Duke professor resigns after being disciplined for criticizing ‘totalitarian’ anti-racism training

Duke professor resigns after being disciplined for criticizing ‘totalitarian’ anti-racism training
A Duke Divinity School professor announced his resignation after he criticized an anti-racism training course as “intellectually flaccid” and says it will tout “totalitarian tendencies.” (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

A professor at Duke Divinity School has resigned after facing disciplinary action for calling an anti-racism program “intellectually flaccid” among other things.

Professor Paul Griffiths, 61, who teaches Catholic theology at the North Carolina-based school, has resigned from his post, effective next year, a colleague told The News & Observer.

All of this arose out of Griffiths’ controversial comments, which were first revealed by The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, who published a string of emails that began in February, when Duke administration invited all divinity school faculty to participate in racial equity training for two days.

Anathea Portier-Young, an associate professor of Old Testament, responded to the message saying those who have taken the course before “described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing.” She said she believes “it will have great dividends for our community.”

Griffiths, though, had an entirely different perspective. He described the training as a waste of time in an email that went out to all faculty members.

“I exhort you not to attend this training,” Griffiths wrote on Feb. 6, according to Dreher. “Don’t lay [sic] 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,” he continued. “Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual.”

Just a few hours later, Elaine Heath, the school’s dean, rebuked Griffiths for daring to criticize the training in such an open forum.

In an email of her own that never specifically mentioned Griffiths, Heath wrote: “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,” she said.

According to the email exchange, Heath eventually requested a meeting with Griffiths. But the two could never agree on the conditions of the sit-down, so it never happened.

In a follow-up email detailing the situation, Griffiths claimed “intellectual freedom — freedom to speak and write without fear of discipline and punishment — is under pressure at Duke Divinity these days.”

He went on to write that he had been subjected to two separate disciplinary proceedings.

Portier-Young filed a harassment complaint against Griffiths, which was being investigated by Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity. In addition, Heath banned him from participating in faculty meetings and said he would no longer receive research or travel funding.

Griffiths called the actions taken against him nothing more than “reprisals” to “discipline” him for expressing an opinion different from that of the administration.

“Duke Divinity is now a place in which too many thoughts can’t be spoken and too many disagreements remain veiled because of fear,” the professor wrote. “I commend a renunciation of fear-based discipline to those who deploy and advocate it, and its replacement with confidence in speech.”

Thomas Pfau, who has been a member of the Duke Divinity School faculty for 26 years, wrote in an email that he feels “fundamentally in agreement” with Griffiths’ comments. He described the school as an “intellectual asylum.”

“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,” Pfau wrote. “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,” he concluded.

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