Education

Divinity professor who resigned laments Duke’s lack of support for free expression

The Paul Griffiths controversy started in February when a professor invited the Duke Divinity School faculty to two days of racial equity training.
The Paul Griffiths controversy started in February when a professor invited the Duke Divinity School faculty to two days of racial equity training. N&O file photo

A Duke University divinity professor is explaining his decision to resign because of disciplinary actions after he remarked that diversity training was “a waste” and “anti-intellectual.”

Paul Griffiths, who taught Catholic theology at Duke, has not responded to requests for an interview. But in a column titled “To the University, with Love – Why I resigned from Duke,” Griffiths wrote about his experience and lamented the capacity for unfettered debate and disagreement at universities. “Tolerance for intellectual pain is less than it was,” he wrote. “So is tolerance for argument.”

Griffiths, 61, recently announced his departure next year after nearly a decade teaching at Duke. He wrote that he resigned freely but was prompted to do so after disciplinary actions initiated by the divinity dean and a colleague.

The controversy started in February when a professor invited the Duke Divinity School faculty to two days of racial equity training, according to email exchanges first published by The American Conservative website. Griffiths then emailed the school’s faculty, advising them not to participate.

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Paul Griffiths recently announced his departure next year after nearly a decade teaching at Duke Divinity School.

“Don’t lay waste your time by doing so,” he wrote. “It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, cliches, 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.”

The school’s dean, Elaine Heath, responded, without mentioning Griffiths, but stating that mass emails that “express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry” are “offensive and unacceptable.” Griffiths has said he was subsequently charged with harassment by a colleague and banned from faculty meetings, with the dean threatening to withdraw travel and research money.

Heath’s emails also reference Griffiths’ previous behavior at meetings, without elaborating. Duke has declined to discuss personnel matters, but said the divinity school is committed to scholarly excellence, academic freedom, diversity and inclusion.

In his column on the Commonweal magazine website, Griffiths, an English immigrant, said his career in U.S. academia, including Duke, was “a privilege and an ecstasy,” describing it in religious metaphors as a “Taoist butterfly-dream or a Buddhist sky-flower.”

Griffiths acknowledged that his words were “critical and confrontational words spoken to colleagues in meetings; and hot words written in critique of university policies and practices, in support of particular freedoms of expression and thought, and against legal and disciplinary constraints of those freedoms.”

His superiors, he wrote, have been “at best lukewarm in their support of these freedoms.”

Griffiths said he concluded that “the word-struggle, the agony of distinction and argument, the search for clarity by dramatizing and exploring difference – these no longer have the place they once had in the university.”

“Harsh and direct disagreement places thought under pressure,” he continued. “That’s its point. Pressure can be intellectually productive: being forced to look closely at arguments against a beloved position helps those who hold it to burnish and buttress it as often as it moves them to abandon it. But pressure also causes pain and fear; and when those under pressure find these things difficult to bear, they’ll sometimes use any means possible to make the pressure and the pain go away. They feel unsafe, threatened, put upon, and so they react by deploying the soft violence of the law or the harder violence of the aggressive and speech-denying protest.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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