Duke divinity professor calls diversity training ‘a waste,’ faces discipline

Durham - A divinity professor at Duke University has apparently resigned following disciplinary actions against him, after he questioned the value of diversity training at the school.

Paul Griffiths, a professor of Catholic theology at the school, could not be reached for comment Tuesday about the flap. A colleague at the school says Griffiths, 61, has resigned, effective next year.

A string of emails, first published by The American Conservative website, revealed a chain of events that began with a February invitation to all divinity school faculty to participate in two full days of racial equity training in March.

“Those who have participated in the training have described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing,” wrote Anathea Portier-Young, an associate professor of Old Testament. “We recognize that it is a significant commitment of time; we also believe it will have great dividends for our community.”

Griffiths responded the same day to Portier-Young, Feb. 6, copying all faculty on the email and calling the training a waste of time.

“I exhort you not to attend this training,” he wrote, according to the published exchange. “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. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual.”

That’s when the trouble escalated.

Within hours the school’s dean, Elaine Heath, emailed the faculty and without mentioning Griffiths specifically, 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.”

Heath asked to meet with Griffiths, according to the emails, but the professor and administrator couldn’t agree on the conditions for the meeting, and it never happened.

Griffiths later emailed his colleagues with the subject line: “intellectual freedom and institutional discipline” at the school. He said he was now the target of two separate disciplinary proceedings, including a harassment complaint by Portier-Young, which was being handled by Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity. The dean, he said, had banned him from faculty meetings and promised that he would not receive future funds for research and travel.

A copy of the dean’s March 10 letter was posted on The American Conservative site. Heath cited Griffiths’ refusal to meet and his “inappropriate behavior in faculty meetings over the past two years.” Heath did not elaborate on what she meant by inappropriate behavior.

Griffiths called the actions shameful “reprisals,” designed not to engage him on his views “but rather to discipline me for having expressed them.”

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

Heath and Portier-Young could not be immediately reached for comment.

Audrey Ward, a Duke spokeswoman, said the divinity school was not able to comment about a personnel matter but issued a statement.

“Duke Divinity School is committed to scholarly excellence and academic freedom, which includes a commitment to diversity and inclusion,” the statement said. “We seek to foster an environment where diversity of opinions is respected and members of the community feel free to engage in a robust exchange of ideas on a range of issues and topics. We believe that 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. As part of an ongoing effort to foster and support such a community, we will continue to offer voluntary opportunities for faculty, staff and students to participate in diversity training.”

Thomas Pfau, a professor of English and German who also teaches in the divinity school, came to Griffiths’ defense. He emailed his colleagues, saying Griffiths was questioning the fact that faculty were being asked to give up their time for training.

“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,’ ” he wrote. “To suggest anything of the sort strikes me as either gravely imperceptive or as intellectually dishonest.”

Reached Tuesday, Pfau said he was concerned that Griffiths’ points were being misconstrued. “I also felt that differences of opinion, however stark, ought to be respected and engaged, rather than being used for the purpose of public moral recrimination,” he said in an email.

Born in England, Griffiths was educated at Oxford University and the University of Wisconsin, and has written, co-authored or edited 17 books. A biography on the Duke website lists his specialties as: post-1950 Catholic philosophical theology; the philosophical and political questions arising from religious diversity; fourth- and fifth-century African Christian thought; and Gupta-period Indian Buddhist thought. He has taught at Duke since 2008.

Pfau said as far as he knew, Griffiths decided to resign on his own, without any pressure from Duke.

“I profoundly regret his decision and, indeed, have conveyed to him that I regard it as a mistake,” Pfau said. “He is 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.”