Jeffrey Kuan becomes dean of Drew Theological School, takes with him lessons learned at PSR

January 19, 2011

Jeffrey Kuan considers himself a living embodiment of PSR’s Tradition of Boldness. Kuan credits PSR for taking a chance on him when the school hired him to teach Old Testament Studies nearly 20 years ago, “fresh out of graduate school, in fact still finishing my dissertation, not having had any teaching experience, as a foreigner, as an international person. In every sense, PSR was living out its Tradition of Boldness, taking a huge risk in hiring someone like me.”

This January, Kuan transplanted the seed of that boldness to the East Coast, beginning his new position as dean of the Theological School at Drew University in Madison, NJ. For a dedicated Methodist, the chance to head one of the flagship seminaries of The United Methodist Church (UMC) was an important calling.

Kuan grew up Methodist in Malaysia, and pastored a local church there after his seminary training in Singapore. He earned his PhD in biblical studies from Emory University in Atlanta, and began his teaching career at PSR in 1991. He joined the Chinese Community United Methodist Church in
Oakland, and was eventually ordained as an elder in the California-Nevada Annual Conference. Since 2004, he has served on the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. “All this involvement within the United Methodist denomination eventually led to my name being known by people who recommended me for the Drew position.”

Kuan sees several parallels between PSR and Drew as institutions in addition to their historic ties to Methodism. One is the diversity of the schools. “People who have known me all these years at PSR know how seriously I take diversity. Drew has about 40 percent racial-ethnic faculty. Drew's student population has no ethnic majority, and so it is a very diverse student population.” Kuan also sees an affinity between Drew’s theological approach and PSR’s. “Drew has moved to become quite a progressive institution,” Kuan says. “They're talking about ethnicity, they're talking about ecology, they're talking about economics and class. So there is a matching of values between PSR and Drew.”

When Kuan was hired, PSR was going through a major transitional phase—its full-time faculty had dwindled to six members. “That very first year I was involved in doing faculty searches already. Mary Donovan Turner came from Emory that same year, so she was a major support right from the beginning. Then others started joining the faculty—Randi Walker the next year, and Joe Driskill and Michael Mendiola came following that. The five of us as junior faculty very quickly formed a bond.”

The closeness among the junior faculty turned out to be of vital importance in 1994, when PSR went through a financial crisis—and a crisis of identity. The president at the time laid off several staff members, whom Kuan describes as “people who were close to retirement, and racial and ethnic minorities. So all of the issues of ageism, racism, and sexism came to the fore.” Led by a statement of values developed by the newly-hired junior faculty, the PSR faculty refused to support the administration’s move. The tension over the situation eventually caused the president to resign.

It was from this crisis, however, and the leadership shown by the faculty, that PSR entered a new phase as an institution. “It was out of our mutual support and conversations that together we came out with a statement that eventually formed Bill McKinney's direction statement and the strategic plan” that has guided PSR for more than a decade.

For the faculty who came through this difficult time together, the experience formed strong ties that led to good working relationships. “For a long time, the PSR faculty has been a very cohesive group of people. We have our differences, we disagree, but because of the cohesion, we were able to create a very healthy faculty who were not afraid to disagree with one another.”

The focus on community growth that can come from dialogue and even disagreement resonates with Kuan’s scholarship and teaching. He has always focused on balancing diverse voices and perspectives as they relate to reading the Bible. Each person who reads the Bible is in a relationship not only with the text, but with their own preconceptions and those of their religious communities. Kuan favors an approach that takes this community context, or “social location,” into account when interpreting scripture. He calls this approach to biblical reading “contextual hermeneutics.”

Kuan says, “We all read out of our social location. So there's very little a person can do to completely suppress one's location and read a text objectively. Even scholars who have used the historical-critical method, some aspect of their location is going to influence how they read the text. My own turn to contextual hermeneutics comes out of my acknowledgment that my identity as a multi-hyphenated person has a way of impinging on how I read the text. What I'm trying to do is to openly acknowledge and engage that aspect of myself and my community in the reading of the text.”

This method of reading scripture has led Kuan to write some fascinating scholarship, including: “Diasporic Reading of a Diasporic Text: Identity Politics and Race Relations and the Book of Esther,” “Reading Amy Tan Reading Job,” and his 2007 book, Ways of Being, Ways of Reading: Asian-American Biblical Interpretation, co-edited with Mary F. Foskett.

Kuan acknowledges with some sadness that taking on an administrative position means he will have to put his teaching and scholarship on the back burner for now. “I'm going to Drew with a tenured faculty position, but I am called there primarily to do the administrative work and to help in the fundraising. So my primary commitment is to strengthen the infrastructure of the institution.”

But Kuan, always the contextualist, is also looking forward to rethinking ways of teaching. “When I'm invited to speak or when I do my administration, or even in connecting with alums and donors, very often those are teaching moments too. For instance, my Chinese Community Church gave me a send-off reception a few weeks ago, and when they asked me to speak, I began to talk about peace, and talk about shalom, and use that as a teaching moment. My own daughter told me, ‘Dad, you're preaching again.’”

He says his family is looking forward to being bi-coastal for the next few years. Asked about the change in climate from California to New Jersey—particularly this winter when a series of blizzards have pummeled the East Coast—Kuan says resolutely, “I have always been someone who is adaptable. I will learn to adapt.”

Kuan responds with characteristic modesty when asked about what legacy he leaves behind at PSR: “I don't think I will leave behind a legacy. I have always seen people doing this kind of ministry as transients. We are there for a moment and all we need to do is our best. As long as I feel I
have given my best during the last 20 years at PSR, I have done all I have been called to do.”

As Kuan moves on, he leaves a challenge for PSR: “We are all aware that the demographics of the U.S. population has shifted. The demographics of world Christianity is also shifting. So theological institutions need to rethink theological education and begin to move away from a narrow, Euro-American-centric theological education. The voices of racial and ethnic minority communities need to be taken seriously.”

Kuan believes that PSR has an important role to play in transforming theological education, both in the U.S. and in the world. “The Church needs an institution like PSR. The world needs an institution like PSR— to be a different voice of what religion is all about, a counter voice to the dominant voices of religion, especially Christianity. So PSR must find a way not only to survive but to thrive. People in all parts of the nation and all parts of the world are and will be looking to an institution like PSR.”

Kuan continues, “PSR has been an incredible place for my professional development and for my own religious formation. I am grateful for PSR for taking the chance on me and for allowing me to grow all these 20 years. PSR has also been a place where I have raised my family. So this is all very significant for me as I think about leaving the place I have been and I have grown in so many ways. As I leave, I want PSR to continue to thrive.”

In honor of nearly 20 years of service as a teacher and scholar, PSR has initiated the Fund to Honor Jeffrey Kuan. The fund will be used to promote two goals that are at the heart of Jeffrey's ministry of teaching and scholarship: a well-funded faculty position to continue Jeffrey’s powerful legacy of excellence in Hebrew Bible teaching and scholarship, and resources for student scholarships, to help PSR offer financial freedom to students beginning their ministries. To contribute, go to psr.edu/why-give-psr, designate your donation as going to the Jeffrey Kuan Fund, and note in the comments section if you would like your donation to go to Hebrew Bible studies or student scholarships.