What is Going on at Duke Divinity School?

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Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and “Benedict Option” fame blogged about this yesterday under the title “Brave Prof Stands Up To Duke Divinity SJWs.”

The “brave prof” in question is Catholic theologian and Duke Divinity School faculty member Paul Griffiths.  After receiving a Ph.D in Buddhist Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1983, Griffiths taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago where he spent ten years in the Department of South Asian Languages  & Civilizations.  Between 2000 and 2007 Griffiths was the Schmitt Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.  Since 2008 he has been the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke.  In 1996 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

After Griffith’s conversion he stopped writing about Buddhism and turned his attention to issues related to Catholicism.  He is perhaps best known for his book Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion (Oxford University Press, 1999).  It is an excellent book and I recommend it.

Dreher published a post that Griffith wrote on his Facebook page:

Dear Faculty Colleagues,

(This email is a public document. Please feel free to copy and distribute it in whole or in part, with or without attribution, with or without commentary.)

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.

These disciplinary proceedings are designed not to engage and rebut the views I hold and have expressed about the matters mentioned, but rather to discipline me for having expressed them. Elaine Heath and Thea Portier-Young, when faced with disagreement, prefer discipline to argument. In doing so they act illiberally and anti-intellectually; their action shows totalitarian affinities in its preferred method, which is the veiled use of institutional power. They appeal to non- or anti-intellectual categories (‘unprofessional conduct’ in Heath’s case; ‘harassment’ in Portier-Young’s) to short-circuit disagreement. All this is shameful, and I call them out on it.

Heath and Portier-Young aren’t alone among us in showing these tendencies. The convictions that some of my colleagues hold about justice for racial, ethnic, and gender minorities have led them to attempt occupation of a place of unassailably luminous moral probity. That’s a utopia, and those who seek it place themselves outside the space of reason. Once you’ve made that move, those who disagree with you inevitably seem corrupt and dangerous, better removed than argued with, while you seem to yourself beyond criticism. What you do then is discipline your opponents. The contributions to our common life made by, inter alia, Chuck Campbell, Jay Carter, and Valerie Cooper exhibit these tendencies. I call them out too. I hope that they, together with Heath and Portier-Young, will reconsider, repent, make public apology to me and our colleagues for the damage done, and re-dedicate themselves to the life of the mind which is, because of their institutional location, their primary professional vocation. That life requires openness, transparency, and a willingness to engage. I commend all these things to them, and hope devoutly that they come to see their importance more clearly than they now do..

I’m making public the following narrative of these disciplinary proceedings under the pressure of three closely-associated thoughts. The first thought is that several more or less inaccurate versions of these events are already in circulation among us in the form of gossip; full and accurate disclosure is always better than gossip. The second thought is about responsibility. I’m happy to take full responsibility for my contributions to our common life at Duke Divinity. Those contributions have all been public, as is this message. But responsibility requires publicity. Heath’s and Portier-Young’s disciplinary proceedings are not public: they’re veiled, and accompanied by threats of reprisal if unveiled. I’d like them to take responsibility for what they’re doing, and so I’m making it public. The third thought is about the kind of confidence in speech (and writing) whose opposite is fear. Duke Divinity is now a place in which too many thoughts can’t be spoken and too many disagreements remain veiled because of fear. I commend a renunciation of fear-based discipline to those who deploy and advocate it, and its replacement with confidence in speech. That would be appropriate not only to our life together in a university-related Divinity School, but also to our life together as disciples of Jesus Christ.

the disciplinary actions

What follows, under (1) and (2), is a bare-bones factual account of the disciplinary procedures to date, together with two attachments. It may be useful to know that there’s a good deal of recent literature on the nature of university-based disciplinary proceedings like the ones I’m about to describe. I recommend, from quite different angles, Jon Krakauer’s Missoula (2015), and Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances (2017). These books, with distinct agendas, agree that there are deep moral, legal, and procedural problems with university-based Title IX disciplinary procedures. These include, but aren’t limited to, their attempt to control speech and conduct by stifling expression; and their contempt for due process. It may also be useful to know that I’m not alone among Duke Divinity faculty in currently being, or having in the recent past been, subjected to discipline along these lines. I call upon those involved to share the details with us.

