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Duke Divinity Crisis: The Documents Are Out

Paul Griffiths' sin was to call DDS's planned anti-racism training a bureaucratic waste of time

A source at DDS sends me the original e-mail exchanges that have caused the current crisis. Here they are, chronologically presented:

1. On Mon, Feb 6, 2017 at 9:21 AM, Anathea Portier-Young  wrote:

Dear Faculty Colleagues,

On behalf of the Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Standing Committee, I strongly urge you to participate in the Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training planned for March 4 and 5. We have secured funding from the Provost to provide this training free to our community and we hope that this will be a first step in a longer process of working to ensure that DDS is an institution that is both equitable and anti-racist in its practices and culture. While a number of DDS faculty, staff, and students have been able to participate in REI training in recent years, we have never before hosted a training at DDS. Those who have participated in the training have described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing. We recognize that it is a significant commitment of time; we also believe it will have great dividends for our community. Please find the registration link below. Details about room location will be announced soon.

Duke Divinity School will host a Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training on March 4 and 5, 2017, 8:30—5 pm both days. Participants should plan to attend both full days of training.

“Racism is a fierce, ever-present, challenging force, one which has structured the thinking, behavior, and actions of individuals and institutions since the beginning of U.S. history. To understand racism and effectively begin dismantling it requires an equally fierce, consistent, and committed effort” (REI). Phase I provides foundational training in understanding historical and institutional racism. It helps individuals and organizations begin to “proactively understand and address racism, both in their organization and in the community where the organization is working.” It is the first step in a longer process.

ALL Staff and Faculty are invited to register for this important event by which DDS can begin its own commitment to become an anti-racist institution.

Workshop capacity is 40 participants. Registration is FREE to DDS employees and students.

Snacks, breakfast, and light lunch will be provided. A 7:30 am liturgy will precede the Sunday training for those who wish to participate. Child care can be made available upon request.

2. From Paul Griffiths:

Sent: Monday, February 06, 2017 4:26 PM
To: Anathea Portier-Young
Cc: Divinity Regular Rank Faculty; Divinity Visiting Other Faculty
Subject: Re: Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training–March 4-5

Dear Faculty Colleagues,

I’m responding to Thea’s exhortation that we should attend the Racial Equity Institute Phase 1 Training scheduled for 4-5 March. In her message she made her ideological commitments clear. I’ll do the same, in the interests of free exchange.

I exhort you not to attend this training. 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. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.

We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to thnk, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste. This training is a waste. Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize.


Paul J. Griffiths
Warren Chair of Catholic Theology
Duke Divinity School

On the thread, a couple of DDS professors said that they were actually looking forward to the training. Then the Dean weighed in:

3. From Elaine Heath:

On Behalf Of Elaine Heath, Ph.D.
Sent: Monday, February 06, 2017 8:24 PM
To: Ray Barfield; Mary Fulkerson
Cc: Paul J. Griffiths; Anathea Portier-Young; Divinity Regular Rank Faculty; Divinity Visiting Other Faculty
Subject: Re: Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training–March 4-5

Dear Colleagues,

First, I am looking forward to participating in the REI training, and I am proud that we are hosting it at Duke Divinity School. Thea, thank you for your part in helping us to offer this important event. I am deeply committed to increasing our school’s intellectual strength, spiritual vitality, and moral authority, and this training event will help with all three.

On another matter: It is certainly appropriate to use mass emails to share announcements or information that is helpful to the larger community, such as information about the REI training opportunity. 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.

As St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, regardless of how exquisite our gifts are, if we do not exercise them with love our words are just noise.


Elaine A. Heath, Ph.D.
Professor of Missional and Pastoral Theology
Divinity School
Duke University

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Do you see “racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry” in Griffiths’s message to his colleagues? Of course not, because it is not there! Objecting to this training as a waste of time is not racist, sexist, or bigoted in any way!

The next e-mail makes this very point.

