The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Davenport has been appointed dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel after a nearly seven-month search to fill the position. She will begin her duties on July 1.
“I’m greatly looking forward to engaging the intellectual issues in a context where that is highly valued,” Davenport said, adding that the University reminds her of Oxford, where she earned her B.A. and M.A. in theology. “I hope that together we will find particular ways of addressing these issues that can only be done at Chicago.”
Davenport added that she anticipates bringing together the best of scholarship and meaningful dialogue in considering questions of spirituality.
Davenport will replace former Dean Alison Boden, who left for Princeton University last August after heading the chapel for 12 years. Boden’s departure was controversial; according to a March interview with Crain’s Chicago Business, she decided to leave after new University President Robert Zimmer reduced her role as dean in an effort to deemphasize religious affiliations.
“Bob [Zimmer]’s perspective on this is, if it could offend, take it out,” Boden told Crain’s. “That’s a really dated perspective. I think he doesn’t get it.”
Nevertheless, Davenport said that the circumstances of Boden’s departure will not likely deter her in her goals.
“I will be working with students of every different religious and spiritual tradition and [those] with none to address the questions of meaning and questions about life,” Davenport said.
Originally from England, Davenport moved to the U.S. and earned a Th.M. in intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, and a Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the University of Southern California (USC). Davenport is currently senior associate dean of religious life at USC and has served in various posts at the school for the past 17 years.
“My work over the last few years at USC is very much supporting students in their own particular traditions as well as creating a broad platform of understanding of others,” Davenport said.
One of her goals is to help people develop religious literacy and understand where other people are coming from spiritually, she said.
“The University in many ways is a microcosm of the larger world, and it’s a very unusual laboratory in that respect. People come to the University from all over the country and all over the world, and it’s like the world in miniature in terms of it’s diversity,” she said.
Davenport said that she will work closely with Vice President and Dean of Students Kim Geoff-Crews and her team to create a strong and vibrant campus life.
“We have unique opportunities at the University to reflect deeply on the questions and encounter one another in profound ways that shape who we are and who others are in the end. And my hope is always that that contributes to creating ways of building a more just world, ways of understanding one another that we desperately need today,” she said.
In the past, Davenport has focused on medical ethics and cultural competency in her efforts to help doctors communicate and interact with their patients and work through ethical conflicts. As chapel dean, she will work with various University schools and programs, including the Medical Center and the Divinity School, in addition to all religious groups on campus to celebrate the different ways individuals believe and practice.
“I think the whole spectrum should always be engaged and part of the discussion. Over the last few years, I’ve always said this is about going from atheist to Zoroastrian,” she said. “I’m very much hoping to be a part of interdisciplinary faculty work around ethics.”
She hopes to pursue her interest in music by working with musical groups on campus. A mezzo-soprano herself, she calls singing one of the joys of her life and wants to see a broader spectrum of music in Rockefeller, one that will engage and excite the student body.
Davenport will also work with faculty and student groups to organize events, both religious and academic, in Rockefeller Chapel.
“I think Rockefeller is a building that lends itself to great installations and imaginative kinds of art,” Davenport said.