African and African American Studies.

At Emory, Frederick served on the university’s tenure and promotion advisory committee and was involved in the Emory School of Theology’s committees on strategic planning and personnel and academic policy. She has also served as president of the American Academy of Religion and the Association of Black Anthropologists.

Frederick’s acclaimed scholarship is principally focused on the study of religion and media, religion and social activism in the U.S. South and the sustainability of Black institutions in a “post-racial” world. She is the author or co-author of four books, including Colored Television: American Religion Gone Global and Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith. She also is currently curating, alongside five co-editors, an encyclopedia of the histories of historically Black colleges and universities.

University Provost Alan M. Garber, who co-led the HDS dean search with Gay, told the Harvard Gazette that Frederick is “the right person to lead HDS in the years to come.”

“Marla deeply understands the unique role and influence of the Harvard Divinity School, and why it is a cherished institution,” he added. “She recognizes the challenges and opportunities facing the School and will bring a fresh perspective informed by her service both within and outside of Harvard. Beyond her credentials as an influential scholar, she is also a devoted teacher whose thoughtful, collaborative nature shines through in everything she does.”

Originally from Sumter, South Carolina, Frederick earned her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and her doctorate in cultural anthropology from Duke University. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty in 2003, she served in a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University and as an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, before assuming another postdoctoral position at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.-AFRO


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