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5 Questions Universities Must Answer after the Duke Divinity Controversy

The recent controversy surrounding my colleague and friend, Paul Griffiths, Warren Professor of Catholic Theology in the Duke Divinity School (DDS), has been widely covered. Countless op-ed pieces, fueled by Rod Dreher’s online publication of internal memos and public emails [1] at The American Conservative, as well as prominent editorials in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have reached many readers. 

That Professor Griffith’s resignation resonated so loudly in the public media has less to do with his indisputable eminence than with the fact that his story fits a well-established journalistic genre: the exposé of “politically correct” academia, waxing illiberal and vindictive and repressing free and open speech, even as it spouts increasingly threadbare pieties about the importance of academic freedom. To be sure, the genre’s sheer tenacity suggests that there is a measure of truth to it.

Yet the stories by which we habitually seek to comprehend the various worlds we inhabit, including that of academia, not only define us. They also tend to obstruct our intellectual vision and imprison us in dubious and self-serving verities of our own making. As regards the Griffiths affair, then, rather too much attention has been lavished on the dramatis personae involved: a sharp-tongued scholar of eminence; a small clique of colleagues willing to manipulate institutional mechanisms (e.g., Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity) to impugn the professional and moral persona of those with whom they disagree, rather than engaging in robust and open exchange about the issues at hand; a dean conspicuously bereft of the impartiality and discernment that could have brought to a quick and amicable resolution what began as a minor, garden-variety academic spat.

Meanwhile, as regards the multiple casualties that have resulted from the entire affair, the one least lamented, though most troubling, is a collective failure to seek and achieve clarity on the issue of diversity, which continues to vex and divide institutions of higher education across the country. In their misplaced zeal, Paul Griffiths’ opponents failed to see that he had not, in fact, rejected that concept at all. He had merely raised very pointed questions as to whether a workshop run by an extramural organization, OAR [2], that was urged upon all faculty in semi-mandatory language, could credibly be expected to advance the causes of social justice and diversity. That a substantive debate over the meaning of diversity was once again preempted by facile recrimination and attempts at sanctioning individual voices is a grave loss to us all. For as long as its contents are allowed to remain oblique, the concept of “diversity,” will continue to divide American academic and civic life.

Surely, it is equally pointless (if not outright disingenuous) to profess oneself for or against diversity (or social justice) when that concept’s meaning remains as woefully unspecified as has long been the case. Indeed, one has reason to suspect that the moral certitude and normative force with which the concept of “diversity” keeps being deployed in public speech, especially in contemporary academia, often capitalizes on this very lack of definition. If there is any hope of resuscitating our faltering culture of rational dialogue—arguably a preeminent task for, and prima facie justification of, higher education itself—then concepts such as diversity must be reasoned through in good-faith dialogue by all civic-minded members in our various polities.

Unfortunately, that dialogue remains more elusive than ever. Instead, for quite some time now, the word “diversity” has served two distinct and equally problematic purposes: the magical and the litigious. Some university administrators, particularly those less loyal to the job they have than to the one they covet next, have embraced “diversity” as a professional talisman of sorts, a term that, if wielded frequently and with conspicuous reverence, will magically unlock doors higher up on the professional ladder. Conversely, to faculty members craving moral ascendancy over colleagues whose superior achievements they may regard with a mix of dread, inadequacy and envy, there is no more powerful weapon than to charge the target of their ressentiment with opposition to diversity, which in the present order of opportune allegations ranks just below that of the child molester. To put it in Platonic terms, contemporary academia has been mirroring our country’s deteriorating civic discourse by supplanting knowledge with opinion, and by weaponizing our opinions, rather than understanding them as something for which we bear great responsibility.

The hard and often vexing civic task of rational, painstaking dialogue whereby we seek to account for our moral preconceptions by making them intelligible to others has yielded to the facile and often devastating contrivance of moral (and very public) indictment. At this stage, it is hard to see how we might yet exit the cave of divisive opinion and self-confirming narratives. How, that is, can we rebuild conceptual and ethical foundations for the various communities (familial, political, academic) in which we daily participate? Not coincidentally, the concept of “diversity” nicely exemplifies the difficulties involved, as the following short analogy may help illustrate. Suppose that, at the end of my annual physical exam, my experienced family physician informs me that some biochemical processes in my body are imbalanced, say, an unwelcome cocktail of bad cholesterol, vitamin D deficiency, and surging triglycerides. Now, at this point in the conversation, I should expect my doctor to provide me, in addition to a gently inflated bill, with at least three bits of practical information: 1) A specific numerical value to be aimed for in the attempt to remedy the problem; 2) a series of precisely defined practical steps to achieve that outcome; and 3) a clear explanation of why the numerical values now being aimed at ought to be accepted as normative (i.e., “healthy.”) Once these three criteria have been established, yet only then, can I be confident that the remedial action proposed is rational, intelligible, and achievable. Now, provided one accepts the fundamental analogy between a balanced physical health and a healthily diverse body politic, it appears that in the current conversation about diversity two of the above criteria have been missing or, at the very least, have not been clearly articulated.

