Duke Assails Free Speech So It Can “Protect and Value Diverse Perspectives”

American college campuses are becoming more and more like the old communist states where people enjoyed freedom of speech—but only so long as they didn’t question some aspect of the official orthodoxy. Any such “deviationism” was apt to land them in severe trouble with the authorities, who encouraged loyal citizens to report it. (Alexander Solzhenitsyn recounted many cases of that in The Gulag Archipelago.)

Duke University Divinity School professor Paul Griffiths is the latest faculty member to fall victim to the taboo against speaking out against “progressive” beliefs. His thoughtcrime: daring to say that a “racial equity” seminar would be a waste of time.

Back on February 6, Anathea Portier-Young, another professor in the Divinity School, sent around to the entire faculty an email. It encouraged one and all to attend a program she favored. “On behalf of the Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Standing Committee,” she wrote, “I strongly urge you to participate in the Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training planned for March 4 and 5.” Attending it, she continued, would prove to be “transformative, powerful, and life-changing.”

The Racial Equity Institute is one of those organizations that capitalizes on the “progressive” notion that the U.S. remains a very racist nation and cannot progress unless we “develop tools to challenge patterns of power and grow equity.” Its guiding idea is that “Racism is a fierce, ever-present, challenging force…and dismantling it requires an equally fierce, consistent, committed effort.”

Americans should be free to advance those ideas. But they should be equally free to challenge and reject them. Professor Griffiths has learned that professors on our college campuses exercise the latter freedom at their peril.

Shortly after receiving that email from Portier-Young, he wrote and fired off an email of his own. “I exhort you not to attend this training,” he wrote. “There’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty,” but the substance of the program would reflect “illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies.” And drawing a link to the Soviet Union, Griffiths observed that “(re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history.”

You can read both of the dueling emails here.

One professor says, “This will be good and you ought to attend,” while another says, “This will be a waste of time and you shouldn’t.” What’s the problem?

The problem, of course, is that leftist pieties about race (and other things) now hold privileged status, much as Marxist theory used to in the communist bloc. To paraphrase Orwell, “All speech is free, but some speech is more free than others.”

Professor Portier-Young was so incensed that she filed “harassment” charges against Griffiths with the Duke Office for Institutional Equity. Has our academic world fallen to the point where a professor who finds her ideas challenged would rather file a complaint than make a counter-argument? Sadly, yes.

Divinity School Dean Elaine Heath immediately excoriated Professor Griffiths. After announcing in her own email that she thought the “training” would bolster the school’s “intellectual strength, spiritual vitality, and moral authority,” she declared that Griffiths had acted improperly. “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.”

If you can find any hint of racism, sexism, or bigotry in Griffiths’ email, I’ll eat my hat.

The most revealing sentence in Dean Heath’s email reads, “We believe all faculty have a right to speak out as members of a civil academic community, and if all voices are to be heard, diverse perspectives must be valued and protected.” And there’s the idea that destroys free speech—that certain thoughts (“diverse perspectives”) should be given special treatment. They must be “valued and protected,” which Griffiths had failed to do.

It wasn’t really the way Griffiths responded that was the issue, but the fact that he had taunted one of the sacred cows of academic liberalism.

Suppose for a moment that this little drama had played out differently. Let’s say that one Duke professor, after learning that the Ludwig von Mises Institute would be holding a conference (not “training”) on the benefits for poor and minority individuals from a radical downsizing of government, sent around an email suggesting that faculty colleagues would learn a lot from the seminar and even find it “life-changing.”

Another professor reads that email and blast off this reply: “Don’t go to that conference. You’ll just hear a bunch of free-market platitudes from people who pretend to care about the oppressed but only want to push their failed deregulation agenda.”

No Duke official would care in the slightest about that clash of ideas, and properly so. Academics can fight their own battles on even terms.

But when a “progressive” is challenged, free speech is quickly forgotten. Dean Heath set in motion a university disciplinary procedure against Griffiths, charging him with “unprofessional conduct.”

In all such procedures, the process is the punishment, as Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis makes clear in this article about her ordeal after writing an article that angered some of her militant students. Knowing that, Professor Griffiths decided to quit the Duke faculty at the end of the next academic year rather than battle his inquisitors.

It’s a safe bet that he will be replaced with someone who would never think of questioning the need for training in progressive theology.

Writing about this case for the Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz got to the core of the problem, writing, “At Duke Divinity School, the defense of liberal learning and teaching itself is now beyond toleration.” It’s a bad day for Duke (or any other institution of higher education) when its administration puts the supposed need to “value and protect” certain ideas above wide-open inquiry and debate for all.

  • DrOfnothing

    What DDS did was foolish and unjustified.

