Duke Professor Announces Resignation After Criticizing 'Illiberal Roots' of Anti-Racism Training Program

Duke University Chapel / Wikimedia Commons
May 9, 2017

A professor at Duke University's Divinity School has announced his intention to resign after receiving backlash from colleagues and school administrators for criticizing an anti-racism training program.

Paul Griffiths, the Warren professor of Catholic theology, set off a firestorm in early February when he responded to a faculty-wide email sent by associate professor Anathea Portier-Young that encouraged attendance at a two-day anti-racism program, the Washington Times reported Monday.

Griffiths responded to the email by warning his colleagues not to attend, saying the program had "illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies."

"I exhort you not to attend this training," Griffiths wrote. "Don't lay waste your time by doing so. It'll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there'll be bromides, cliches, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show."

While some colleagues responded by expressing their interest in attending, Elaine Heath, dean of the divinity school, attacked Griffiths for using email "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," Heath wrote in a Feb. 6 message.

Griffiths later sent another faculty-wide email explaining the disciplinary procedures brought against him after the original exchange.

Heath tried to schedule a meeting with Griffiths, who refused to attend because the dean would not let him bring a sympathetic colleague, English professor Thomas Pfau, to serve as a witness.

Heath then wrote Griffiths a strongly worded memo.

"It is unacceptable for you to refuse to meet with me as the dean of the divinity school," she wrote. "I cannot physically force you to meet with me, but your refusal to meet with me will have consequences."

The dean later barred Griffiths from faculty meetings and threatened to take away his access to research funds.

Portier-Young also pushed for Griffiths to be reprimanded, arguing he used "racist and/or sexist speech in such a way as to constitute a hostile workplace."

Griffiths decided to resign rather than go through the disciplinary proceedings. His resignation will take effect after the 2017-18 academic year.

Valerie Cooper, a Duke Divinity School associate professor of religion and society and black church studies, wrote on Facebook this month that the school's treatment of Griffiths did not violate its commitment to academic freedom because striving for diversity is above reproach.

"As you read Prof. Paul Griffiths' 'complaint' below, please bear in mind that Duke University has a clear statement in favor of diversity, equity, and inclusion," she said. "Because this statement *is* Duke University policy, being against diversity isn't an issue of academic freedom. It is academic malpractice. If you can't abide by Duke's policies, you shouldn't work for Duke."

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, disagreed, telling the Times that universities are willing to shape academic freedom to fit whatever will push a progressive agenda.

"No matter how hard and fast academic freedom may be specified and a university avows of its relationship to faculty members, if a faculty member expresses an unpopular opinion, or an opinion disliked by the administration, some evasion of the rule will be invented for that purpose," he said.

"The only thing you can count on is that all of the exceptions will be exceptions favored by the academic left."