Marla Frederick named next dean of Harvard Divinity School

Marla Frederick, a leading ethnographer and scholar focused on the African American religious experience, will become dean of Harvard Divinity School on January 1, President Claudine Gay announced Thursday.

Frederick is currently the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Religion and Culture at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Prior to her appointment at Emory, she served on the Harvard faculty from 2003 to 2019, including as an assistant professor in the Department of African and African American Studies, with a joint appointment on the Committee on the Study of Religion. In 2008, she was named the Morris Kahn Associate Professor and then as a tenured professor in 2010.

“We are thrilled to welcome Marla Frederick back to the University,” Gay said. “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.”

During her previous 16 years at Harvard, in addition to her faculty appointments, Frederick served in a variety of 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.

“I am honored to return to Harvard as the next dean of Harvard Divinity School,” Frederick said. “It is 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. Dean David Hempton, through his years of dedicated service, has worked alongside HDS stakeholders to craft and implement a transformative global vision for the school, which I humbly respect and embrace, and look forward to cultivating and ultimately expanding.”

Frederick will succeed Hempton, the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity, who has served as dean since 2012. David Holland, the John A. Bartlett Professor of New England Church History, will serve as interim dean until Frederick steps into the role on January 1. Holland previously served as acting dean from January to May 2021, while Hempton was on sabbatical to author a series of Gifford Lectures, later delivered at the University of Edinburgh.

Throughout her career, Frederick has employed an interdisciplinary approach to examining the ways religion, race, and politics impact our everyday lives. Her influential 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.” As general editor, she is currently curating, alongside five co-editors, an encyclopedia of the histories of historically Black colleges and universities. She has taught courses on the anthropology of religion; religion, gender, and race; the African American experience; and American evangelicalism.

“Marla deeply understands the unique role and influence of the Harvard Divinity School, and why it is a cherished institution” said Provost Alan M. Garber, who co-led the search. “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. She is the right person to lead HDS in the years to come.”

Frederick is highly regarded not only as an influential scholar but as an educator dedicated to her students. She recently served as president of the American Academy of Religion in 2021 and has been president of the Association of Black Anthropologists. She was also the 2008-2009 Joy Foundation Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. At Emory, she served on the University Tenure and Promotion Committee as well as the Personnel and Academic Policy Committee and the Strategic Planning Committee for the Candler School of Theology.

Originally from Sumter, South Carolina, Frederick earned her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and her Ph.D. 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.

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