    But these constant comparisons of US academia to “old communist states where people enjoyed freedom of speech—but only so long as they didn’t question some aspect of the official orthodoxy” is equally hysterical. No one who spent any time in academia (old Communist states, for that matter), would draw such facile equivalences.

    Much as the author would like us to believe incidents such as these are pervasive, this is not the case. And that is why they stand out so much. You get a handful of cases every year, which then bounce around the Con and Neocon blogosphere like ball-bearings in a teacup. If the self-appointed spokesmen for the latter would simply approach these situations with a more mature perspective, we might actually make some progress towards addressing the problems themselves. Hyperbole and hand-wringing simply exasperate those with whom you might otherwise find common cause.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Yes, this is more about appropriate responses by highly-paid professionals. Bureaucratic organizations cannot and do not tolerate loose cannons, and the Dean almost always has the last say, especially in regard to what meetings you need to attend.

      • cbohanon

        But I was always told “loose cannons” were the whole point of higher education.

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          You were misinformed.
          Perhaps, you have no direct experience teaching?

          • cbohanon

            I’ve taught for 37 years at a University level. To kj’s point an few loose cannons are an essential part of truth discernment.

        • kj

          No, not at all. The whole point of higher education is to find and describe truth: to “profess” it. That’s what professors do in a healthy university.

        • George Avery

          Only when tenured faculty are trying to explain why tenure is such a sacred cow – of course, they get rid of the loose cannons by denying them tenure in the first place.

      • DrOfnothing

        Actually, being banned from faculty meetings would constitute a _reward_, in most circumstances.

        • kj

          Now that’s true.

        • George Avery

          Oh, absolutely! I prayed to be banned from department faculty meetings, if only to escape hearing the department chair try to pontificate on tangents like children’s books about steam shovels.

    • kj

      I think you meant exacerbate.

    • Tony

      Not true, though. You speak as someone whose ox has not been gored. Always remember that hundreds of lynchings needn’t be required. A few will do, and the obvious intent to get rid of somebody, or never hire him in the first place, or refuse even to let him get a doctorate, if he does not play the progressive game. I know too many stories, and people have confided in me, who say that they cannot speak their minds. That includes many students. It is absolutely true that you have more freedom of thought and speech in a diner or at a bar than you have in a college.

      • DrOfnothing

        I’m afraid I speak as someone who has very much been subject to this. A few years ago, I had a colleague attack me viciously via his student proxies. It was immensely unpleasant, but my head of dept. took it for exactly what it was, a frivolous and groundless attack. Later, that same colleague turned his ire on other colleagues, job candidates, and whomever else crossed his sights. It never amounted to much. Institutions are remarkably elastic, and learn to deal with troublesome members of their community, but for the most part, academia is populated by reasonable professionals (even if they can be shockingly infantile, at times).

        You are right that one has more freedom to speak one’s mind at a diner or a bar, but that’s because neither is a professional environment with the attendant obligations and responsibilities. It is a grave error to confuse academic freedom with the right to say or do whatever the hell you want to. Griffiths behaviour was, at base, unprofessional. That doesn’t make what DDS did justifiable, but it also means this incident is not somehow indicative of a massive limitation on academic freedom.

        To those who agree with him, it might seem as if Griffiths took a noble stand and was persecuted for it. But anyone who has experience in a professional environment, whether its law, academics, business, medicine, or tech, will see a colleague who decided to launch an unprovoked attack on another co-worker, defied the authority of their supervisor, and subsequently raised a massive public stink about it. Again, this doesn’t make what the DDS did right, but it is clear that neither party is entirely in the wrong. Griffiths had several opportunities to de-escelate, and he spurned them.

        The _professional_ thing to do would have been to express reservations either to the event organizer, the department chair, or the Dean. Even better, use the immense power of dissemination at your disposal to pen a forceful (but professional) commentary to the wider community, e.g. the Chronicle of Higher Education. If you want to accomplish real change, you must build bridges, not just burn them down and piss on the ashes.

        • Tony

          Let me clarify, then. You have more freedom to express your considered opinion of What Is True in a diner or a bar than on a college campus, and that is a disgrace. Academic freedom is justified only on the grounds that we believe that people who are pursuing the truth should be protected from political reprisals.

          I do not agree that Griffiths’ behavior was unprofessional. What is unprofessional is to put pressure on people to attend what amount to little more than political rallies. You should consider that only if people like Griffiths speak up can untenured or un-promoted faculty ever be protected. The women in question were scorned, and THAT is what motivated their vindictiveness. They did not respond to argument with argument; they gave no evidence that the rallies would present anything other than bromides and rah-rahs from the amen corner, as Griffiths said. I do not believe that ANY tone of voice from Griffiths would have been deemed sufficiently obeisant. And for God’s sake, deans and other administrators ought to be called out sometimes for the political players — inept and duplicitous, too — that they are.

