As the fall semester began in 2021, the first two Yang Visiting Scholars in World Christianity joined the HDS community eagerly awaiting them in Cambridge. Both Dr. Chandra Mallampalli, Professor of History at Westmount College in California, and Dr. Oluwakemi Abiodun Adesina, Associate Professor of History and Head of the Department of History and International Studies at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, research and teach about Christianity as a worldwide religion. As the inaugural Yang Scholars, they are creating a foundation of experts that will expand over the years, numerically and geographically, thanks to the vision and generosity of Nancy and X.D. Yang.
X.D. Yang, AB ’87, MBA ’92, came to Harvard College from Shenyang and studied economics, later earning his MBA from HBS. His career took him from Goldman Sachs to Carlyle, where he has been a leader for 20 years. Nancy, a native Texan, earned degrees from Wharton and the Kellogg School of Northwestern University. She worked as a management consultant at A.T. Kearney and co-founded a mobile gaming company in Beijing. Nancy also founded a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono services to small nonprofits and serves on Wharton’s Executive Board. They have three children: two currently studying at Harvard College and one in primary school.
The inaugural Yang Visiting Scholars, Drs. Mallampalli and Adesina, have expertise in the growing Evangelical and Pentecostal dimensions of world Christianity. Each will have faculty mentors and guides at Harvard to help them reach their full potential as scholars, teachers, and community participants. We paused just before the semester began to discuss with the Yangs theirreasons for investing in HDS and the individuals who will contribute to, and benefit from, the HDS community.
“...the growth of Christian communities is big in parts of Asia, whether it is China, or India, South Asia, Southeast Asia, as well as Africa, and certainly also Latin America. So, there is excitement in the part of the world that we are from about Christianity specifically, as well as about other religious beliefs.” X.D. Yang
HDS: While you were connected to Harvard overall as parents and as an alum (X.D.), what originally drew you to the HDS community?
X.D. YANG: I met Dean Hempton through one of the Harvard Global Council events—I happened to sit next to him at dinner. We had a great chat, and I was really impressed and inspired by what he’s trying to do. Nancy and I had been Christians for many, many years. So, we had a clear interest in Harvard Divinity School. Then we hosted Dean Hempton and a few others on their trip to Hong Kong. We invited local Christian community members as well as people interested in Harvard Divinity School. The idea was to broaden the reach of the school in Hong Kong and China. That was a fantastic dinner and led to further conversations with David about HDS. As we had more discussions, we got more interested and excited.
HDS: What is important to you personally about the Harvard Divinity School’s mission?
NANCY YANG: It’s the building up of an intellectual community. I remember a conversation with Dean Hempton and his team about the need for robust, constructive dialogue about world religions, and HDS is the place to foster that type of dialogue.
X.D. YANG: Also, HDS is part of the Harvard University community. It’s not just HDS, but the chance to leverage all the resources of Harvard—whether it’s dialogue or intellectual pursuits that might not be possible in most other universities.
NANCY YANG: Absolutely. I think that kind of opportunity for integration, whether it be for research or just in building up community and dialogue, can’t be found anywhere else in the world. And knowing that graduates from the different schools will go out to be all kinds of leaders and influencers on their own.
X.D. YANG: And frankly, I’m also hoping some of the other Harvard community members will pay more attention to HDS.
HDS: You made a very generous gift to the HDS Dean’s Leadership Fund to help Dean Hempton respond to needs and opportunities around and beyond responding to the pandemic. Can you share your reflections on why that kind of unrestricted support is important and powerful?
NANCY YANG: That was very important for both X.D. and me. It’s important to give in an unrestricted way so that leadership is in the best position to provide opportunities for innovation, for piloting new projects, for being opportunistic. It’s where creativity and innovation can be released, in a sense. From a philanthropic lens, we’ve always wanted to give on both sides—for program initiatives, as well as on the unrestricted side.
HDS: You also responded to Dean Hempton’s vision to expand HDS’s international reach and engagement with the world by funding the Yang Visiting Scholars in World Christianity. Why do you think this overall vision is important?
X.D. YANG: As our discussion with Dean Hempton raised, the growth of Christian communities is big in parts of Asia, whether it is China, or India, South Asia, Southeast Asia, as well as Africa, and certainly also Latin America. So, there is excitement in the part of the world that we are from about Christianity specifically, as well as about other religious beliefs. A lot of the societies here are going through fundamental changes—growth and urbanization of the people who have left poverty to live a better life. Those people are turning to spirituality, because in this time of change, there’s a lot of anxiety and pressure. To have a platform like HDS, which can attract world-class scholars—young scholars particularly—from different parts of the world to be able to bring their perspective to the HDS community to share, brings an element of not just different perspectives, but excitement that people probably wouldn’t experience otherwise. We view this community as the starting point. And we were very pleased with the first two scholars; we couldn’t imagine more interesting and qualified people. Just their backgrounds, what they’re doing, what they’re trying to do. And so, hopefully, over time, there will be a stream of these scholars and we will really create something that will be lasting and impactful.
HDS: What do you hope that the Yang Visiting Scholars will bring to HDS and glean from their time here?
NANCY YANG: That they will benefit from being in this kind of world-class research environment, with established scholars within the HDS community, so they may share their own life experiences and contribute to the intellectual discourse in the broader Harvard community as well and then bring that back, and over time, forge longer-term relationships between Harvard or HDS and the institutions or universities that they’re coming from. Just on a personal reflection, a bit of the pandemic was about isolation. But I think it made everyone hungrier for community and connection. And I hope we can build a broader global community, or sense of community, if you will, for those who are on campus—whether or not you’re able to travel.
The Yang Visiting Scholars contribute to research and teaching about Christianity as a worldwide religion. The two inaugural fellows are Dr. Oluwakemi Abiodun Adesina, Associate Professor of History at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, and Dr. Chandra Mallampalli, Fletcher Jones Foundation Chair of the Social Sciences at Westmont College in California.
—by Alice Denison