Exit Interview: Questions and Answers with Dean Graham

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Bill and Barbara Graham with their son, Powell. Photo: Steve Gilbert

William A. Graham steps down as Dean of Harvard Divinity School at the end of the 2011–12 academic year. After a year's leave in 2012–13, he will return to teaching as a Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor. HDS MDiv candidate Matt Bieber caught up with Dean Graham in April to discuss his tenure as Dean and what's next for him.

MB: How did you go through the process of choosing to step down?

WG: I had never planned to be here 10 years. I had been thinking that I would probably step down after eight, but I felt I had to stay on until the School came out on the other side of the financial downturn. Another factor in staying on was that the University will be going into a capital campaign in the future, and I felt that any new Dean had to have at least some time to get to know our donors and potential donors and also to be engaged in the rampup to campaign mode, which for a Dean is usually pretty intense in terms of the travel commitments. Also, I felt that we had pretty much rebuilt the faculty, having made over 30 appointments in nine years. Last, I felt that I am at the last possible time to be able to return fully to the classroom and writing and can hope to have 5 to 10 years of good health to do some serious academic work again.

MB: It sounds like you're excited about getting back to some of the study that grounded your career. Do you think there'll be some bittersweetness or some nostalgia for these years as well?

WG: There certainly will be. I never expected to do the job to begin with, and at the beginning, it was a pretty tough job. There was a lot of work to be done with the faculty, the curriculum, financial aid, and even the staff, but the last three or four years have been a delight working with great faculty and terrific staff, not to mention outstanding students who are being well supported with financial aid. I do not think we would have come through the latest financial crisis so well if we hadn't had such good people. There will be a certain sadness in leaving a lot of friends and colleagues here in terms of not working daily with them, but I'm not leaving the University, and I may still be on the faculty here, even if I am based primarily again in FAS.

MB: Can you talk about some of your other goals coming in, and whether you've been able to reach them?

WG: We were able to hire a lot of junior faculty, and thus far we've been able to tenure almost all of them who have completed their initial appointments. We also revised the MDiv and MTS programs and the ThD. Every 25 to 30 years, whether it needs it or not, I think you ought to have a curriculum revision, and we've done that. We also worked to build a transparent administration with our staff and our faculty. That was very important to me.

MB: It sounds like transitioning from a strictly scholarly role into your responsibilities here has meant coming to see the place in an entirely new light.

WG: Very much so. I have been connected to persons in the Divinity School since I began as an FAS graduate student in 1966, but I had never had a formal affiliation here. It was interesting that coming over as Dean, you see it in a totally different light. I had never been in Divinity faculty meetings. I had never worried about the faculty or curricular components. I had served on a couple of search committees, or at least spoken with members of the committee about a few appointments on occasion when invited to do so, but it was always as an outsider who came in for a brief moment and then was out. So it was very, very different coming over as Dean.

MB: I'm curious about the writing or research that's coming up next for you. What are you most excited about getting to work on?

WG: I had about 150 pages of a book written when I started as Dean, but I have a feeling that I will not go back to that project. I have been publishing throughout my time at HDS, but no major projects. I will probably start something new, so my plan now is to spend next year reading, thinking, and trying to decide what project or projects I want to take on in the next decade. I have already committed to an article or two that I have to do next year, but I don't think I am going to tackle a serious undertaking until I have had a chance to catch up on a decade reading in my own field of Islamic studies and the general history of religion and humanities scholarship more broadly.

MB: You were quoted in the Harvard Gazette during your second year here as Dean that "Harvard is poised, if we do it right, to take a leadership role in how religious and theological studies will be done in the modern university in the twenty-first century." Where do you think HDS stands now?

WG: We are still working on that. One of the reasons I took the job to begin with was because I thought, as an Arts and Sciences faculty member, there was a good chance that I might help us work out better mechanisms for shared programs. We badly need Divinity School faculty to run an undergraduate concentration here, because 60 to 70 percent of the religion courses that undergraduates take are done with HDS faculty. Yet, there is no formal mechanism for Divinity faculty really to teach targeted undergraduate courses. Also, we are the only major research institution in the country, maybe in the world, that gives both a ThD and a PhD in religion. It would make a lot of sense to have single PhD program supported by both faculties. We have not gotten to that yet. On the other hand, we have more joint faculty now than we've had before. We have more faculty serving on committees in the Yard, and I have had Arts and Sciences faculty serving on almost every search committee here at HDS. We are trying to continue this integration of the scholars in both faculties who deal seriously with religion.

MB: How do you think the environment for students has changed during your tenure?

WG: My sense is that students have become ever more satisfied with the increasing quality of teaching at HDS. When I came, there were very good teachers here, but I think now it is still visibly stronger. I find there is much more of a conscious focus on teaching within the faculty. Further, we have developed unusually strong financial aid by Harvard standards. We support 90 percent or more of our students with at least half tuition and 70 percent of those with full tuition. Of those 70 percent, a number also receive stipends. I believe that 10 years ago, it was more like 30 percent of our students getting anything other than loans. We have been able to achieve this in part because we had good luck financially, and we managed to hang on to the same percentages through the economic crisis. We have not stepped back on our financial aid. It might be that we cannot sustain this forever, but I am hopeful that we can try.

MB: How do you think about HDS and its mission? More specifically, is there a cluster of things you hope students take with them when they leave?

WG: Our students do a hundred different things when they leave HDS. That is why I refer to HDS as an advanced liberal arts institution. I like to think we are training people to do whatever they do with greater acuity and knowledge about the religious, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions of their careers and of society. I'd also like to think that students go out as well-educated citizens who can be leaders in various areas. They go out to do jobs that are usually highly influential in local communities or sometimes in national arenas. There is a tremendous number who go into NGOs, who serve in public positions, or who start organizations that do social good in the world. Many graduates leave here and end up working for religious communities that are concerned about making life better for people. Our graduates leave with exposure to different kinds of humane and religious thinking, because that is the society people are going to be living in more and more in America or anywhere else. It's going to be pluralistic, multinational, and multireligious in almost every country in the world before long. Sending people out who have awareness of how to deal with that strikes me as something special about the graduates of the School here.

MB: There's been quite a lot of faculty and curriculum development in world religion.

WG: When the faculty revised the MDiv program, they explicitly made it possible for people of any religious community to come in and study their own tradition and go out to be leaders in the Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu communities. So our MDiv now looks much more international and much more interreligious than it ever has.

MB: You've obviously got a full plate ahead of you academically, but I imagine you'll have a bit more free time now too. What are you going to do with it?

WG: Well, I hope to be able to read a lot more. I will probably spend a little bit of time on things like tinkering with woodworking. The main thing for me will be that I will have more time to get back into the mountains, which is my first love. In the last 10 years, I have done very little mountain climbing or hiking compared to what I used to do, so I am hopeful of getting back to doing more outdoor things like that. I mostly will be devoting myself to being what I have always been, which is a scholar and teacher. It is such a gift. One is so privileged to have a career in something that you care about. You are always a student. Something about that is reinvigorating; it's constantly exciting because you are always "becoming." You are always trying to learn more and trying to sort out a new problem. It is endlessly exciting.