A Duke University theology professor resigned this week following disciplinary action taken against him by the school. This, after the professor had excoriated diversity training sessions suggested by the university as “intellectually flaccid.”
A series of emails published by The American Conservative reveals that 61-year-old professor Paul Griffiths, who teaches Catholic theology at Duke, took umbrage by an invitation urging all divinity school faculty to partake in two full days of “racial equity” training this past March.
“Those who have participated in the training have described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing,” wrote Anathea Portier-Young, the associate professor who sent the invitation. “We recognize that it is a significant commitment of time; we also believe it will have great dividends for our community.”
Griffiths wasn’t too happy about the invitation, and sent a public reply to everyone else on the mailing list criticizing the value of the diversity training.
“I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so,” he wrote. “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. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual.”
His response wasn’t well-received, and within hours, school dean Elaine Heath sent an email to campus faculty reprimanding mass emails like the one Griffiths sent out.
Without mentioning the professor specifically, 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.”
According to further emails published at The American Conservative, Heath requested to speak with Griffiths, but neither of them could agree on the conditions of the meeting.
The News & Observer reports that Griffiths later sent out a separate email to his colleagues informing them that he was now subject to two separate disciplinary proceedings, including a harassment complaint by Portier-Young, which was prompted by his initial response. Griffiths says that the dean had furthermore banned him from attending faculty meetings and was told he wouldn’t receive future funds for research and travel.
Griffiths characterized these punishments as “reprisals” for his willingness to voice criticism, designed not to engage the points he made “but rather to discipline me for having expressed them.”
“Elaine Heath and Thea Portier-Young, when faced with disagreement, prefer discipline to argument,” he wrote in his blistering response. “In doing so they act illiberally and anti-intellectually; their action shows totalitarian affinities in its preferred method, which is the veiled use of institutional power.”
“They appeal to non- or anti-intellectual categories (‘unprofessional conduct’ in Heath’s case; ‘harassment’ in Portier-Young’s) to short-circuit disagreement. All this is shameful, and I call them out on it,” wrote Griffiths.
Given Professor Griffith’s position as an endowed chair, which includes tenure, there was little to no possibility that the university could have vacated his position or fired him. Griffith’s resignation is clearly intended to send a message to the school’s administration—and it’s one that comes through loud and clear.