Morrey Davis: A Drew Story

Dean Morris DavisWhen he arrived on the Drew campus in 1995 to begin his doctorate in Theological and Religious Studies at the Graduate School, Morris Davis, or Morrey as most people call him, had no idea he would one day become the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the Seminary.  Dean Davis notes that his decision to pursue doctoral studies was motivated by very personal reasons…the pursuit of answers to persistent questions he’d had.  “That was fuel for me to just dig into things and not worry too much about the other end,” he notes.

His decision to attend Drew was strongly influenced by the school’s commitment to interdisciplinarity.  According to Dean Davis, “I had done some interdisciplinary work in my undergrad but I hadn’t seen it performed the way it is here.”  He reminisced about putting together a conference while a graduate student with then Drew philosophy professor Peter Ochs.  This conference brought together scholars who might not otherwise be in the same room discussing scripture—Jews, Christians, and Muslim—all of whom participated energetically in the practice of a scholarly method guided by Ochs’ work.  Afterward, while the participants danced to a Klezmer band, he thought to himself, “What did I just drop into?”

Drew’s complex yet rigorous scholarship led him on an intellectual adventure into the unknown.  “At Drew we allow for unexpected kinds of connections.  I am definitely somewhere I never thought I would be.  Why wouldn’t I want to go to a school that pushed me into places I didn’t know I could be?” he asks.

These days Dean Davis hears doctoral students concerned about their futures.  When he was a student, “The job market didn’t feel as tight, and I was less worried about getting a job,” he notes.  He acknowledges that “things are different, hiring won’t get any better for a few years and financial issues will remain unchanged for a while.”

Yet he also stresses that “I hate to see people spending their time in graduate school anxious.”  His advice to current students is to “be smart about how you understand the field, pay attention to the professional aspects of it and develop yourself as a professional in multiple ways.”  But although professional development is important, he cautions that “If you overstrategize you’re not going to find any pleasure in this at all.  Thinking about your framing and disciplinary choices are all smart things to do, but unless there’s something you really want to be doing here this is just too hard.”  He urges current students to take advantage of the opportunity to pursue their studies in a “school with a fairly unusual kind of camaraderie and shared purpose.”

He hopes that students will remain open to possibilities along the way, and not become over focused on a particular vision of their professional futures.  After all, he didn’t predict his future either, acknowledging that, “This is not where I thought I’d end up…But I was open to whatever would work and what I learned and experienced here opened me up to a job I hadn’t imagined taking.”  But although he couldn’t have imagined his future, he is clear that his education at Drew paved the way:  “I feel lucky and I feel incredibly well prepared for this job by what we did here.”

Academia in general and seminaries in particular have been hit hard by the national economic crisis.  How has this impacted the Graduate Division of Religion?  Dean Davis says, “We’re able and maybe even being forced to be more reflective and specific about what we do, to be able to articulate more than we’ve even wanted to in the past about who we are and what we can offer students.”

Because endowments are usually inadequate to meet the needs of a university in the twenty-first century, Drew has had to be more specific and vocal in order to attract donors.  Dean Davis is aware that people and institutions who offer easy answers tend to receive more donations, because “people have a hard time voting for a conversation.”  Yet nuanced conversation between diverse stakeholders in civil society is precisely what Davis thinks Drew’s GDR has to offer.  Citing the recent Occupy movement, Davis calls for greater nuance in the discourse of protest, stating that “We should talk back to the financial industry about the way our money gets used, but we have to stop pretending we’re better than they are when they’re paying us [through dividends on endowments].  What we’re supposed to be about is seeing those intricate and hidden connections to power not in a way that paralyzes us but in a way that’s honest and more constructive.”

According to Davis, “When Drew got started everybody came for free.  It was all paid for.  [The founders] knew that ministers didn’t make any money so the endowment was big enough to put everybody through.  We’re not there anymore.  But the point is, this place was built on a gift…We have the scholarships not because Drew makes the money but because people gave us gifts.  Scholarships might feel free but they have a name attached to them. We hope our graduates continue to put future students through on a gift as well.”—Shelley L. Dennis, GDR Graduate Student Intern.