Targeted Duke Professor Resigns

Administrative witch hunt drives out respected scholar.

That, of all people, Barack Obama recently received the Kennedy Library’s “Profile in Courage” award proves that the latter has about as much to do with recognizing courage as the Nobel Peace Prize, of which the former President was also a recipient, has to do with honoring peace.  

This is not meant to be a knock against Obama.  Rather, it is an observation that no unprejudiced spectator of the contemporary American scene could fail to make.  The stone-cold truth is that there is utterly nothing courageous about being a self-avowed “progressive,” a Politically Correct leftist, in today’s Western world.

And Obama is nothing if not a leftist. 

No, neither Obama nor his ideological ilk in Washington D.C., Hollywood, the (fake) news media, and academia display a scintilla of courage in their public lives.  Real bravery, as all of us teach our children, is a matter of resisting groupthink—or “peer pressure,” as we call it when referring to youth.  Real courage consists in daring to challenge the prevailing ideological orthodoxy—or “what’s popular,” as the kids call it. 

There are indeed people who are deserving of an award affirming courage.  One such person is Paul Griffiths, a divinity professor at Duke University.  Professor Griffiths, whose area of specialization is Catholic theology, is a prolific writer and scholar.  He has been teaching at Duke since 2008.  

He will not be returning to his position in the fall. 

In February, an invitation was emailed to the divinity school faculty encouraging them to attend a two-day seminar on “racial equity” training.  Anathea Portier-Young, an Associate Professor of the Old Testament, replied enthusiastically: “Those who have participated in the training have described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing,” she wrote.  “We recognize that it is a significant commitment of time; we also believe that it will have great dividends for our community,” she said.

Griffiths disagreed. He copied all of his colleagues on his response.  “I exhort you not to attend this training,” he began.  “Don’t lay 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.”

Griffiths concluded: “Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual.”      

Of course, Griffiths is entirely correct.  “Events of this sort” are most definitely, always, profoundly anti-intellectual.  They are instruments designed to totalize the groupthink, the religious-like dogma, of the academy.  That Griffiths dared to defy the orthodoxy, that he dared to openly resist the “cool kids,” and that he undoubtedly knew what was to come next earns him a Profile in Courage award.

The Divinity school Dean, Elain Heath, responded to all faculty.  She didn’t mention Griffiths by name.  However, it was clear to all that it was he who she had in mind when she condemned the “inappropriate and unprofessional” nature of “mass emails” containing “disparaging statements—including arguments ad hominem” that are intended “to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree.” 

To insure that her point wasn’t lost upon anyone, Heath was explicit: “The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.” 

While Dean Heath reportedly attempted to meet with Griffiths in person, this never came to pass.  Subsequently, Griffiths sent out another mass email. The subject line read: “intellectual freedom and institutional discipline.”   According to The News and Observer, Griffiths revealed to his colleagues that he had become the “targets” of two disciplinary proceedings.  The first involves a harassment complaint filed by Portier-Young, the Old Testament professor who couldn’t rave enough about the “racial equity training.”  The other has led Dean Heath to ban him from all faculty meetings and deprive Griffiths of funding for future research and traveling expenses.

As Griffiths sees it, Heath’s actions are “reprisals” against him, means by which she can “discipline” him for articulating views with which she disagrees.  “Duke University,” Griffiths stated, “is now a place in which too many thoughts can’t be spoken and too many disagreements remain veiled because of fear.” 

This being the case, Griffiths urged a “renunciation of fear-based discipline to those who deploy and advocate it, and its replacement with confidence in speech.”  

Professor Griffiths has resigned from his position at Duke, effective next fall.

Griffiths richly deserves an award that recognizes his bravery. To be fair, however, so too does his colleague, Thomas Pfau, a professor of English and German, warrant recognition for having come to Griffiths’ defense. “Having reviewed Paul Griffiths’ note several times,” Pfau commented, “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.”

Pfau added: “I also felt that differences of opinion, however stark, ought to be respected and engaged, rather than being used for the purpose of moral recrimination.” 

Pfau describes Griffiths as “one of the pre-eminent theologians working in the United States today and a vital resource for students and colleagues engaged in rigorous theological reflection here at Duke.”  He claims to “profoundly regret” Griffiths’ decision to part ways with Duke, and told him that he believed that it was a “mistake.” 

Evidently, though, it is too late. 

Thanks to Griffiths’ willingness to speak up, The New York Times, of all places, now depicts Duke as “a new battleground” in the fight over “political correctness.”  Whether the events that Professor Griffiths set in motion materialize into a larger battle, and whether any other academics, besides Professor Pfau, follow his example remain to be seen.  

Two things are for certain: Griffiths acted heroically.

And Barack Obama has never shown a fraction of the courage that Paul Griffiths has shown.