4. From Thomas Pfau:

On Behalf Of Thomas Pfau, Ph.D.
Sent: Tuesday, February 07, 2017 12:20 PM
To: Ray Barfield; Mary Fulkerson; Elaine Heath, Ph.D.
Cc: Paul J. Griffiths; Anathea Portier-Young; Divinity Regular Rank Faculty; Divinity Visiting Other Faculty
Subject: Re: Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training–March 4-5

Dear Colleagues:

Until now, I have never inserted myself into discussions internal to the DDS faculty, mainly because mine is a secondary appointment, and because my administrative obligations in Arts & Sciences are plentiful enough. Having greatly enjoyed and benefited from the opportunity to offer upper-level seminars in the Divinity School (and also advising some of the doctoral and MTS students in it), I do greatly care about the intellectual health and generosity of spirit that for much of my time here has characterized the Divinity School.

So it is with deep care and enduring concern for an institution that over the years has become something of an intellectual asylum for me that I am now writing to offer a few thoughts on the email exchange below. My principal hope is to help us avoid slipping into merely polarizing views, with the steadily diminishing analytic yield that such a development typically entails.

When I read Paul Griffiths’ email, I found myself fundamentally in agreement with his observations, and my agreement was not one of mere opinion or conjecture but very much steeped in first-hand experience as Director of Undergraduate Studies and Director of Graduate Studies in two departments and, currently, as department chair. For all these responsibilities have repeatedly brought me into direct contact with initiatives like the one about which Paul expresses such strong reservations. While other colleagues may have a less jaundiced appraisal of these efforts, it is demonstrably true that initiatives of the kind that prompted the present discussion have of late been proliferating at Duke to a degree s that one may well regard with concern and misgivings for multiple reasons. As I read Paul Griffiths’ note, I took him to demur not at the goal that the proposed training is meant to advance, viz., to ensure practices free of bias and mindful of equity. Rather, he challenges the assumption that, merely for the asking, faculty ought be to give up significant chunks of time for the purposes of undergoing “training” in these areas.

Now, given the recent change in leadership in the DDS, it might be appropriate to offer some broader institutional perspective here.
Having worked at Duke for a long time for twenty-six years now, I have witnessed first hand a dramatic increase demands made on faculty time by administration-driven initiatives fundamentally unrelated to the intellectual work for which faculty were recruited by Duke. A seemingly endless string of surveys, memos, and “training sessions” is by now a familiar reality for most faculty, and it is an altogether inescapable entailment (as I well know) of chairing a department or program, serving on a hiring committee, or chairing a review.

So if faculty members choose to say in public (as Paul Griffiths has just done) what so many are saying in private, one might at the very least want to listen to and engage their concerns, especially if one holds sharply opposed views. 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. 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. Instead, if a faculty member raises serious doubts about the efficacy and methods of an initiative aimed at combating racial and other kinds of bias – and about the ways in which such training manifestly encroaches on the time faculty need to pursue their primary mission of teaching and research – then this view ought as a matter of course be respected as a legitimate exercise of judgment and expression. And while Paul Griffiths casts his criticisms in harsh terms, it would be nothing less than politically coercive and intellectually irresponsible to imply that his statement amounts to an “expression of racism.”

If DDS wishes to remain a vibrant intellectual community, then all kinds of different perspectives must be engaged analytically and in good faith, as propositions and judgments warranting earnest scrutiny rather than facile condemnation. To tar communications such as the one that Paul Griffiths has shared with the faculty as politically retrograde, let alone to contemplate institutional sanctions, is to take an alarmingly illiberal approach that, ironically, will end up confirming at least some of Paul Griffiths’s criticisms regarding the proposed initiative. Those struggling to grasp the difference between honest engagement and institutional censorship ought to revisit Herbert Marcuse’s account of “repressive tolerance.”

So I hope that in the matter at hand and on similar occasions, all concerned parties, and the leadership of DDS in particular, will allow calm reflection and intellectual engagement to prevail.


