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Divinity Dean Plans Revamping of School

By Joseph F Kahn

At his inauguration ceremony yesterday, the dean of the Divinity School outlined plans to revamp and revitalize one of Harvard's poorest and least visible professional schools and to give it contemporary influence on the University and the world.

Ronald F. Thiemann, a 39-year-old Lutheran minister, said he would work to weave together the practical and theoretical strands of religious scholarship that have been torn apart during the past century.

In striving to reunite the Divinity School's preachers and academic historians, Thiemann told about 250 theologians and school supporters at the Memorial Church ceremony that he will attempt to give the graduate institution the prominence it held during Harvard's early years, when theology was central to the liberal arts education.

If successful, Thiemann's efforts will constitute an overhaul of Harvard's religious programs, which have become increasingly specialized and less relevant to what many call the school's central mission of producing a literate ministry, divinity professors said after the speech.

Lamenting that accounts of Harvard's 350th anniversary celebration in September had completely neglected the widely unrecognized Divinity School, Thiemann said, "Imagine a 400th anniversary in which the [school] is not only mentioned but plays a important role in defining the meaning and aim of critical and practical liberal education."

To hire the faculty and create the programs necessary to realize his plan, the new dean said in an interview that he will initiate a multi-million-dollar capital campaign to increase the 170-year-old school's relatively meager $30 million endowment.

The capital drive, scheduled to begin within two years, will be the first at the 452-student school since the 1950s, when Nathan M. Pusey '28, then Harvard's president, raised several million dollars for the ailing institution on Divinity Ave.

With new funds and increasingly upbeat faculty, Thiemann, who was acting president of Haverford College before accepting his Harvard post this summer, said he plans to modernize the school and revive its traditions.

He said he hopes to make theological education more contemporary by forging connections with Harvard's other professional schools. New joint programs would bring religious scholarship to bear on ethical and moral questions in disciplines such as business, medicine and law.

"Especially in the area of ethics, we want to increase cooperative efforts with other schools. We want to teach people that religion affects the way they live their lives," he said.

Thiemann has also recently said he is considering the creation of a high-profile center designed to study religious issues important to the public. Because religion and family have recently become central themes in politics, such a center might provide the Divinity School with a strong link to the outside world, the new dean said.

Lack of Direction

Introducing Thiemann at the convocation yesterday, President Derek C. Bok captured what has become a typical characterization of the Divinity School in recent decades.

"At a similar ceremony [as this] some yearsago, I ventured the thought that the DivinitySchool lacked a sense of direction," Bok told theaudience, which consisted in part of the school's30-member faculty. "I was young then; I wasintemperate," Bok said. "I was right."

Bussey Professor of Divinity Paul D. Hansonechoed the sentiment, saying he eagerly greetednew initiatives to improve "this religious ghettoover here."

Both Bok and Hanson said Thiemann's ideas ofuniting the practical and theoretical study ofreligion and then making the product available toscholars in other parts of the University is thebest solution to the Divinity School's identitycrisis.

"No other conception would be appropriate forany graduate or professional school in thisuniversity," Bok said. After working to overcomethe school's danger of "impending bankruptcy," Boksaid the dean could work to revitalize theologicaleducation, "as it is in evident need ofinspiration."

With Thiemann's plan, "we will allowtheological reflection to permeate all aspects ofthe school's curriculum," Hanson said. "This willgive us something to unify" practical andhistorical training in religion.

Most other faculty also sympathized withThiemann's plan. "It's important to turn thingsaround and overcome this bifurcation" of religiousscholarship, said Parkman Professor of DivinityJohn B. Carman, who served as the school's actingdean before Thiemann took over.

"A dose of reality added to the abstract andtheoretical work at the school will help[professors] see that it has a relation to thepresent. It is important to link the present andthe past," Carman said.

Same Old Problem

In many ways, the Divinity School's problemsreflect the longstanding conflict betweenscholarship and practice in Harvard's professionalschools.

The New Pathway Program at the Medical Schoolwas designed in part to bring the teaching ofphysicians together with medical research, twomissions that had become increasingly divided atthe school.

The Business School's "case method" of learningwas adopted specifically to bring scholarship inthe field to bear on the everyday tasks ofbusinessmen.

"In an odd way, what we're doing is very newbut also very old," Carman said. "There are awhole lot of subjects [at the Divinity School]that have to be adapted to the new plan if we areto recover what we had before.

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