Campus & Community

William A. Graham Named Dean of Harvard Divinity School

6 min read
William A.
William A. Graham


Following a nationwide search that began last fall, President Lawrence H. Summers announced today that he has appointed William A. Graham, Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of the History of Religion, as the next dean of the Harvard Divinity School, effective immediately. Graham has served as Acting Dean of the School since January 2002.

A scholar of Islamic religious history and the history of religion, Graham has served on Harvard’s faculty since 1973. He is the author of an influential book on the oral uses of written texts in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, published in 1987. Graham is a dedicated teacher of undergraduate and graduate students, and an experienced academic leader. Since 1991, he has served as Master of Currier House, one of Harvard’s twelve undergraduate residential houses.

“Bill Graham is a person of exceptional intellectual breadth and profound integrity,” said President Summers. “He brings to this role a deep understanding of Harvard and the place of the Divinity School in its history, as well as active engagement in the broad field of religious studies.”

“Religion is a powerful force in the world and an important focus of scholarly inquiry,” Summers continued. “The Divinity School has a crucial role to play in educating professionals for practice and in bringing energy and insight to the wider University, communities of faith, and the public on issues involving religion, morality, and ethics. Having worked with Bill Graham in his role as Acting Dean, I am confident that he will build on the School’s strengths and provide clear direction for the years ahead. I am very pleased that he has agreed to serve the Divinity School and the University in this way.”

“I am gratified by the trust President Summers has shown in me in making this appointment,” said Graham. “I have found the months as Acting Dean of the Divinity School challenging and stimulating, and I look forward to working with the Divinity School faculty and community to continue the important and substantial work we have begun this spring.”

“This is a pivotal moment for the School,” Graham continued. “We have a number of new faculty appointments to make, and there is broad agreement that we need to address significant issues in the curriculum and in our graduate and professional programs. We face the challenge of building stronger connections between our work at the Divinity School and that being done elsewhere in the University – in related fields in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and in the professional schools. I look forward to working with President Summers and with my colleagues at the Divinity School and across the University to address these challenges.”

Graham’s scholarly work has focused on early Islamic religious history and textual traditions and problems in the history of world religion. His 1987 book, Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, is widely cited by scholars working in different traditions, from Judaism to Buddhist studies. Graham is also co-author of the popular college textbook, The Heritage of World Civilizations, entering its sixth edition this fall. In October 2000 he received the quinquennial Award for Excellence in Research in Islamic History and Culture from the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, in Istanbul, one of the leading Islamic research centers in the world. He has held John Simon Guggenheim and Alexander von Humboldt research fellowships and, in addition to the works cited above, is the author of Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam (1977), which in 1978 won the History of Religions Prize awarded by the American Council of Learned Societies. He is also co-editor of Islamfiche: Readings from Islamic Primary Sources (1982-87) and the forthcoming Three Faiths, One God, and the author of numerous articles and reviews.

Graham has spent his academic career at Harvard, rising through the professorial ranks of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences since receiving his Ph.D. here in 1973 in Comparative History of Religion and Islamic Studies. He became Professor of the History of Religion and Islamic Studies in 1985, and in 2001 was named Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of the History of Religion.

Graham has held a series of administrative posts in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, including Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, from 1997 to 2002, and Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard from 1987 to 1990. This committee administers doctoral studies for both the Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and oversees the undergraduate concentration in the Study of Religion. Graham also served as Director of the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, from 1990 to 1996, and as Chair of the Council on Graduate Studies in Religion for the United States and Canada.

Graham has been deeply engaged with undergraduate education throughout his career, serving as a head tutor in the Study of Religion, the Allston Burr Senior Tutor in Winthrop House, Chair of the Core Curriculum Committee on Foreign Cultures, and teacher of a wide range of courses, including popular Core Courses on Islamic Civilization and, most recently, Literature of Journey and Quest. He has also taught graduate seminars and supervised numerous doctoral students in several different fields and departments.

Graham received his bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, in Comparative Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar. He also studied in Germany, England, and Lebanon. He received his A.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard.

A native of North Carolina, Graham is married to Barbara Graham, Associate Director of the Harvard University Library for Administration and Programs. They have one child.

Summers was aided in the search by a faculty advisory committee drawn from the senior faculty of the Divinity School, along with members from other Schools at Harvard. The search involved broad consultation with faculty, students, and alumni of the School, and with individuals outside Harvard, including members of the clergy, deans of divinity schools, academics involved in the study of religion, and others with interest and experience in this diverse area of inquiry.