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LGBT protest erupts during Duke Divinity School dean’s speech. What’s it all about?

The Duke Divinity School is dealing with a protest that questions its stance on issues affecting LGBTQ students.
The Duke Divinity School is dealing with a protest that questions its stance on issues affecting LGBTQ students.

A long-running quarrel at the Duke Divinity School resumed at the end of February in spectacular fashion when a group of students interrupted its dean’s annual state-of-the-school address to press for better treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender students.

The group rolled out a list of 15 specific demands, with timetables for the school to fulfill them, that touch on such things as scholarships, internships, curriculum and faculty hiring.

But the issues in play appear to run deeper, and to predate the arrival of dean Elaine Heath in 2016.

Elaine Heath
Duke Divinity School Dean Elaine Heath is pictured in the arcade of Duke Chapel. Les Todd Duke University Photography

In the school, “a lot of professors are openly non-affirming” of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual students, said Madeline Reyes, a spokesperson for the protesters. “We have to sit through these lectures by people we know are not supportive of our existence and role in ministry.”

A YouTube video of the protest is indeed notable for including criticism not just of the school’s administrators, but of its faculty. It’s in sharp contrast to the obvious student-faculty solidarity at play in such recent disputes as the protests of the Silent Sam Confederate memorial at nearby UNC-Chapel Hill.

One Duke Divinity student complained of a house divided, with some professors who “look like me” finding that their “work in and contribution to this place is consistently undermined by students, by faculty and [by] the administration, oftentimes with the sweetest of smiles.”

The immediate trigger for the protest apparently was the faculty’s rejection of a student request for a course on “queer theology,” the intellectual project of reworking traditional religious doctrine to accept same-sex relationships. Duke Divinity wouldn’t be any sort of pioneer in setting up such a course, as universities like Harvard have already offered them.

Supporters had a recent Ph.D. graduate lined up to teach the course as adjunct faculty, but the proposal was still-born because “literally one too many professors rejected it,” Reyes said.

Another spokesperson for the protesters, Miriam Cho, later said the vote occurred among the faculty of the school’s theology department.

It’s a truism at Duke that “faculty control the curriculum,” and the bylaws of the Divinity School indeed reserve to its professors the right to vote and decide on the “curricular courses of study” it offers.

But the decision was hardly the first clash at the United Methodist Church-affiliated school about LBGT issues.

In 2014, former dean Richard Hays made waves at a fall-semester orientation event when, by his own account he told students they “need to be aware” of the official position of the United Methodist Church on homosexuality. Then and now, the church bars the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”

That set off a controversy inside and outside of academia not least because, despite its affiliation, Duke Divinity is ecumenical, admitting students and hiring professors of many faiths. Given that, “you owe those students a climate of support, and an educational environment free of manifest hostility to LGBT people,” alumna and retired Chicago Theological Seminary professor Susan Brooks Thistlewaite told Hays in a letter rebuking him.

The Duke school says it welcomes diversity in many forms, including in “denominational affiliation” and sexual orientation. But the protesters say that’s window dressing, “marginalized identities publicized on websites but minimized in the school hallways.”

Duke University itself flatly forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But the Divinity School, like the School of Medicine, is something of a power unto itself on campus and Reyes indicated the protesters aren’t particularly looking to the university officials in the Allen Building for solutions.

“A lot of this needs to take place within Duke Divinity School,” she said.

Hays stepped down as dean in 2015, a few months after going public with his opposition to Duke Chapel’s willingness to sponsor a Muslim call to prayer from its tower. He continues to teach in the school, leading among other things, a course on the New Testament that’s part of the suggested track for Methodist students.

Heath’s first year as dean in 2016-17 was no picnic, as by the spring semester she was immersed in a quarrel between faculty members.

There, professor Paul Griffiths publicly criticized a colleague, Anathea Portier-Young, who’d taken the lead for a faculty committee in urging professors to attend racial-equity training. Griffiths countered by telling them to avoid it as a waste of time. Heath backed Portier-Young, but Griffiths refused to meet with the dean to discuss the quarrel and eventually announced he’d leave Duke at the end of 2017-18.

The Griffiths controversy overshadowed complaints from black students that they were being mistreated at the school, to the point of facing in-class racial epithets from fellow students.

Heath didn’t take the interruption of her state-of-the-school address on Feb. 28 well. She complained to the protesters that “every time I give a public address or there has been an important event in the last year, year and a half, there’s disrespect shown for my leadership.”

But she later emailed students and faculty to say the complaints suggest “the need to continue this dialogue to grow as a diverse and hospitable community that generates an environment for deeper and broader theological reflection and formation, amidst a church and culture that is divided and faces further fragmentation.”

The dean on Friday also relayed a statement to The Herald-Sun that said “all students, including LGBTQ students, are an integral part of the Duke Divinity School community.”

Reyes said Heath is partly a victim of “bad timing,” and that “in a lot of ways she’s just a figurehead.”

But the protesters nonetheless think she bears responsibility for the situation and is accountable.

“She’s in a position of power and we’re going to call her out for not helping the most marginalized members of her community,” Reyes said.

The Divinity School itself, meanwhile, isn’t addressing the relevant issues about faculty hiring and other things as well as peers like the Yale Divinity School, Reyes said.

“This is an issue that is not exclusive to Duke Divinity or the faculty of the Duke Divinity School,” Reyes said. “That said, there are plenty of other seminaries that have taken active steps to be sure they’re actively combating those things. Duke Divinity is not one of them.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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