By Mary Foskett, Kahle Professor of Religious Studies, Albritton Fellow, and Chair 

As he prepares to retire from a remarkable 25-year career teaching in the Department for the Study of Religions and serving in multiple roles at Wake Forest, Professor James (Jay) Ford reflects not on the impact he has had on others, but on how the university community has changed him. He notes that “people often imagine the academic life, particularly in the humanities, as solitary — the proverbial professor behind closed doors, surrounded by books, working feverishly and independently on a manuscript of some kind. I could be that person at times, but the religion I study and teach the most, Buddhism, emphasizes the reality and importance of interdependence. Put simply, the idea is that everything — sentient beings, the natural world, even concepts, and ideas — is fundamentally interdependent. Working with such exceptional staff, colleagues, and, most especially, students has taught me the truth of this insight. So much of what I have learned, experienced, and produced during my years at Wake Forest has been dependent upon my colleagues, students, and even the ideals and values of the institution. The experience has been transforming, and I am forever grateful.” 

Although his characteristic humility, good humor, and avoidance of the spotlight might make it easy to overlook how influential his work and leadership have been, his legacy is evident across the University and in initiatives both big and small, whether forged directly by his own hands or indirectly through the many he has motivated, inspired, and empowered. His colleagues are grateful for the ways in which his leadership, work, and collegiality have transformed their own experience of Wake Forest. As Easley Professor of Religious Studies Lynn Neal observes, “From chairing the Department to helping to establish the Office of Academic Advising, chairing the College Curriculum Review Committee and much more, Jay has been a steadfast leader in the Department and College. He has tirelessly worked on behalf of faculty and students with a smile on his face and his office door open for a chat. Jay’s leadership has helped us create and sustain a vibrant department. I am grateful for his example as a colleague and for the tremendous legacy he leaves.” 

In the midst of an extraordinary record of academic service, one that earned him the College Board of Visitors Faculty Leadership Award in 2019, Ford somehow always made time to encourage colleagues in their own work and development. For example, throughout his tenure as Chair, his strong leadership and support enabled Religious Studies faculty to serve as leaders on numerous college committees and the Faculty Senate, in interdisciplinary programs like CEES and the Humanities Institute, and in innovative pedagogical programs, such as Religion and Public Engagement. Associate Professor of Religious Studies Lucas Johnston recalls how Professor Ford’s “genuine encouragement of my engagement across campus, with the Environment and Sustainability Program, the MA in Sustainability program, CEES, and more” has always stood out to him, adding, “I am grateful that my experience of our Department has been freeing and fulfilling.” Likewise, Professor of Religious Studies Jarrod Whitaker recalls how “Jay has always been an unfailing mentor for faculty in the department, and his leadership as Chair was exemplary.”

Professor Ford relays that the most meaningful aspect of his career at Wake Forest has been the “privilege of teaching and mentoring our exceptional students.” He adds, “I’ve had many memorable experiences with extraordinary students and classes. But the one I’ll remember most is a class I co-taught in my next to last year with my colleague of 25 years, Mary Foskett. For a few years, Mary and I tossed around the idea of co-teaching a class entitled ‘Jesus & Buddha.’ This was also my first experience co-teaching a class. It was, without question, the most fulfilling and illuminating teaching experience I’ve ever had. To a person, the 22 students were engaged, caring of one another, honest, and critically discerning. Classes often ran over time, and students walked out continuing the discussion from class. At the end, students offered insightful suggestions about the course structure and readings, something invaluable after teaching a course for the first time. All in all, it was student-faculty collaboration at its best.”

As a teacher, he is known for his willingness to meet with students and his deep commitment to helping students learn, understand, engage critically with, and develop empathy for religious traditions often quite new and unfamiliar to them. Professor of Religious Studies Kenneth Hoglund observes how “In the decades we have taught together, I have never seen Jay ever veer from that core commitment.” Professor Ford turned that commitment to support for his colleagues’ own pedagogical development. As Professor of Religious Studies Pieternella van Doorn-Harder recounts, “I always appreciated Jay’s guidance in helping me become a better teacher.”

Over the course of his career, Ford has also been active in his field, serving on the board of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies and as section editor for Religion Compass, frequently giving conference papers, publishing multiple articles and two monographs, and working now to complete a third.

Associate Teaching Professor Leann Pace praises his scholarship and writing, especially the accessibility of his book, The Divine Quest – East and West: A Comparative Study of Ultimate Realities: “It is a pleasure to be able to introduce students to concepts of the divine via this book; Jay’s writing takes students on a journey through some complex and nuanced material but in a conversational and approachable manner. Many scholars are talented at writing for other scholars, but Jay’s writing will enrich the life of a longtime academic and a first-semester college student.”

Through his active participation in the Winston-Salem Dharma group and Interfaith Winston-Salem, his work to enhance the understanding of religion and religious pluralism extend beyond the University to the Winston-Salem community Through these efforts, he has fostered interfaith dialogue, interaction between students and community members, and brought notable speakers to the area. 

Professor Ford will be greatly missed by so many across the University. As Washington M. Wingate Professor of Religious Studies Simeon Ilesanmi notes, “He related to everyone, students and colleagues alike, with humanity, grace, and uncompromising integrity.” We wish him well in the days ahead.