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Elaine Heath steps down as Divinity School dean after two years at helm

Elaine Heath, dean of the Divinity School, is stepping down as the school's leader effective today, the University announced Thursday.

The news was shared with the Divinity School community in an email Thursday morning. Greg Jones, who previously served as the dean from 1997 to 2010, will take over as Duke searches for a new dean.

The announcement did not state a reason for the change.

“President Price and I 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,” Kornbluth wrote in an email to Divinity School faculty and staff.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, explained the timing in an email to The Chronicle.

"The leadership of the University and the Divinity School agreed it was important to make transition now so they could begin the academic year by working in close collaboration with faculty, staff and students on the School’s current challenges and future opportunities," Schoenfeld wrote.

Heath will remain at the school as a faculty member, serving as a professor of missional and pastoral theology, the release said. She will be on sabbatical until Jan. 15, 2019, according to an automatic reply sent from her Duke email.

Jones, the Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. professor of theology and Christian ministry, wrote in an email to faculty and staff Thursday morning that the school needs to build bridges across divides in the church and society.

“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," Jones wrote.

Recently, the school has grappled with questions of how it treats African-American and LGBTQ+ students, which came to a head in March when students protested the State of the School speech. 

Duke will conduct a national search for a new leader for the Divinity School, Kornbluth said in the release. 

In the meantime, Jones is back at the school's reins.

"He is an experienced leader who knows the Divinity School and the university as well as anyone, and who is devoted to our shared goals of excellence and inclusion," Kornbluth went on to say in the email. "I appreciate Greg’s willingness to take on this role as a service to Duke."

The provost acknowledged that questions may arise about the suddenness of the shift in a part of the email not included in the release.

"I understand that you may have questions about the substance and timing of this transition," Kornbluth wrote. "Please know that President Price and I are deeply committed to your success and look forward to working with you to address the Divinity School’s current challenges and future opportunities."

In part of his email to the Divinity School community not included in the Duke Today release, Jones also expressed his own surprise at returning to the role.

"If you are surprised to be reading this message from me as your Dean, rest assured you are no more surprised than I am to be writing it," he wrote.

Though the deanship was not what he had in mind for his future work, Jones said he was honored to accept the invitation to take the role back on. 

The school has challenges to address, such as diversifying its faculty and staff and building bridges across the church's divides.

"In addition, we need to embody faithful and committed Christian witness amidst contexts that are changing, often at a bewildering pace; nurture academic work that is rigorous, yet also compelling and accessible; foster interdisciplinary collaboration in order to address complex issues; and face substantive financial challenges to theological education in general, and Duke Divinity School in particular," Jones wrote.

Check back for updates to this developing story.


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