Thomas Pfau

Thomas Pfau
Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English
Professor & Chair of Germanic Languages & Literatures
Member – Duke Divinity School Faculty

5. This led to Paul Griffiths’s following e-mail to his colleagues, which he authorized for wide distribution. I have taken the names of other Duke professors out of this excerpt:

Subject: intellectual freedom & institutional discipline at Duke Divinity School

Dear Faculty Colleagues,


Intellectual freedom – freedom to speak and write without fear of discipline and punishment – is under pressure at Duke Divinity these days. My own case illustrates this. Over the past year or so I’ve spoken and written in various public forums here, with as much clarity and energy as I can muster, about matters relevant to our life together. The matters I’ve addressed include: the vocation and purpose of our school; the importance of the intellectual virtues to our common life; the place that seeking diversity among our faculty should have in that common life; the nature of racial, ethnic, and gender identities, and whether there’s speech about certain topics forbidden to some among those identities; and the nature and purpose of theological education. I’ve reviewed these contributions, to the extent that I can (some of them are available only in memory), and I’m happy with them and stand behind them. They’re substantive; they’re trenchant; and they address matters of importance for our common life. So it seems to me. What I’ve argued in these contributions may of course be wrong; that’s a feature of the human condition.

My speech and writing about these topics has now led to two distinct (but probably causally related) disciplinary procedures against me, one instigated by Elaine Heath, our Dean, and the other instigated by Thea Portier-Young, our colleague. I give at the end of this message a bare-bones factual account of these disciplinary proceedings to date.

These disciplinary proceedings are designed not to engage and rebut the views I hold and have expressed about the matters mentioned, but rather to discipline me for having expressed them. Elaine Heath and Thea Portier-Young, when faced with disagreement, prefer discipline to argument. 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.

Heath and Portier-Young aren’t alone among us in showing these tendencies. The convictions that some of my colleagues hold about justice for racial, ethnic, and gender minorities have led them to attempt occupation of a place of unassailably luminous moral probity. That’s a utopia, and those who seek it place themselves outside the space of reason. Once you’ve made that move, those who disagree with you inevitably seem corrupt and dangerous, better removed than argued with, while you seem to yourself beyond criticism. What you do then is discipline your opponents. The contributions to our common life made by, inter alia, Chuck Campbell, Jay Carter, and Valerie Cooper exhibit these tendencies. I call them out too. I hope that they, together with Heath and Portier-Young, will reconsider, repent, make public apology to me and our colleagues for the damage done, and re-dedicate themselves to the life of the mind which is, because of their institutional location, their primary professional vocation. That life requires openness, transparency, and a willingness to engage. I commend all these things to them, and hope devoutly that they come to see their importance more clearly than they now do..

I’m making public the following narrative of these disciplinary proceedings under the pressure of three closely-associated thoughts. The first thought is that several more or less inaccurate versions of these events are already in circulation among us in the form of gossip; full and accurate disclosure is always better than gossip. The second thought is about responsibility. I’m happy to take full responsibility for my contributions to our common life at Duke Divinity. Those contributions have all been public, as is this message. But responsibility requires publicity. Heath’s and Portier-Young’s disciplinary proceedings are not public: they’re veiled, and accompanied by threats of reprisal if unveiled. I’d like them to take responsibility for what they’re doing, and so I’m making it public. The third thought is about the kind of confidence in speech (and writing) whose opposite is fear. Duke Divinity is now a place in which too many thoughts can’t be spoken and too many disagreements remain veiled because of fear. I commend a renunciation of fear-based discipline to those who deploy and advocate it, and its replacement with confidence in speech. That would be appropriate not only to our life together in a university-related Divinity School, but also to our life together as disciples of Jesus Christ.

the disciplinary actions

What follows, under (1) and (2), is a bare-bones factual account of the disciplinary procedures to date, together with two attachments. It may be useful to know that there’s a good deal of recent literature on the nature of university-based disciplinary proceedings like the ones I’m about to describe. I recommend, from quite different angles, Jon Krakauer’s Missoula (2015), and Laura Kipnis’s Unwanted Advances (2017). These books, with distinct agendas, agree that there are deep moral, legal, and procedural problems with university-based Title IX disciplinary procedures. These include, but aren’t limited to, their attempt to control speech and conduct by stifling expression; and their contempt for due process. It may also be useful to know that I’m not alone among Duke Divinity faculty in currently being, or having in the recent past been, subjected to discipline along these lines. I call upon those involved to share the details with us.

