A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart: Profiling Dr. Suzanne Holland, the GTU’s Alumna of the Year

By Suzanne Miller


from Currents Spring 2015

Since earning her doctorate in Religion and Society/Ethics from Graduate Theological Union, Dr. Suzanne Holland, the GTU’s 2014 Alumna of the Year, has become a nationally and internationally recognized bioethicist. Her research focuses on the intersection between religion, ethics, medicine, and new genetic technologies, with an emphasis on issues of justice and feminist bioethics. She continues to reap the benefits of her time at the GTU. “I think the GTU, for me, was the best of all possible places I could have done my PhD in ethics, because it is so wide-reaching, so deep, and yet so flexible.”  It was here where she learned that, “in the study of ethics, we really need to have what Martin Luther King Jr. called tough minds and tender hearts. That’s what ethics is all about: tough minds and tender hearts. You have to marshal each in service of the other, in order to bring about the work of social justice--which is why I do social ethics. I’m grateful to have learned this from my mentor at the GTU, Karen Lebacqz.”

Dr. Holland is currently the John B Magee Professor of Science and Values in the Department of Religious Studies at University of Puget Sound, where she has served since completing her Ph.D. in 1997.  She also fills the roles of Professor of Ethics, and Director of the Program in Bioethics. In addition, Dr. Holland teaches in the Gender & Queer Studies Program and the Honors Program at the University of Puget Sound and holds a faculty appointment as Affiliate Professor of Bioethics & Humanities at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.  

Dr. Holland’s interest in bioethics emerged in the midst of her master’s work in biblical studies at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. “I’d read a newspaper article about this guy who wanted his head frozen after he died, in hopes that it could be reattached to some other body in the future so his genius would be preserved. And I thought, why would anybody want to do this? Can science really bring us immortality?” She went to all her seminary professors requesting guidance for how to begin thinking about her questions. “Nobody could give me a satisfactory answer, and so that is what drove me into the study of ethics.  I didn’t have answers to these kinds of questions. So I switched my focus from biblical studies to bioethics, and I specifically came to the GTU to study with Karen Lebacqz.” 

The Graduate Theological Union provided the framework Dr. Holland sought. “I am so grateful to the GTU, and to my mentors there, for helping give me the tools to do what I can do to make the world more just. I think what I’m always after is that I do my little part of changing the world, which is that I’m able to replace the period at the end of a sentence in the mind of a student with a question mark. And when the question mark happens, the door opens.” She continues, “I know students are changed when they have begun to unpack and disentangle the normative assumptions they’ve always had about what’s right and what’s wrong, who’s in and who’s out. I think that’s a way in which I’m trying to pursue social justice, and perhaps to change the world one person at a time, or one classroom at a time.” Dr. Holland also pursues justice in larger ways, as an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State where she served as a member of the Board of Directors for 10 years.

“The hallmark of the GTU is its collegial atmosphere,” and this environment, she recently reflected, “helped frame for me a way of being as a scholar. In fact, my scholarship today is marked by co-authored, collaborative pieces; I prefer to write collaboratively. And that’s something I first encountered at the GTU.” Dr. Holland has partnered with other scholars on several books since graduating from the GTU, including her most recent work, Achieving Justice in Genomic Translation, as well as The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate, the first book on stem cell ethics which she co-edited with Karen Lebacqz and fellow GTU alumna Laurie Zoloth. She carries this passion for partnership into the classroom, encouraging her students to work together on joint projects, because, as she says, “we don’t do enough of that work in the academy, and I think that the GTU was a good model for this approach.”

Dr. Holland embodies the very best of what the GTU seeks to develop in its scholars. Her upcoming book, Technologies of Desire, explores the ways in which Westerners, especially Americans, use biotechnologies of the body to fulfill fundamental human desires—desires for children, for better bodies, for avoiding old age and death. In this work, Holland considers the way in which marketing and advertising create a hyper-culture of desire that blurs the distinction between needs and wants.

Dr. Holland is very excited about the Graduate Theological Union’s increasing emphasis on interreligious studies, acquisition of new academic centers, and continued growth. “I think it is fantastic; our world needs this kind of interreligious dialogue. So much of the suffering in the world, currently, is that we don’t seem to know how to have those kind of dialogues. We need to all be able to learn from each other, and I think that’s the most valuable thing about the GTU.” Dr. Holland praises the GTU for its continued advancement as a unique institution for interreligious study. “I think that there’s no place like the GTU in that regard. We have to know how to have these conversations, these intellectual explorations. The GTU is leading the way in this—and that makes me hopeful.” 

Regarding GTU’s recognition of her significant contributions to the field of ethics, superior impact on the lives of her students, and her dedication to excellence, Dr. Holland continues to be extremely grateful.  “I just want to say to the GTU that, with this award, which I’m amazed by and humbled by, I feel like I really stand on the shoulders of giants, because they’re giants to many people: people like Clare Fischer, Mary Hunt, Laurie Zoloth. It’s truly humbling to have this award, and I couldn’t be more amazed, or more grateful.”

Suzanne E. Miller is a doctoral student in Biblical Studies and communications assistant for the GTU.