The University’s Divinity School has received a $750,000 gift—the school’s largest from individuals in 20 years—to endow its Martin Marty Center Dissertation Seminar, a unique program to promote excellence in graduate research in the study of religion.
Jane and John Colman, longtime supporters of the school, contributed their gift after friends, alumni and faculty responded to their 2002 challenge to raise $1.5 million. The $2.25 million gift ensures that the Dissertation Seminar will be a permanent part of the Divinity School’s Martin Marty Center. Aimed at supporting advanced graduate students, the fellowships provide Ph.D. candidates who are selected to participate in the seminar with a yearlong living stipend that supports them in the research and writing of the dissertation while providing a unique opportunity to develop their capacities to engage broader publics beyond the academic guild.
“We are profoundly grateful to Jane and John Colman, not only for their generous gift to endow the Marty Center Dissertation Seminar, but also for their leadership in challenging the Divinity School community to multiply it twofold,” said Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School. “The Colmans’ gift is particularly meaningful because it provides financial support for our students while at the same time giving them an important educational experience.”
Established in 1998, the Martin Marty Center Dissertation Seminar, from its origins, took a pioneering approach to advancing scholarship in religion.
“The widely recognized need to enhance public conversation about religion is commonly addressed these days by teaching established scholars the journalist’s ‘tricks of the trade,’” said Rosengarten. “The seminar uncommonly, indeed uniquely, aims to address this need at the level of the scholar-in-training—the Ph.D. candidate engaged in the research and writing of the dissertation. In addition, the seminar explores the possibility, even the necessity that we marry the highest scholarly standards with the maximal public engagement.”
Supervised by the Director of the Marty Center and selected Divinity School faculty, the seminar fellows are selected chiefly from the Divinity School and include students from the Divisions of the Humanities and Social Sciences. They share their work in progress and engage in the useful initial exercise of testing their capacities to convey specialized research across the academic specializations the fellows each represent.
But what is especially novel about the Martin Marty Dissertation Seminar is the fellows’ unique charge. Not only are they expected to situate their research within a broader frame of cultural reference and to bring their perspective to bear on a religious question facing the broader public, but they also are required to directly engage the public.
The fellows do this in two ways. First, each fellow teaches a course in religion, often at Chicago-area colleges, universities and seminaries—and the seminar becomes a forum in which the fellows discuss the ways in which the classroom is itself the “first public” of scholarship. Second, at the conclusion of the year, the fellows present written synopses of their dissertations to a group of public interlocutors—citizens from professional areas outside of academia with an interest in religion.
“The seminar challenges students to step back from the immediacies of specialized research and ask themselves how that research will contribute to society,” said Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School and Director of the Martin Marty Center. “Alumni of the seminar describe the experience as having a seminal influence on their careers.”
John Colman, who joined the Divinity School’s Visiting Committee during the 1970s, has been a member of the Martin Marty Center’s Advisory Board since the center was founded in 1988. In speaking to the question of why he and his wife made this gift, Colman explained, “the Marty Center Dissertation Seminar resonated completely with the focus we already had developed in our special contributions to other colleges and universities. Finding, recruiting and maintaining those who have the best prospects for becoming leaders are what interest us.”
The Martin Marty Center Dissertation Seminar was started in 1998 by a five-year grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. The foundation board, pleased with the results of the seminar, extended the grant for two years and urged the Divinity School to endow it so it could become permanent.
“We are immensely grateful to Jane and John Colman, who grasp this vision firmly, and have given it a fabulous boost through their generosity in supporting the cause of excellent leadership for the 21st century,” Rosengarten said.