(1) Discipline initiated by Heath against Griffiths. In February 2017, Heath contacts Griffiths and asks for an appointment in which she’ll communicate her expectations for professional conduct at Duke Divinity. There’s back-and-forth by email about the conditions for this meeting, and agreement is reached for a four-way meeting to include Heath, Randy Maddox (Dean of Faculty, as support for Heath), Griffiths, and Thomas Pfau (as second for Griffiths). That meeting is scheduled for 3/6/17. Shortly before that date Heath cancels with no reason given, and then in short order asks for a new meeting on the same topic, this time with new criteria as to who can be present that rule out Pfau’s participation. Griffiths responds to this change in conditions by saying that he’s happy to meet, but now, given the changes, only under the condition that the meeting should be a one-on-one free exchange between himself and Heath. There’s email back-and-forth about this between Griffiths and Heath, all copied to Maddox. No agreement is reached about conditions for meeting: Griffiths and Heath each have conditions unacceptable to the other. Standoff. No meeting has occurred at the date of this writing. In a hardcopy letter (PDF attached) dated 3/10/17, Heath initiates financial and administrative reprisals against Griffiths. Those reprisals ban him from faculty meetings, and, thereby, from voting in faculty affairs; and promise (contra the conditions stated in his letter of appointment) to ban him from future access to research or travel funds. Heath’s letter contains one material falsehood (item #1 in her letter; the accurate account is here, in this paragraph), together with several disputable interpretive claims. More reprisals are adumbrated, but not specified, in the letter. There that disciplinary procedure for the moment rests.

(2) Discipline initiated by Portier-Young against Griffiths, via the University’s Office for Institutional Equity (OIE). In early March, Griffiths hears by telephone from Cynthia Clinton, an officer of the OIE, that a complaint of harassment has been lodged against him by Portier-Young, the gravamen of which is the use of racist and/or sexist speech in such a way as to constitute a hostile workplace. A meeting is scheduled for 3/20/17 between Griffiths and representatives of the OIE to discuss this allegation. Griffiths requests from the OIE a written version of the allegation, together with its evidentiary support, in advance of the scheduled meeting. This request is declined by Clinton on behalf of the OIE, as appears typical for these proceedings. Griffiths then declines the 3/20/17 meeting, and sends a written statement to the OIE, which is attached. The OIE will, it seems, now draw up a report and submit it to the ‘responsible persons’ in the case, which may include either or both of our Provost, Sally Kornbluth, and our Dean, Elaine Heath. (This may already have happened.) Those persons will then take whatever disciplinary actions they see fit, which may range from nothing to dismissal, with intermediate possibilities. There that disciplinary procedure for the moment rests.

With sincere good wishes to my colleagues, and in hope of better things, fuller transparency, more exchange, an increase in love, and, as always, more light: in lumine tuo videbimus lumen —

Paul.

Now it looks like Griffiths has resigned his post:

As I poke around my social media feeds I am not learning much more.  In other words, it is unclear what Griffiths wrote or said that led to disciplinary action from the administration.  It appears it had something to do with a critique of what has become campus orthodoxy on matters related to diversity.  Dreher suggests that Griffiths stood up to what he describes as “Social Justice Warriors” on Duke’s campus.

I am guessing that Griffiths or someone else involved will provide more details about what happened.  In the meantime, however, people have taken to social media–defenders and critics of Griffith–to cast judgement, engage in name-calling, and draw conclusions with very little evidence.  And those who are privy to the details seem to be sharing just enough one-sided information to feed the sharks.

Stay tuned.

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