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May 18, 2023

Passings: Joseph C. Hough Jr., Academic, Ordained Minister, Author, and CGU’s 14th president

Joseph C. Hough Jr. Presenting

Joseph C. Hough Jr., an academic, ordained minister, and author who served as Claremont Graduate University’s 14th president, has died after a long illness. He was 89.

Hough’s 18-month tenure as interim president in 2009-10 was a homecoming: He arrived as a professor at the Claremont School of Theology in 1965, and over the course of 23 years he served as chair of the Department of Religion, dean of the School of Theology, and acting director of the Center for Humanities. In 1989, he left for Vanderbilt University, where he served for nine years as a professor of ethics and dean of the Divinity School.

He then retired—or thought he had until the Union Theological Seminary sought his help.

The ecumenical Christian seminary and graduate school of theology, founded in Manhattan in 1836, was hobbled by chronic financial issues exacerbated by increasing library costs and significant deferred maintenance to its architecturally important but aged buildings. Calling it “an unsustainable situation for any institution,” Hough drew on all segments of the seminary’s community to discuss the school’s challenges and map out a response.

“I want to see something creative emerge,” Hough said. “We’re going to campaign for a new Union right now, and the campaign begins with the strategic plan.”

Union stabilized its finances through a creative agreement to lease some of its buildings to Columbia University and to transfer to its ownership of and responsibility for the Burke Library.

Hough, a minister in the United Church of Christ, provided bold moral leadership as well. In his 2003 speech, “The Limitations of Religious Tolerance,” he proposed a philosophy of religious pluralism in which all people of faith work together toward peace and justice.

“What is there in the world that we find reprehensible and unjust? How can we work together to change that?” he asked. “Religious pluralism is something to be welcomed as brimming with possibility.” Until Christianity accepts other religions as valid, he added, it will not be a legitimate proponent of peace.

Hough left Union in 2008 and retired a second time. Again, it lasted just a year.

In February 2009, CGU President Robert Klitgaard stepped down, taking a sabbatical before returning as a university professor. The Board of Trustees appointed the provost to assume administrative duties until it could name an interim president. Just a month later, Hough reintroduced himself to the university community.

“I am pleased and honored to accept this invitation, and I shall work diligently to address some of the immediate issues that have emerged in the life of the university community,” he said. “I look forward to engaging you in dialogue about the possibilities and challenges facing us at this time.”

The world was 18 months deep into the Great Recession when Hough assumed the presidency, and as he had done at Union Theological Seminary, he committed himself to engagement and transparency.

“I am aware that there are no easy answers to the questions posed by our current financial situation, and I shall need your support and your ideas as we move ahead. On my part, I make four pledges to you. First, I shall make every effort to hear your concerns and take them seriously. Second, I shall hew the line on transparency, the necessary foundation for mutual trust. Third, I shall work with a spirit of collaboration and seek consensus where it is possible. Fourth, when consensus escapes us, I shall move ahead on those recommendations to the Board for actions that I think are in the interest of our common good, all the while giving clear reasons why the recommendations are, in my judgment, vital for the future of the university.”

Shortly before he stepped down as planned at the end of the 2009-10 academic year, Hough acknowledged the necessary cuts in expenses, salary freeze, and painful reductions in staffing, but he could also point to increased enrollment and philanthropy, success in balancing the budget, and the goodwill of the university community.

“It has been a time of adventure and invention that has been immensely satisfying. … The unwavering support and helpfulness of the Board of Trustees, the warm reception and support of the faculty, the welcome from countless alumni and alumnae, and the constant support of able administrative colleagues created an environment in which I could do the work I needed to do. Together, we have made significant progress. … I have been honored and delighted to serve.”

At Commencement, CGU showed its deep appreciation by awarding Hough an honorary doctorate.

“I must confess that I was completely surprised and deeply honored by the action of the faculty and the Board of Trustees,” Hough said afterward. “I have never received an honor that meant more to me, and never an honor that was such a complete surprise. Now I have something that I never thought possible—a degree from Claremont Graduate University.”