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African American Religion Scholar Marla Frederick Returns to Harvard, Will Be First Woman to Lead Divinity School

Harvard Divinity School is located at 45 Francis Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Harvard Divinity School is located at 45 Francis Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By Julian J. Giordano
By Miles J. Herszenhorn and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers

Marla F. Frederick, a professor of religion and culture at Emory University, will serve as the next dean of the Harvard Divinity School, becoming the first woman to lead the school in its 207-year history, University President Claudine Gay announced Thursday afternoon.

Frederick — who previously spent 16 years as a professor in Harvard’s ​​African and African American Studies Department before departing for Emory — will begin her tenure on Jan. 1, 2024.

David F. Holland, a professor of New England church history, will serve as interim dean from Sept. 1 until Dec. 31.

The University announced in May that outgoing Divinity School Dean David N. Hempton would extend his tenure through the end of August as the search for his successor continued. Hempton, who first became dean in 2012, initially announced in October that he would step down from the post at the end of the 2022-23 academic year.

Gay wrote in an email to Divinity School affiliates that she is “thrilled to welcome Marla back to Harvard.”

“I am confident that Marla’s leadership qualities, her academic stature, her wide-ranging curiosity, her collaborative mindset, and her thoughtful and caring approach to all she does will combine to make her an excellent new dean,” Gay added.

Frederick first joined Harvard’s faculty in 2003, before receiving tenure in 2010. She left Harvard in 2019 to join the faculty of Emory University’s School of Theology, a departure that came at a time when many Black faculty members opted to exit Harvard for peer institutions.

Incoming Divinity School Dean Marla F. Frederick
Incoming Divinity School Dean Marla F. Frederick By Courtesy of Emory University

In an article announcing her appointment, Frederick told the Harvard Gazette, a University-run news publication, that she is “honored” to serve as HDS dean.

“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,” Frederick said. “I look forward to joining the HDS community in developing religious and civic leaders for our increasingly complex and diverse society.”

Frederick previously served as interim chair of Harvard’s Committee on the Study of Religion and as director of graduate studies and chair of the admissions committee for the Department of African American Studies.

At Emory, Frederick served on the university’s tenure and promotion advisory committee and was involved in the Emory School of Theology’s committees on strategic planning and personnel and academic policy. She has also served as president of the American Academy of Religion and the Association of Black Anthropologists.

University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, who co-led the HDS dean search with Gay, told the Harvard Gazette that Frederick is “the right person to lead HDS in the years to come.”

“​​Marla deeply understands the unique role and influence of the Harvard Divinity School, and why it is a cherished institution,” Garber said. “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.”

Gay, whose tenure as University president began on July 1, wrote in her email to HDS affiliates that the dean search served as a “fortuitous opportunity to become well acquainted with Harvard Divinity School in the early days of my new appointment.”

“Provost Garber and I are grateful to the many people across HDS and beyond who generously communicated their thoughts, experiences, and advice during the search,” she added.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on X @mherszenhorn.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at Follow her on X @claireyuan33.

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