(1) Discipline initiated by Heath against Griffiths. In February 2017, Heath contacts Griffiths and asks for an appointment in which she’ll communicate her expectations for professional conduct at Duke Divinity. There’s back-and-forth by email about the conditions for this meeting, and agreement is reached for a four-way meeting to include Heath, Randy Maddox (Dean of Faculty, as support for Heath), Griffiths, and Thomas Pfau (as second for Griffiths). That meeting is scheduled for 3/6/17. Shortly before that date Heath cancels with no reason given, and then in short order asks for a new meeting on the same topic, this time with new criteria as to who can be present that rule out Pfau’s participation. Griffiths responds to this change in conditions by saying that he’s happy to meet, but now, given the changes, only under the condition that the meeting should be a one-on-one free exchange between himself and Heath. There’s email back-and-forth about this between Griffiths and Heath, all copied to Maddox. No agreement is reached about conditions for meeting: Griffiths and Heath each have conditions unacceptable to the other. Standoff. No meeting has occurred at the date of this writing. In a hardcopy letter (PDF attached) dated 3/10/17 [see below — RD], Heath initiates financial and administrative reprisals against Griffiths. Those reprisals ban him from faculty meetings, and, thereby, from voting in faculty affairs; and promise (contra the conditions stated in his letter of appointment) to ban him from future access to research or travel funds. Heath’s letter contains one material falsehood (item #1 in her letter; the accurate account is here, in this paragraph), together with several disputable interpretive claims. More reprisals are adumbrated, but not specified, in the letter. There that disciplinary procedure for the moment rests.

(2) Discipline initiated by Portier-Young against Griffiths, via the University’s Office for Institutional Equity (OIE). In early March, Griffiths hears by telephone from Cynthia Clinton, an officer of the OIE, that a complaint of harassment has been lodged against him by Portier-Young, the gravamen of which is the use of racist and/or sexist speech in such a way as to constitute a hostile workplace. A meeting is scheduled for 3/20/17 between Griffiths and representatives of the OIE to discuss this allegation. Griffiths requests from the OIE a written version of the allegation, together with its evidentiary support, in advance of the scheduled meeting. This request is declined by Clinton on behalf of the OIE, as appears typical for these proceedings. Griffiths then declines the 3/20/17 meeting, and sends a written statement to the OIE, which is attached [see below — RD]. The OIE will, it seems, now draw up a report and submit it to the ‘responsible persons’ in the case, which may include either or both of our Provost, Sally Kornbluth, and our Dean, Elaine Heath. (This may already have happened.) Those persons will then take whatever disciplinary actions they see fit, which may range from nothing to dismissal, with intermediate possibilities. There that disciplinary procedure for the moment rests.

​With sincere good wishes to my colleagues, and in hope of better things, fuller transparency, more exchange, an increase in love, and, as always, more light: in lumine tuo videbimus lumen —


6. I published the No. 5 letter a couple of days ago, but I did not then have the documents to which Paul Griffiths referred. Now I do, and I publish those texts below. 

In this one, I present a photocopy of the hard copy letter that Dean Heath sent to Prof. Griffiths, but broken into two images — this, to prevent Prof. Griffiths’s home address from being shown here, on this website:

Here is the second piece of correspondence cited by Griffiths in his No. 5 letter. It is written by him, sent to the university’s Office for Institutional Equity:

Thanks for your reply. I regret that you won’t provide further details of the complaint before our meeting scheduled for the 20th.

I’ve reviewed the written record of my interactions with the complainant over the last twelve months or so, together with what I can reconstruct in memory of spoken interactions in faculty meetings and suchlike.

That review has led me to the conclusion that I’ve done nothing other than express, with as much clarity, force, consistency, and precision as I can, argued opinions about the governance, priorities, purposes, and future of Duke Divinity School. I find nothing to repent of in those interactions, and nothing that can reasonably be considered harassment according to the definition provided in your office’s document outlining policies and procedures. Much less can anything in them be considered harassment based on considerations of race or gender, which I understand from our telephone conversation to be the gravamen.