          Nor underestimate the power of envy. Griffiths is no conservative; but he has an international reputation, and they don’t. Academics are cowards who will “forgive” a lot, but they will never forgive success.

          • DrOfnothing

            We will just have to agree to disagree on what we consider “professional behavior.” I certainly disagree with how DDS handled this, but I can’t imagine any organization that would view his outraged response to a _voluntary_ invitation to attend a workshop as being appropriate to the workplace, to say nothing of the personal attack on the organizer. If he had just apologized and acted like an adult, he’d still have his job and a much more effective platform from which to tackle the relevant issues. Hell, he could have gone to the workshop and voiced his objections there, as long as he was also willing to listen as well as shout. If you charge at windmills, all you end up with is a broken lance and a dead horse.

  • disqus_nBMMez9Ikj

    I am not sure this is much of a surprise. Universities, especially Duke and it’s neighbor, have been cesspools for the regressive crowd for a long time. Free speech and questioning their beliefs would require them to think, if they were to actually think they would find that most of their beliefs would be wrong and thus they would have to call their whole existence into question. It is much easier for them to stay in their little bubble of non-reality and shame everyone by calling them racist or -phobic or some other useless adjective the regressives use.

    Oh, and DrNo….no reason to troll this comment, just walk away. I have blocked you from appearing due to excessive trolling so it will be of no use.

    • DrOfnothing

      Yes, I can see how, given your outrageous and unfounded generalizations on topics about which you have no knowledge whatsoever, an informed disagreement would be an anathema.

  • Jack Bailey

    This is just plain silly. We are never going to solve what some people believe to be “racist thought, words or deeds” because our ethnic background determines a lot what we think and feel. I have observed over the years, as a general statement, whites and blacks come from two different cultures. The way both groups see things are different. Look at the O.J. Simpson trial. Look at Barak Obama. Look at the current situation in our political system. Having another class won’t cure the problem. Recognizing that Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics all come from different backgrounds. That doesn’t mean any one of the groups are bad or wrong, but it sure means they see things different. So, what is the big deal? Progressives, especially college professors and administrative officials make me sick. They spend too much time talking about something that means nothing. I don’t care if some group doesn’t understand me, just leave me alone and I’ll do the same, except agree when we can.

  • Tony

    I believe that in general you will find that the persecuted professors in these cases could, for sheer brains and accomplishments, carve up and devour the rest of their departments. Much of this is vengeance against people (and men in particular) for being smart and successful. Remember always that academics can forgive plagiarism, but they will never forgive success.

    • DrOfnothing

      It is comforting to think that way, but it is not accurate. The most successful academics are not those that try to “carve up and devour” their departments. Rather, they find ways to share their success with their colleagues, their departments, their institutions, and their disciplines. The support of all of these collectives is required to accomplish anything at all, and only the most arrogant deny it, invariably to their sorrow. The most accomplished scholars I’ve spent time with, including a Nobel laureate and a historian who _refused_ half a million in grant money out of political principles, were also the most generous with their time and the most modest in demeanor. Ego is the enemy of all intellectual accomplishment, not its wellspring.

      • George Avery

        Not my experience in academia, in a department where being too successful as an Assistant Professor (like getting more external funding awards in the first 18 months than the rest of the department *combined*) was a death kiss for tenure.

        • DrOfnothing

          I imagine that there is more to it than that. Tenure takes 4-6 years, so what is done in the first 18 months is never the decider in any case.

  • BJ

    The only thing these radicals understand is money. Cut it off and they March and destroy. So cut it off and bring in the riot squad…

  • Alfred Ellis

    Just go to Duke’s Division of Student Affairs to see all their offices of diversity! Did they leave any group out? Glad Duke has plenty of money to pay all these administrators. Once an office is established it is forever, needed or not!

    • brd1066

      What Reagan said here is increasingly true for university administration as well:

      “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!”

  • cooldela1966

    I agree with Duke because I like to listen to people who agree with me. People with different opinions from mine are obviously inferior so they should not be allowed to speak.

    There is one true path and that is what I think.

    • DrOfnothing

      I couldn’t agree more.

  • Dr Why

    The great thing about Duke and UNC Chapel Hill is that they suck in all the racists out of general society in the Triangle, so that normal people outside of these institutions are amazingly okay with each other.
    .

  • Kelley Armstrong

    Amen to that. Duke and most Universities have fallen to political practice and not valued education, there purpose. Shame Heath shame.

    • Linda

      “There” purpose? I guess it missed you, too.

  • james81

    Could I request a meeting with Professor Portier-Young and Dean Heath? I feel their pain and would like to weep with them. I’ll even provide the tissues.