Take the case of diversity in faculty hiring or undergraduate admissions at a major university. What, we should like to know, would be the point at which we could confidently and credibly claim to have actually achieved “diversity”? Naturally, for that question to be answered, some explicit and agreed-upon definition of “diversity” will have to be established, including specific criteria concerning the kinds of hires deemed to add to the goal of “diversity.” While this much may appear obvious, it is in fact anything but. For to define diversity as a concrete and attainable good presupposes an anterior, normative conception of a healthy body politic that, preferably by a wide consensus, will be regarded as appropriately diversified. Absent some guiding norm of this sort, the idea of “diversity” will remain but a function of shifting opinion and emotively charged argument, altogether bereft of clear and distinct meaning. For our shared institutional spaces to prove genuinely habitable and rational, rather than utopian and repressive, we must continually strive to make explicit not only the goal being aimed at but also the underlying, normative conception that justifies that goal as an intrinsic good.


To be sure, American higher education is awash in task forces and ad-hoc committees tasked with developing strategies related to the goal of diversity. Virtually without exception, though, such efforts shed little or no light on the concept of diversity itself, wherein it consists, how it can be attained, and what overarching good it serves. Instead of advancing collective understanding, such initiatives usually expire in public and increasingly formulaic affirmations of a given institution’s commitment to diversity. Indeed, it is virtually unheard of for a major university to commit to a substantive definition of diversity, let alone to make explicit the normative grounds on which such a definition rests. To make matters worse, it is typically only in the wake of some public-relations crisis or the other that institutions of higher learning are galvanized into affirming their “unwavering” commitment to diversity, which they will typically do in hurried press releases and mass emails whose generic language reflects less a core of earnest conviction than a desperate attempt to get ahead of the latest unflattering news story. Meanwhile, in a society such as ours, addled by a frightful and persistent legacy of segregation and victimization of many ethnic, religious, and sexual sub-groups, the concept of diversity is widely felt to hold enormous importance. And yet, it remains fundamentally an enigma, a function of impassioned conjecture rather than shared understanding.

For this current, harmful impasse to be overcome, a genuinely searching and long-term public debate is needed that, at least in its initial phase, will need to be guided by some fundamental questions. While these questions apply to any variety of contexts (e.g., selecting a new class of undergraduates; inviting guest speakers; choosing texts for the next syllabus), they are here phrased in the context of “faculty diversity,” a notion strenuously affirmed in today’s academia:

1) Is the notion of “diversity” to be understood as a mimetic or compensatory endeavor? That is, is the notion of “diversity” that is being aimed at supposed to replicate among faculty the current demographic breakdown of our country as a whole? Or is the objective to compensate for the extreme dominance of a certain type of faculty—white, Caucasian, male, and (putatively) heterosexual—as it undeniably prevailed well into the 1990s at many institutions of higher learning?

2) Supposing, then, that higher education understands itself to be committed to a mimetic conception of diversity, then what is to serve as our point of reference? Is diversity, as currently affirmed by institutions of higher education, to be modeled on the overall demographic breakdown of the population in the United States—say, as captured by the most recent national census? Or is the university’s conception of diversity aimed at some other norm of proportionate representation of minorities, say, one prevalent in academia as a whole or as endemic to specific disciplines?

3) Conversely, if the goal of diversity is compensatory, i.e., seeks to make up for past social injustices and the demographic disequilibrium they have produced, then here too we must be explicit about the point of reference that is to guide our remedial efforts. Is the objective to compensate for a historical lack of diversity that for many decades prevailed inside the academy? And, if so, is diversity pursued under that principle to amount to a retroactive balancing of sorts, an open-ended institutional “reparation” for past injustices and inequities? Here it ought to be kept in mind that, to cast the matter in sacramental terms, there can be no atonement without forgiveness. Hence, if diversity is understood as compensation, then not only must past wrongs in this regard be clearly identified, but any institutional acknowledgment of past injustice must also be met by, and conclude with, an act of comprehensive forgiveness. Otherwise, institutions would remain forever caught up in a downward spiral of moral recrimination and self-abasement, respectively.

