The email exchange began with an Associate Professor of Old Testament, Anathea Portier-Young, who invited faculty to participate in the training which she described as “transformative, powerful, and life-changing.” The email stated in part:
“Racism is a fierce, ever-present, challenging force, one which has structured the thinking, behavior, and actions of individuals and institutions since the beginning of U.S. history. To understand racism and effectively begin dismantling it requires an equally fierce, consistent, and committed effort” (REI). Phase I provides foundational training in understanding historical and institutional racism. It helps individuals and organizations begin to “proactively understand and address racism, both in their organization and in the community where the organization is working.” It is the first step in a longer process.
Griffiths clearly disagrees with the premise of the program and sent a rather heated response:
Sent: Monday, February 06, 2017 4:26 PM
To: Anathea Portier-Young
Cc: Divinity Regular Rank Faculty; Divinity Visiting Other Faculty
Subject: Re: Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training–March 4-5
Dear Faculty Colleagues,
I’m responding to Thea’s exhortation that we should attend the Racial Equity Institute Phase 1 Training scheduled for 4-5 March. In her message she made her ideological commitments clear. I’ll do the same, in the interests of free exchange.
I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.
We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to thnk, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste. This training is a waste. Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Paul J. Griffiths
Warren Chair of Catholic Theology
Duke Divinity School
The sentiments expressed are obviously intemperate in contrast with Portier-Young’s civil invitation. However, the response appears to have been overwhelming. Dean Elaine Heath emailed the entire faculty to warn that “It is inappropriate and unprofessional to use mass emails to make disparaging statements –including arguments ad hominem – in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree. The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.”
I agree that the Griffiths email lacked civility and contained insulting references. However, ” The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution”?
In response, Professor Thomas Pfau responded and wrote in part:
So it is with deep care and enduring concern for an institution that over the years has become something of an intellectual asylum for me that I am now writing to offer a few thoughts on the email exchange below. My principal hope is to help us avoid slipping into merely polarizing views, with the steadily diminishing analytic yield that such a development typically entails.
When I read Paul Griffiths’ email, I found myself fundamentally in agreement with his observations, and my agreement was not one of mere opinion or conjecture but very much steeped in first-hand experience as Director of Undergraduate Studies and Director of Graduate Studies in two departments and, currently, as department chair. For all these responsibilities have repeatedly brought me into direct contact with initiatives like the one about which Paul expresses such strong reservations. While other colleagues may have a less jaundiced appraisal of these efforts, it is demonstrably true that initiatives of the kind that prompted the present discussion have of late been proliferating at Duke to a degree s that one may well regard with concern and misgivings for multiple reasons. As I read Paul Griffiths’ note, I took him to demur not at the goal that the proposed training is meant to advance, viz., to ensure practices free of bias and mindful of equity. Rather, he challenges the assumption that, merely for the asking, faculty ought be to give up significant chunks of time for the purposes of undergoing “training” in these areas.
Now, given the recent change in leadership in the DDS, it might be appropriate to offer some broader institutional perspective here.
Having worked at Duke for a long time for twenty-six years now, I have witnessed first hand a dramatic increase demands made on faculty time by administration-driven initiatives fundamentally unrelated to the intellectual work for which faculty were recruited by Duke. A seemingly endless string of surveys, memos, and “training sessions” is by now a familiar reality for most faculty, and it is an altogether inescapable entailment (as I well know) of chairing a department or program, serving on a hiring committee, or chairing a review.
So if faculty members choose to say in public (as Paul Griffiths has just done) what so many are saying in private, one might at the very least want to listen to and engage their concerns, especially if one holds sharply opposed views. Any academic unit, DDS included, can only flourish if differences of opinion on any variety of subjects are respected and engaged on their intrinsic merits. Having reviewed Paul Griffiths’ note several times, I find nothing in it that could even remotely be said to “express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.” To suggest anything of the sort strikes me as either gravely imperceptive or as intellectually dishonest. Instead, if a faculty member raises serious doubts about the efficacy and methods of an initiative aimed at combating racial and other kinds of bias – and about the ways in which such training manifestly encroaches on the time faculty need to pursue their primary mission of teaching and research – then this view ought as a matter of course be respected as a legitimate exercise of judgment and expression. And while Paul Griffiths casts his criticisms in harsh terms, it would be nothing less than politically coercive and intellectually irresponsible to imply that his statement amounts to an “expression of racism.”
In email entitled “intellectual freedom and institutional discipline,” Griffiths revealed that he was subjected to two separate investigations after voicing his disapproval of the program. He stated in part:
Intellectual freedom – freedom to speak and write without fear of discipline and punishment – is under pressure at Duke Divinity these days. My own case illustrates this. Over the past year or so I’ve spoken and written in various public forums here, with as much clarity and energy as I can muster, about matters relevant to our life together. The matters I’ve addressed include: the vocation and purpose of our school; the importance of the intellectual virtues to our common life; the place that seeking diversity among our faculty should have in that common life; the nature of racial, ethnic, and gender identities, and whether there’s speech about certain topics forbidden to some among those identities; and the nature and purpose of theological education. I’ve reviewed these contributions, to the extent that I can (some of them are available only in memory), and I’m happy with them and stand behind them. They’re substantive; they’re trenchant; and they address matters of importance for our common life. So it seems to me. What I’ve argued in these contributions may of course be wrong; that’s a feature of the human condition.
My speech and writing about these topics has now led to two distinct (but probably causally related) disciplinary procedures against me, one instigated by Elaine Heath, our Dean, and the other instigated by Thea Portier-Young, our colleague. I give at the end of this message a bare-bones factual account of these disciplinary proceedings to date.
As conservative site has assembled the correspondence here. The basis for the investigation are discussed in the correspondence. Notably, Griffiths asked for a written account of the charges against him, a chance to confront his accuser, and the evidence against him before a meeting. He was denied those accommodations, which is consistent with the denial of due process in our university proceedings. I have written about that loss of due process in prior columns: here and here. Duke of course has a troubling history of the denial of due process and the rush to judgment in cases involving students and faculty. Many of us were appalled by the actions of Duke against the lacrosse players accused of gang raping a stripper. Eager to appease the outraged public, the university suspended the players and all but declared their guilt. It was not just an abdication of their responsibility to their own students, but a betrayal of a long-standing academic tradition to protect the community from prejudice and threats. For a column on the symbol of this academic tradition, click here. Schools now routinely deny the accused access to witnesses, the right of confrontation, and other basic protections.
While Pfau said that he believe Griffiths resigned without pressure from the school, his resignation has led to a great deal of concern over the response to his original email and the language of the Dean in her email. He is an accomplished academic who studied at Oxford University and the University of Wisconsin. He is the author or co-author or editor of 17 books.