Reassessment of M.Div. degree among priorities in new YDS strategic plan

By Ray Waddle

A new YDS strategic plan features a historic reassessment of the M.Div. degree for contemporary times, while also reaffirming the top-priority status of student financial aid; diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; and completion of the Living Village.

The five strategic goals, a reset and update of priorities first enumerated in 2015, were adopted as the School’s continuing response to the shifting ground of institutional faith and today’s global crises. Guiding YDS for the next five years, the goals were affirmed by a faculty vote last year after extensive input from students, alums, and from theological educators beyond the Quad. Dean Greg Sterling is now leading efforts by faculty and administration to work out details for each theme, using task force reports that offered specifics on several fronts.

In addition, a sixth goal will be explored further: the potential creation of a Ph.D. program that would be housed in the School.

“The School has set its course for the next five years and will now articulate specific plans for each basic point,” Sterling said recently.

“These goals underscore the mission that YDS has advanced across its history, with special attention to the challenges of this pluralistic and divided era, including the need to train moral leaders, aid students so they can live out their vocations, combat racism, and endeavor to heal creation.”

The five strategic goals are:

1) Continue to improve student financial aid. Financial aid is currently the largest item in the Divinity School’s budget—35 percent of the total—and remains a top priority among the goals (as it was in the previous strategic plan, 2015-2022). The School now provides full-tuition scholarships for all students in need. One new aim is to offer enhanced living-expense stipends that are more competitive with Harvard and Princeton. YDS hopes to raise an extra $2 million a year in new endowments and increase the student-focused Annual Fund. Other objectives include strengthening work-based financial support (student jobs and field education) and boosting the ministerial leadership scholarship dollar amount to match other premier scholarships. YDS offers 29 premier scholarships currently.

2) Continue to emphasize diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. A five-year DEIB plan for the School is providing tactical guidance at each step. Current goals include a stronger focus on training for restorative justice practices that address campus conflict resolution; fundraising for an endowed chair in Latinx studies; community-building with students who identify as LGBTQIA+; hiring a mental health counselor in the Office of Student Affairs; updating inclusive language guidelines for Marquand Chapel to underscore disability awareness; and organizing an All-School Read discussion around the book The Other Side of Prospect: A Story of Violence, Injustice, and the American City. Recent YDS DEIB actions are catalogued here.

3) Continue commitment to the Living Village and new environmental initiatives. Phase I construction on the regenerative student housing complex, the Living Village, started in October. Fundraising for Phase One is in its final stage. Phase Two fundraising and construction will follow, along with the development of curricular and other programming designed to train students to serve as “apostles of the environment” in their lives and careers. The School has established a new faculty chair in environmental ethics and has hired a new staffer to help manage related YDS programming around environmental justice, sustainability, and climate change. Pledges of more than $83 million have been made for the Living Village—closing in on the total project cost of $85 million.

4) Rethink ministerial formation. In the wake of the pandemic and other destabilizing trends, an unpredictable future for organized faith has prompted YDS in recent years to reassess the M.Div. program, including its course requirements, goals, and mission, in order to ensure the future vitality of the degree. A task force has recommended a roadmap for rethinking ministerial leadership today and tomorrow. Central to the reassessment is an M.Div. curricular review, which is now underway during this academic year. The aim of curricular review and possible revision is to better align the degree with student goals, faculty values, and contemporary vocational pathways. “The M.Div. will remain central to our mission and identity,” Sterling said. “The question is: how can we adapt it to the rapidly changing context in which our students will pursue their callings.” For the first time in several years, M.Div. students outnumber M.A.R.’s in the current first-year class.

5) Cultivate greater global awareness and enrollment. This strategic goal reflects the shift of the global Christian center of gravity from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. The goal commits YDS to enrolling a larger number of international students and providing greater financial support to them. Currently the international enrollment at YDS stands at 12-15 percent, roughly the same as that of Yale College. Aims include new exchange programs, global institutional partnerships, and larger stipends so students can afford to live in New Haven.

The overall strategic package will take YDS through the 2026-27 academic year, at which time (June 2027) Dean Sterling’s third term as dean will end. The five goals were identified this past year through a series of consultations similar though not identical to the process used for the 2015 plan. For this strategic plan, an external consultant was hired, three deans of peer institutions were interviewed, and a list of eight potential goals or pivot points was considered. YDS sponsored a student town hall, faculty retreat, staff gathering, and Dean’s Advisory Council meeting to narrow the list and refine the five goals.

In the case of the longer-term goal of a Ph.D. program, the dean has formed a task force to research its prospects and trajectory. YDS is the only divinity school among its peers without a Ph.D. program. (The School provided such a degree until the early 1960s, when the program moved to Yale’s Religious Studies department.) A Yale Ph.D. housed at YDS would be a powerful draw for both faculty and students, proponent say, and enhance the School’s curricular options. Major challenges would be to work out a program in agreement with Yale Religious Studies downtown and raise enough endowment money to support approximately five students a year for a customary six years of study.

“We should not consider starting a Ph.D. program that would expect to place all graduates in academic positions,” Sterling said in his charge to the task force. “There are too many programs like this already. We would need to create a model that would be fresh and offer students multiple opportunities.”

The timing of the five strategic goals is coordinated with the “We Are Called” campaign that seeks to raise $140 million for YDS causes—reflecting the School’s mission to train leaders for moral communities, promote the knowledge and love of God, confront racism and other forms of intolerance, and meet the challenge of living in balance with nature. More than $117 million has been raised so far. The campaign, which ends in December 2026, is part of Yale’s university-wide “For Humanity” campaign to raise $7 billion for the humanities, arts, and sciences, and to increase student aid.

November 2, 2023