4) Assuming that these questions can be openly deliberated and satisfactorily answered (which in the present climate is to assume a great deal indeed), more intractable issues yet will arise. For regardless of whether the modern research university opts for a mimetic or compensatory approach to diversity, it is by definition an inherently selective, elite institution. Thus, one must wonder whether institutions of higher education can balance their highly selective practices of faculty recruitment—practices directly related to the goal of the university as such, viz., advancing knowledge—with a demographically representative notion of “diversity” such as it exists outside of academia?

5) Finally, we should ask why currently prevailing assumptions and practices concerning “diversity” are conceived in such peculiarly narrow, not to say non-diverse ways. We know that empirical demographic studies, including the national census conducted by the U.S. government every decade or so, rely on many categories and descriptors and, consequently, yield a far more inflected and robust conception of our society’s diverse composition. That being so, what justifies higher education’s conception of “faculty diversity” being mainly restricted to the categories of race and gender? Leaving aside logistical difficulties, to which one may certainly be sympathetic, why exclude any number of other descriptors from our conception of diversity, such as social class, ethnic background, veteran status, political views, religious belief, childhood trauma, aesthetic preferences, dietary philosophy, dance and gardening skills, past struggles with mental disability, etc.? With its metonymic progression from the superficially plausible to the wholly absurd, this laundry list will surely strike any rational reader as facetious and absurd. That, of course, is the point. For it reminds us that any concept (including that of diversity) can only ever signify within specific limits and, more importantly, that in our attempts to discern those limits we must necessarily appeal to a higher norm than the one contained in the concept under discussion. Yet precisely this is what prevailing notions of diversity stubbornly fail to recognize. The underlying problem here is that even as the concept of diversity serves manifestly normative (moral) purposes, it does so in an environment—that of contemporary, liberal-secular academia—characterized by fierce, indeed irrational resistance to all forms of normativity. Yet where normative assumptions shape moral claims and administrative decisions, even as normativity is routinely disavowed and disparaged as so much metaphysical backwardness, the result is not rational thought but idolatry. Ultimately, it is this destructive habit of equivocation, whereby moral claims are routinely advanced and enforced even as their normative foundations are never allowed to come into focus, that prevents us from understanding and prioritizing those hyper-goods (to borrow Charles Taylor’s term) absent which a just and humane community cannot even be pursued, let alone be realized. The present generation of faculty, administrators, and public figures must resist the temptation of catechizing the next generation into idolatrous worship of empty notions while consistently disparaging or proscribing all normative commitments. Otherwise, modern academia will end up vitiating its core values of research and teaching, reflection and dialogue, values that today no less than in Plato’s Athens or thirteenth-century Paris remain the foundation any authentic intellectual community.

Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English at Duke University and a member of the Duke Divinity School faculty.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "5 Questions Universities Must Answer after the Duke Divinity Controversy"

#1 Comment By FalconJet On June 11, 2017 @ 11:47 pm

Tl/dr: Diversity is a sham.

#2 Comment By tz On June 12, 2017 @ 12:14 am

You don’t understand that by using white rational logic you are a racist and insensitive and can’t comprehend post-structuralist thinking.
Or whatever. Point and shriek.
You are attempting to reason with the Joker from the Dark Knight.
You consider him wrong and illogical.
He wants to see you tortured to death.

The Alt-right has realized this so uses techniques beyond this deep analytical mumbo-jumbo. Some are reactive but a bit harsh (“Not the head, the mind goes all fuzzy”).

The total dishonest diversity (for thee but not for me) is something we shouldn’t even be discussing.

#3 Comment By Lee On June 12, 2017 @ 1:01 am

diversity (n.)
mid-14c., “quality of being diverse,” mostly in a neutral sense, from Old French diversité (12c.) “difference, diversity, unique feature, oddness:” also “wickedness, perversity,” from Latin diversitatem (nominative diversitas) “contrariety, contradiction, disagreement;” also, as a secondary sense, “difference, diversity,” from diversus “turned different ways” (in Late Latin “various”), past participle of divertere (see divert).

Gauging the societal focus on diversity, it appears the advocates have achieved an admirable success in achieving the original etymological intent.