The complainant’s allegation, so far as I understand it from your brief report, is illiberal, anti-intellectual, and shameful. It is, on the face of it, an attempt to constrain speech by blunt force rather than by free exchange. I’m entirely happy to stand on the record of my exchanges with the complainant, and with other colleagues. I’m confident that any reasonable judge of those exchanges will see them for what they are. I will not, however, further defend anything I’ve said against the kind of complaint you’ve communicated to me. I therefore won’t participate further in the procedure initiated by the complainant and pursued by your office. To do so would be inappropriately to dignify a procedure that has no place in the life of a university. And so I won’t attend the meeting scheduled for the 20th.

I understand that you must do your job as you have to and as you see fit. I hope you’ll see that I’m doing mine as I have to and as I see fit. This is a matter of conscience for me, as it ought to be for anyone committed to the fundamental values of university life.

That’s where the story stands now.

As I see it, Prof. Pfau is right: there is nothing remotely racist, sexist, or bigoted about Paul Griffiths strongly criticizing the anti-racism training. He might be wrong in his judgment about the training — I don’t think he is at all, but he might be — but at real universities, a professor has the right to be wrong. To subject Prof. Griffiths to this absurd disciplinary process on such ideological premises is an outrage. It is, as he calls it, “illiberal, anti-intellectual, and shameful.”

Good on Paul Griffiths for making this public (and by the way, I have not been in contact with him; he did not send me anything.) Duke Divinity School must be held to account — and future students there should know what kind of institution it has become under its current leadership before committing themselves to it.

UPDATE: According to a source close to Griffiths, he has resigned, effective at the end of the 2017-18 academic year.

UPDATE.2: Commenter “Recent DDS Grad” says:

I’m a recent graduate of DDS, and while this story saddens me, it doesn’t really surprise me. I agree with others that Dr. Griffiths should have thought better of sending such an incendiary email, but I can understand why he did, because I thought the environment at DDS concerning racism was totalitarian and oppressive. I am a white female, and I was second-career student with about 15 years of experience in the corporate world. What I saw was way worse than the corporate world. While I was there, the university had a series of escalating incidents of racism. I found it hard to believe that Duke University had more overt racists than anywhere I’ve ever lived, including some really redneck places. In a discussion about the racist incidents with some other Div School students, I said that perhaps the way we were responding to the incidents was hurting rather than helping, because after every incident the black students would make public announcements about how hurt and afraid and rejected they felt, and then everyone would hatch plans to re-educate the whole university on issues of racism. I suggested that instead perhaps we should respond to the perpetrators like we would a bully, with strength and confidence and even defiance, to show them they didn’t have power over anyone. You would have thought I had suggested we start a chapter of the KKK. They made it clear I was a horrible person in denial of the harsh realities of racism for suggesting such a thing, and I learned to keep my mouth shut. It appears to me that what’s going on is that they’re playing roles in a perverse drama, in which everyone so enjoys their own role that they don’t want the drama to end. The Bullies enjoy seeing how others react to their bullying; the Victims enjoy having everyone rush to their side to reassure them of their worth; and the Saviors enjoy the moral high ground of condemning the Bullies and comforting the Victims. I was so glad to get away from all that.

Please don’t publish my name. I don’t need more people thinking I’m a horrible person.

Readers, I know the name of this commenter, and verified that she graduated from DDS.

UPDATE.3: This just in from a Duke Divinity School student, whose identity I have verified, but who asks for anonymity:

Rod, I just wanted to thank you for publishing what you did. The story being told about Paul Griffiths was completely one-sided but the documents you’ve put up on TAC have restored some parity to the situation. Shining a bright light on this is the only chance there is of preventing Duke from going completely down the drain. Even if it does collapse into a cesspool, at least everyone else will be warned of what’s coming.

It blows my mind how insane my classmates have gotten over this. They’re whipped up into a frenzy over it and shouting down people who try to explain the difference between on the one hand critiquing the particulars of an anti-racist training program and on the other hand actually engaging in racist behavior. Duke is a shitshow and unless things change, I won’t be recommending anyone to attend (except perhaps to study New Testament—though I’m still not even sure).



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