Interview with Rev. Dr. Mai-Anh Le Tran, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean
December 7, 2019
Effective August 1, 2019, Rev. Dr. Mai-Anh Le Tran was named vice president for academic affairs and academic dean. This is a historic appointment in the seminary’s 166-year history as she is the first woman of color to serve as academic dean. A 2004 doctor of philosophy Garrett-Evangelical graduate, Tran is an internationally recognized leader in theological education, an accomplished scholar, and much sought-after expert in pedagogy. She joined the faculty of Garrett-Evangelical in 2017 as associate professor of religious education and practical theology.
In order for the Garrett-Evangelical community at-large to learn more about Dean Tran, we asked her to share her thoughts on a number of topics pertinent to the seminary.
When considering the position of vice president for academic affairs and academic dean, what were the determining factors that made you say yes? Or put another way, what excited you most about the position?
When I began to enter serious discernment with President Lallene Rector over the prospect of deanship, Alexander Pope’s immortal words kept ringing in my head, “…fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” It is simply a matter of common sense to know that, in such a time as this, one should venture into all varieties of theological educational leadership with a healthy dose of fear and trembling. At the end of the day, I was able to say “yes” because I love this school, I admire its people, and I believe in its mission and purpose. I have said “yes” to the responsibility of ensuring that the “academic affairs” of Garrett-Evangelical will enable each member of this community and anyone who crosses paths with us to flourish in the vocations that God has forged with us. I know that “academic affairs” is a “team sport,” and I have worked and learned and experimented since day one to ensure that the structure and work of the dean’s office reflect a shared leadership, which we all value. My predecessors led with similar values and commitment. I am walking the path they’ve paved—though never in a straight line, as those who know me can confirm!
Upon accepting the position of academic dean, you mentioned in the press release that the seminary and its multitude of constituents are “standing in a kairotic moment.” We wonder if you might say a bit more about this insight and how such a moment might shape or influence your own work as academic dean.
Referring to the founding of a seminary in 1866, historian George Mooar wrote: “It required a courage bordering on rashness to venture on a Theological Seminary at that date.” The words couldn’t be more true today. I am a doctor of philosophy graduate of Garrett-Evangelical, and I remember vividly being enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Dr. James Poling on “aggression and evil” in September of 2001. Thirteen years later, I found myself marking time on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, by then a professor with some academic and awkward street creds, wondering what it meant to embody the conviction that I “ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around” in my efforts to confront social and structural “evil” by its many names. Five years later, I returned in 2019 to Saint Louis with faculty and student colleagues from Garrett-Evangelical for a Special General Conference Session of The United Methodist Church, when I witnessed what it was like for a gathered body to be knocked out of its breath due to arguments over who is and is not “compatible” with Christian witness.
These are kairotic moments. They are moments in which we yearn for God’s in-breaking to alter and transform human affairs. Following the wisdom that liberation theologian James Cone left for us in his memoir Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody (which many first-semester students are reading together this fall), the world still needs interpreters of theological and religious imagination. We need leaders who can help us reach into the deep archives and repertoires of past and present cultural and religious wisdom to make sense—to make sense-filled meaning—of what on earth God is doing in our midst. Seminary should prepare us for that, and Garrett-Evangelical is poised to do so, with that dose of courage and a splash of rashness to dare to “interpret God” in our plural world.
From your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges theological education currently faces? What opportunities do you see for Garrett-Evangelical amongst these challenges?
I keep up with studies on “trends and landscapes,” and I still don’t want to root the goals of theological education in anxieties about challenges. As long as there are yearnings for spiritual grounding, moral vision, and courageous-ethical leadership in the face of human suffering and social strife, there will be a need for theological education. The stakes couldn’t be higher to invest in sustaining a theological school that trains religious professionals—spiritually and theologically grounded leaders—for what the writer Adrien Maree Brown describes as a “galactic vision for justice” for a creation that is groaning for renewal.
Garrett-Evangelical exists today because of the “courage bordering on rashness” of the named and unnamed faithful. Forged out of the union of three schools, we have deep in our “DNA” an appreciation for the inextricable co-operation between the church, the academy, and the public. We understand that theological education ultimately has a public purpose, and that we are endeavoring to prepare a new kind of “public intellectual” who leans not on the certitude of “the things of old,” but rather is scholar-pastor-teacher-organizer-artist-artivist-all-round-organic place-based, faith-rooted leader (not just “intellectual”) who is equipped to “perceive” all that which “springs forth” from God’s creative work (Isa. 43:18-19). We are an amazingly gifted, diverse, transnational community of faculty, staff, and students—(bio)diverse in bodies, in thought, in faith, in life experiences and sources of origins (meaning we come from many roots). Our alums are leaders across the country and in different parts of the world. It is out of our very diversity, our very selves that God will allow new things to spring forth, so that we may become “repairer[s] of the breach…restorer[s] of the streets to live in” (Isa. 58:12).
Though it may be next to impossible to pick just one, what is your favorite passage or story in the Bible and why?
My very first scholarly publication was an essay on Lot’s wife—the “pillar of salt”—and her so-called backward glance to Sodom and Gomorrah. Reading it cross-culturally with a Vietnamese folk story about a rock deposit that resembles a “pillar of longing” on the border of China and Vietnam, I wondered what it would be like to look in the direction of these female characters’ gaze—back at an incineration of a place and its people, much like the backward turn of my maternal grandmother, when she refused to leave the hellfire that was Vietnam because her son had not yet been found. What if someone’s “axis of evil” is where another might call “home?”
What do you like to do in your free time?
My father was in political detention in Vietnam, when I was born. Upon learning of my “planetary arrival,” dad wrote a short lullaby, with lyrics asserting (literally) that I would grow up to “love God more than eating, drinking, playing.” There it is: my killjoy ambition.