#4 Comment By Whine Merchant On June 12, 2017 @ 1:09 am

This is an interesting and important discussion that needs airing in many quarters – can someone please distil this article into some dot-points for the simpler folks around here?

Thank you –

#5 Comment By Dale Matson On June 12, 2017 @ 7:41 am

“one has reason to suspect that the moral certitude and normative force with which the concept of “diversity” keeps being deployed in public speech, especially in contemporary academia, often capitalizes on this very lack of definition.” It reminds me of the ever changing concept of “Global Warming”. The lack of rigor in the definitions is excused by saying that those who question the concepts think only in black and white and lack the intellect to grasp the nuances of the concepts.

#6 Comment By connecticut farmer On June 12, 2017 @ 8:18 am

Notwithstanding my agreement with the author, this article is very poorly written and filled with academic jargon, each sentence representing the very antithesis of Churchill’s observation that there is nothing more powerful in the English language than a simple, objective sentence.

#7 Comment By Egypt Steve On June 12, 2017 @ 9:53 am

The essay falls flat as soon as it introduces the medical analogy, which is to say, right at the beginning. Biology and sociology are incommensurate, despite the metaphor of the “body politic.” You might as well have introduced the comparison of what to do about the steps required to remedy an infected computer network, but then the uselessness and inappositeness of the metaphor would have been glaringly obvious.

The whole issue if fundamentally political — what can we agree on? This will work itself out politically, in many thousands of ad hoc negotiations in thousands of different places and at thousands of different times. One thing I can be pretty sure of: it doesn’t advance the discussion to hide a call to maintain the status quo behind a force-field of very large, erudite sounding words, metonymic or mimetic though they may be.

#8 Comment By G Harvey On June 12, 2017 @ 10:12 am

“‘Diversity’ is turning into idolatrous worship of empty notions”

The above statement is false because the verb tense is wrong. This is not something new. ‘Diversity’ was always at best a racket and at worst a knowing stage – a mere stage –
in the war to replace Western Civilization.

Professor Pfau: Did you stand up and defend the Duke lacrosse team and its head coach? Did you condemn colleagues such as Leftist Houston Baker.

#9 Comment By WPWIII On June 12, 2017 @ 11:43 am

Pfau is a Professor of English? This piece is so turgid it’s incomprehensible. Maybe it’s a parody?

#10 Comment By Kristi On June 12, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

WPWIII, exactly.

#11 Comment By c matt On June 12, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

Why does a Methodist divinity school offer Catholic Theology?

Diversity, I suppose.

#12 Comment By Autreck On June 12, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

This point strikes at the heart of post-modernism. It deserves a much, much more easily-read screed than this vocabularian nightmare.

#13 Comment By Hyperion On June 12, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

re: Pfau is a Professor of English?

That’s how those pointy-headed, post-modern akey-demics talk…at least those in the humanities area. Get over it.

#14 Comment By Cash On June 12, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

An intelligent piece that violates all the norms for good writing. Come on, TAC, when someone hands in a term paper, do some editing. Point 5 is 421-word paragraph. A tsunami of text.

#15 Comment By Panfilo Parcheesi, Ph.D. On June 12, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

I have to assume that English is not the mother tongue of “connecticut farmer” and “WPWIII.” Professor Pfau’s article is perfectly clear, perfectly comprehensible. His article is well written, and it addresses the main problems of the contemporary diversity phenomenon, whether in the university setting or elsewhere.

I was surprised to learn that Pfau is a member of the Duke Divinity School faculty. He might be the next Duke professor to be forced out because he states so well exactly what the diversity worshippers do not want to hear. I hope he gets to stay. Duke needs clear thinkers like Pfau to administer spirits of hartshorn to rouse the diversity zombies from their trances. And every college campus needs clear thinkers to write the kind of article penned by Pfau.

#16 Comment By KD On June 12, 2017 @ 5:15 pm

Egads, the good professor fails to under meaning is use.

“Diversity” is the name of racial and ethnic patronage in the spirit of Plunket of Tammany Hall. Its about carving out privileges for ethnic and racial cliques on the basis of identity and loyalty to the machine rather than say “competence”.

The result is, of course, “incompetence”.

That is why “diversity is our strength”, e.g. if our ideology was barred to the harsh light of day, you would just see mediocrities using power in dishonest and self-serving ways to undermine the traditional purpose of the university, and then someone would lose a cushy administrative job as a pencil pusher.

