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Divine Absence: Justin Jones’s Endless Vacation from Vanderbilt Divinity

Divine Absence: Justin Jones’s Endless Vacation from Vanderbilt Divinity

Academic deans promised to look into the freshman state rep’s alleged role in covering up sexual assaults. Now, the university seems to be running cover for him.

When Jeneisha Harris took to Facebook a week into  Summer 2020’s “People’s Protest” on Legislative Plaza, fissures formed in the Nashville activist community where she’d long been a fixture. “I have to speak about this publicly because my spirit won’t let me sleep tonight if I don’t,” she wrote, detailing how Justin Jones suppressed the sexual assault of two women during protests over the removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust from the capitol.

Those most outraged over Jones’s alleged behavior weren’t her fellow good troublemakers, but the deans of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where Jones was a graduate student at the time.  In their comments, Vanderbilt Divinity’s leaders promised to speak to Jones about the allegations and course correct. Instead, as The Pamphleteer has learned, Vanderbilt granted him an extended leave of absence that is not only incongruent with the school's enrollment policies, but apparently continues to this day.

Soon after Harris posted to Facebook, several of Vanderbilt Divinity’s deans responded in the comments. Dr. Emilie Townes, the now-retired Dean of the Divinity School, wrote, “Now that I see this, I must speak as a dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. We do not teach, condone, or accept sexism, sexual violence, gender and sexual orientation oppression, or silencing. Speak the truth.” 

Dr. Phillis Sheppard, then Interim Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the divinity School, wrote, “I am the interim academic dean at Vanderbilt Divinity School and these [sic] issues are not new in the movement and must be addressed. We are available to strategize ways to address the broader issues of sexism and sexual violence in activism. Reach out.” Dr. Sheppard also tagged Dr. Laura Cheifetz, the divinity school’s Assistant Dean of Admissions, Vocation, and Student Life, as well as its then-Dean of Students, Dr. Amy Elizabeth Steele. 

Dr. Cheifetz did not enter the conversation, but Dr. Steele did, writing, “as dean of students at VDS I'll reach out directly to Justin today.” Steele left Vanderbilt the following academic year to take a position as Dean of The Upper Room Chapel, an arm of a Nashville-based global ministry specializing in Bible study materials, devotions, and community engagement. 

While these academic leaders seemed driven to action in their responses to Harris’s public Facebook post, whether any conversations took place between them and Jones is unclear. What is known is that Jones purportedly ended his studies at Vanderbilt when the People’s Plaza Protests launched him into the spotlight. No records or public statements indicate that Jones has made any progress toward a graduate degree in the time between his multiple arrests during the protests, his successful campaign to become District 52’s state representative in 2022, and his perpetual national press tour after joining the expelled Tennessee Three last April. 

Members of Vanderbilt Divinity’s administration taking such an interest in Jones’s activities may appear quite abnormal to those who have not followed the school’s transformation from a cosmopolitan haven for Mainline Protestants into, as the Tennessean’s Liam Adams proudly wrote last year, a “training ground” for activists of the Jones variety, for which the death of George Floyd served as an opportune origin story. 

Vanderbilt Divinity School did not officially sponsor the events on “The People’s Plaza.” Yet, as the deans’ comments demonstrate, its community had both a stake in the protests’ public perception and an active role in the events that led to the incident Harris discussed. 

In his 2022 memoir, The People’s Plaza: Sixty-Two Days of Nonviolent Resistance (published by Vanderbilt University Press), Jones details that the school was a major hub for non-homeless participants: “Some friends from Vanderbilt Divinity School (with whom I had spent the previous year protesting at the same capitol) agreed to help lead the Monday action. Everyone was on edge, but it felt like the right next step. We needed to shift the focus back to racial injustice.” Likewise, Jones later mentions that he went with “a group of friends and professors to turn myself in,” during one of the many arrests that predated his time in the General Assembly.

Tellingly, the memoir excises Jeniesha Harris from the narrative as well as any sexual assault incidents by the “unhoused,” whom Jones spends the book uniformly praising. It also remains cagey about the extent of the school’s involvement in the process beyond mentioning that Vanderbilt University Press editor Zachary Gresham was on the front lines with Jones (and presumably Harris) before he reached out to the professional agitator with the book idea.

Given the press’s sacrosanct reputation in academic circles, its decision to offer a book contract to a dropout from its divinity school whose absence may be related to Harris’s allegations seems as peculiar as Jones’s memoir glossing over the involvement of Vanderbilt’s students and faculty who were integral to the protests.

The Pamphleteer reached out to Deans Cheifetz, Townes, Sheppard, and Steele about their conversations with Jones about Harris’s allegations and his academic status. In response, Damon Maida, Vanderbilt University’s Associate Director of Media Relations, issued the following statement to us: “According to our records, the student applied for and was granted a leave of absence. All Divinity School students are eligible for leaves of absence, and they apply for them for several reasons, such as travel, work in a special program or project without academic credit, family matters or work schedules.”

Jones appears to still be on leave from Vanderbilt University nearly three academic years after the protests. However, according to Vanderbilt Divinity School’s catalog, students are only eligible for one year of leave except when, “The associate dean, at the request of the student and, if necessary, in consultation with the Academic Programs Committee, may extend a leave of absence.”

Consequently, the same administrators who promised to investigate the Harris allegations would have to sign off on Jones’s extended leave. When asked to clarify the length of Jones’s leave and the status of the investigation into Harris’s allegations, Maida could not be reached for comment. Jones could also not be reached for comment when The Pamphleteer contacted his office with the same questions.

Although the motivations behind Vanderbilt’s special treatment of Jones remain murky, he has become the paradigm of the type of revolutionary activist the university’s divinity school has shifted its focus toward producing. But as Vanderbilt and Nashville’s media institutions continue to silence dissenting voices like Harris’s, the revolution has begun to look a lot like the catchy neon pink cover of Jones’s memoir: effortlessly marketed radical chic tailor-made to protect the intellectual class’s lucrative fiefdoms in the face of curdling public opinion.