Paul Griffiths: “Why I Resigned From Duke”


After a controversial week at Duke Divinity School centered on a distinguished professor’s opposition to racial sensitivity training, Paul Griffiths explains why he has resigned.

Here is a taste of his statement at Commonweal:

Deep in me is a love for, and romanticism about, the United States that is perhaps only possible for an alien. Equally deep, the gift of class and temperament, has been a need to make my way. That’s an ordinary immigrant passion, at least for those without resources. I had none, except for words. And so words, in universities, have been what I’ve used to make my way. I’ve used them to elucidate, to explain, to understand, and to argue. The word-life, which is the same as the life of the mind, has been for me one of struggle to accentuate and sharpen intellectual differences with the goal of increasing clarity about what they come to and what’s at stake in them. I’ve been rewarded for that word-struggle with academic positions and some academic honors. For those rewards I’m grateful and, often, still, astonished. How is it possible that I’ve held professorial chairs at top-flight universities? It didn’t seem possible when I began; it scarcely seemed so even when it happened; and now that it’s over it seems like a Taoist butterfly-dream or a Buddhist sky-flower.

The word-struggle, the agony of distinction and argument—these don’t have the place they once had in the university

It’s over because I recently, and freely, resigned my chair in Catholic Theology at Duke University in response to disciplinary actions initiated by my dean and colleagues. Those disciplinary actions, in turn, were provoked by my words: critical and confrontational words spoken to colleagues in meetings; and hot words written in critique of university policies and practices, in support of particular freedoms of expression and thought, and against legal and disciplinary constraints of those freedoms. My university superiors, the dean and the provost, have been at best lukewarm in their support of these freedoms, preferring to them conciliation and accommodation of their opponents. And so, I reluctantly concluded, the word-struggle, the agony of distinction and argument, the search for clarity by dramatizing and exploring difference—these no longer have the place they once had in the university.

Harsh and direct disagreement places thought under pressure. That’s its point. Pressure can be intellectually productive: being forced to look closely at arguments against a beloved position helps those who hold it to burnish and buttress it as often as it moves them to abandon it. But pressure also causes pain and fear; and when those under pressure find these things difficult to bear, they’ll sometimes use any means possible to make the pressure and the pain go away. They feel unsafe, threatened, put upon, and so they react by deploying the soft violence of the law or the harder violence of the aggressive and speech-denying protest. Both moves are common enough in our élite universities now, as is their support by the powers that be. Tolerance for intellectual pain is less than it was. So is tolerance for argument.

Read the entire piece here.  For Griffiths, this less about racial sensitivity training and much more about his right to criticize such training without repercussions.  In the end, we still don’t know everything that happened at Duke Divinity School.