Just be loyal, quote the Mao’s Red Book of Diversity, and they won’t come for you in the middle of the night.

#17 Comment By Zebesian On June 13, 2017 @ 2:20 am

Is it really surprising that an English professor would write a verbose piece?

But to be on topic, I think “diversity” is over-stressed at the expense of merit. If you want to “give everyone a chance”, lower the costs of admission for the poor. Economically progressive policies benefit poorer groups without unfairly affecting poorer members of wealthier groups.

#18 Comment By Dave skerry On June 13, 2017 @ 9:46 am

What do u expect from a college that throws it’s athletes under the bus and owes it’s existence to tobacco.Try as it does it will never join the elite!

#19 Comment By Mike Garrett On June 14, 2017 @ 3:28 am

The twisting in the wind of American intellectuals is always funny to watch. Since the logic of the Western religious tradition and the logic of the neo-Viking democracy cult are totally at odds, it is always silly to watch the Americans try and hold to both at once. The Western religious tradition begins with Moses, who was educated in Egypt. Half of the ten commandments come straight from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. He give the people the law, and he freaks out when he catches them dancing around the golden calf, doing their own thing. He lays down the law. The most successful of cultures have had religious traditions, knowledge, and laws that come from wise men of the past who have seen over time what works in the real world.

On the other hand these recently literate northern Europeans want to derive divine law from self-evident truth. The people can vote and decide for themselves what is good and what is evil. You cannot have it both ways.

Gender is the prefect example. Most of the great, successful civilisations of the past have have operated on the assumption that alway the work force should be divided in half. While the men are free to go and make a killing in the current marketplace, half of the society, the women, should be totally banned from participation in the trade-based market economy, because that always collapses in time. Because the pain, the death percentages, that come when the usury bubbles inevitably break or the empire goes down militarily, there is a strong survival advantage in keeping half the work force in the home. The people still then have home gardens and food put aside for a rainy day. Abandoning this strategy in the interest of doubling the work force is long-term suicide for any people. Survival of the fit enough applies to cultures as well as individuals, and all the societies that heave been most successful for the longest time have been strict about keeping women in the home.

#20 Comment By J.A.A. Purves On June 14, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

Thank you, Professor Pfau. This is one of the most thoughtful, articulate, and reasoned pieces The American Conservative has published for quite some time. It is time we began forcing these debates back to the root assumptions behind all the rhetoric.

#21 Comment By Jack B. Nimble On June 15, 2017 @ 9:09 am

Prof. Pfau is right to call out many university administrators as careerists, whose loyalty to their current campus is less than that of the tenure-line faculty they rule over.

However, most of his article runs off the rails. For example, there is this gem: ‘……Is the notion of “diversity” to be understood as a mimetic or compensatory endeavor? ”

Here, Pfau ignores other possibilities, in favor of a false dichotomy. What about the possibility that diversity helps ensure that traditionally under-served groups may benefit in the future by having some of their members receive a professional education in law, medicine, etc.? See, for example, the article Where Health Care Won’t Go. A tuberculosis crisis in the Black Belt, in the latest issue of Harper’s magazine. Some medical schools in Alabama relaxed their standards for minority applicants or provided them with special treatment [gasp!] in the hope that they would return to their minority neighborhoods to practice after graduation. Does Pfau have a problem with this? I don’t.

#22 Comment By Baboulas On June 15, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

“To put it in Platonic terms, contemporary academia has been mirroring our country’s deteriorating civic discourse by supplanting knowledge with opinion, and by weaponizing our opinions, rather than understanding them as something for which we bear great responsibility.”

Sounds like the entire argument the right is waging against global warming. Thanks Prof Pfau for inadvertently reminding us of their folly.

#23 Comment By Jess Fischer On June 15, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

I think some of you who are criticizing the writing don’t know beautiful prose when you see it. This is some old-school craftsmanship, and I appreciated it. Not the usual fast-and-loose editorial style. And as for the argument he’s making, it’s 100% correct.

#24 Comment By M Thompson On June 15, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

Yes Jess Fischer, exact language is the point here. The whole point of the article is in this quote: “The hard and often vexing civic task of rational, painstaking dialogue whereby we seek to account for our moral preconceptions by making them intelligible to others…” So that’s why the writer is taking such care with his words–his whole point is that words are carelessly slung around today in a generalized and dumbed-down way.

#25 Comment By edward jones On June 18, 2017 @ 7:36 pm