Settling in at YDS: a busy month for the new dean
Gregory E. Sterling, a New Testament scholar and Churches of Christ minister, began his term as dean of Yale Divinity School during the lazy days of summer, at the beginning of August. But the summer heat did little to slow the new dean down, as he filled the month with a flurry of group and individual meetings with YDS staff and faculty, alumni leaders, Yale University administrators, emeriti faculty, and students.
Fresh from more than two decades of service at Notre Dame, where he served in several capacities before becoming the first dean of the independent Graduate School, Sterling experienced his first orientation for incoming students, his first Opening Convocation, and became acquainted with daily worship in Marquand Chapel.
About the only concession to the heat came near the end of the month, when Sterling and his wife, Adrian, hosted an ice cream social for students two days before classes began on Aug.29.
Sterling had his first experience welcoming a new class to Sterling Divinity Quadrangle during orientation week, Before the Fall Orientation, popularly known on campus as "BTFO." On the first day of the Aug. 20-24 gathering, he told students, "I hope that one of the things that you can experience as a student is a robust environment in which you can debate and ague with one another, and maybe with faculty, and with guest lecturers. But then you will learn that just as you may hold positions passionately yourself other people will hold opposite positions passionately, and to respect that. It’s a liberal spirit and that’s what I hope you can embrace."
The twin themes of diversity and civility were raised up on other occasions as well as Sterling spoke about his vision for Yale Divinity School moving forward in the 21st century.
At an administrators retreat on Aug. 17, Sterling said, "I hope we are a place where faith is part of our culture, that is, there will be people of many different faiths. That’s good. We celebrate that.
"We need to be a place that allows people to have conversations on sensitive issues in which there is disagreement and to cultivate that into respect (for) differences of opinion."
The challenge, Sterling suggested, is, "How do I hold to what I believe and be willing to stand for that and allow other people to have the same space?"
The administrators retreat was also an opportunity for Sterling to say a few words about his decision to come to Yale Divinity School and to talk about YDS’s position in the wider University, the U.S., and the world.
Professionally, Sterling said, his goal was always just to be a scholar. "But sometimes life has surprises," he said. "And so you find yourself with doors opening and you begin to weigh them. My vision of this position is very simple, and that is, it’s a way to serve. And the reason I accepted this position was I believe I can make a greater difference helping with you to lead YDS and touch more lives than I would touch simply through my own scholarship."
About Yale, Sterling said, "We need to build as many ties throughout the university as we can and to integrate ourselves with the larger university" so that YDS is "inextricably bound up with Yale University."
Noting that mainline Protestantism is in "a state of serious decline," he suggested that the rise of the "nones"—people who consider themselves spiritual but who have no specific religious affiliation—poses particular challenges for theological education and the churches, which can no longer assume people have a basic religious literacy.
Globally, Sterling observed, "There are people who think differently than I think. How do I as a Christian relate to them? How can I make sense of my world now that my world is no longer monolithic? I will work to expand our ability as a divinity school to think in these terms."
Just days before the administrators retreat, Sterling had been on a plane to Atlanta, visiting with representatives of the YDS Alumni Board, Board of Advisors, and the Board of Trustees of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.
The day after his return, he had brunch with YDS faculty emeriti and their spouses, including former YDS Dean Thomas Ogletree, in the Jonathan Edwards Dining Room.
The next day included a meeting with University Chaplain Sharon Kugler and a "meet and greet" reception for YDS staff in the Common Room.
Sprinkled throughout August were meetings with Yale’s deputy provost for the arts and humanities, Emily Bakemeier, whose portfolio includes YDS; the leadership of YDS’s partners on the Quad—Berkeley Divinity School, the Institute for Sacred Music, and the Divinity Library; the University Secretary’s office; and faculty representative of some of the denominations present at YDS.
At the end of the month, the new dean shared several impressions of Yale Divinity School that he found particularly striking.
"The most impressive aspect of YDS initially has been the sense of community that exists. Faculty, staff, students, and alumni are all keenly aware of the importance of community and work to foster it. Adrian and I have been warmly received and moved by the good will of everyone.
"Marquand has been a delight. The music has been superb. I come from a tradition in which four-part harmony is part of the worship experience. I felt very much at home on the first day that I attended chapel and the first-year students spontaneously broke out in four-part harmony. There are some talented musicians and singers here. I knew that before I came, but did not realize how many would have this level of skill. The creativity of Maggi, Krista, and Colin have made each service meaningful.
"I have learned that faculty and students alike are passionate about the values at YDS. From the perceptive and articulate observations on inclusivity at a panel session during BTFO to Carolyn Sharp's excellent address at Convocation, I have learned that I will be challenged. I am grateful for both the engagement and the quality of the dialogue."
The dean’s immersion in Yale’s people and culture promises to continue unabated over the next weeks and months. Topping the list of "getting acquainted" activities will be a series of 15 dinners with entering students, and one-on-one lunches with each member of the faculty. In late October, Sterling will be deeply engaged with alumni as scores of graduates return to campus for Convocation and Reunions.