The GTU Creates a Doctoral Program for the 21st Century

by Arthur Holder

from Currents Fall 2015

Responding to the changing landscapes of the academy and the wider society, the GTU has created an innovative approach to doctoral education that features new opportunities for interdisciplinary scholarship and interreligious conversation. Students who enter the PhD and ThD programs at the GTU in fall 2016 will be able to take advantage of this new approach. The curriculum recently adopted by the Core Doctoral Faculty builds on the historic strengths of the GTU while making the doctoral program more responsive to the diverse research interests and religious commitments that students bring to their studies.

This curricular revision is the product of several years of conversation among faculty and students, strong encouragement from the GTU board of trustees, and recommendations from a distinguished group of external reviewers who visited the campus in spring 2014. The consensus of opinion is that the revised doctoral program will be more flexible in its requirements, less compartmentalized in its structure, and even more thoroughly engaged with the religious diversity of today’s world.

The new doctoral curriculum represents another step in the GTU’s evolution toward becoming more fully interreligious. When the GTU was established in 1962, its faculty was entirely Christian, and all the doctoral students were studying some aspect of Christianity. That began to change in 1968 with the appointment of a professor in Jewish Studies, and then in 1971 as some students were admitted to work in the field of comparative religion. Further strides came with the affiliation of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in 1985, the opening of the Center for Islamic Studies in 2007, and the establishment of the Hindu Studies Initiative early in 2015. But despite this growing interreligious diversity, the doctoral program has largely continued to reflect the shape of the traditional Christian seminary curriculum.

In addition, the doctoral program has been organized according to areas of study that functioned largely independently of one another. The names of the areas have changed over the years, with new areas being added and others closing. But the faculty in each area have been responsible for determining course requirements, approving comprehensive exam and dissertation proposals, and making sure that students receive academic advising appropriate to their fields.

This familiar structure has served the GTU and its students well, but it had some limitations. Faculty with multiple fields of expertise have had to choose one or at most two areas in which they could advise students. With each area offering its own set of required courses, seminars were often too small to foster a robust exchange of ideas. Students could choose to study an allied field outside their own area, but doing so might require them to take additional courses and even an additional comprehensive exam. Perhaps most importantly, students and faculty studying religions other than Christianity were usually grouped together in isolation, even though they were using many of the same methodologies as their colleagues working on topics in Christianity.

In the future, the doctoral program will feature more than thirty concentrations, grouped into four interdisciplinary departments, each designed to allow greater opportunity for interreligious collaboration. The new curriculum will retain all of the fields existing in the current doctoral program, but will also include a host of new additions such as Qur’anic Studies, Religion and Literature, Hindu Theology, and Practical Theology. Other concentrations will be added as faculty resources become available to support them.

Dr. Marianne Farina of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology believes the new curriculum embodies a bold new era in religious education: “These four interdisciplinary departments in the GTU’s new doctoral program represent the future of theological study. Many colleges and universities are discovering the inadequacy of arranging concentrations in the classical or systematic categories of Western Christian theological study. This new reformulation for the GTU fosters mutual philosophical and theological enrichment between global cultures and religions.”

Suzanne Miller, a member of the GTU Student Advisory Committee that helped shape the new curriculum, says she is “extremely excited” about the new direction. “Even as our world becomes increasingly interreligious, it is easy for scholars in more traditional Christian disciplines to remain isolated from, or even avoid, interreligious study and dialogue. As a doctoral student in biblical studies, I am keenly aware of my need to participate in conversations with other religious traditions, particularly about their approaches to their sacred texts. I am encouraged by the ways the new curriculum deliberately incorporates areas of study that are typically Christian into a wider interreligious dialogue.”

Dr. Farina concurs: “The new configuration of the doctoral program is a creative response to the research interests of students and faculty at the GTU. We see in this effort a desire to foster positive engagement across disciplines of philosophical and theological studies that embrace cultural and religious difference.”

As of fall 2016, doctoral students will take an introductory seminar on interdisciplinary approaches to the study of religion and another seminar on theories and methods for research in their particular department. These courses will help each entering class of doctoral students form a cohort of colleagues, and hopefully friends. Each student will work with a faculty advisor with expertise in the primary concentration to design an approach to additional course work at the GTU, the University of California, Berkeley, and other Bay Area schools. As in the current curriculum, proficiency in at least two research languages other than English will be required.

After completing coursework, the student will take four comprehensive exams that cover 1) the student’s primary concentration, 2) a secondary concentration, 3) a university discipline outside of theology and religious studies (or for ThD students, a tertiary concentration within theology), and 4) the background for the dissertation (which will always be situated within the primary concentration). With a streamlined system for approving exam and dissertation proposals, students should be able to make progress more rapidly and graduate more quickly. That will make the GTU an even more attractive option for dedicated students who want to make a difference in the world.

Throughout the current academic year, the Core Doctoral Faculty is making plans for the implementation of the new curriculum next fall. The Admissions Office is ready to guide prospective doctoral students through a revised application process. If you know someone who might be interested in theological and religious studies at the graduate level, please let them know that a great program is going to be even better in the future. The GTU’s new doctoral program will be ready for them in 2016!


Arthur Holder is GTU Dean & Vice President for Academic Affairs.