"What's Going on at Duke?" My personal back and forth with the resignation of Paul Griffiths.

 Image Credit: DAVID GOTHARD

Image Credit: DAVID GOTHARD

In early 2016 I was discerning where my next stop in my theological education would take place. I had whittled the choices down to a few institutions, one of them being Duke University’s School of Divinity (Alas, Wake Forest School of Divinity won out). I toured the school and was able to have lunch with a few current students to gauge their experience. As part of the tour, I was able to attend an introductory theology course taught by Dr. Paul Griffiths. Overall I enjoyed the class and took enough notes to fill several pages. I had wanted to introduce myself to Dr. Griffiths, but I did not get the opportunity.

If Paul Griffiths’ name seems familiar to you it’s because it’s been in the local and national headlines recently.

Griffiths has taught at Duke Divinity for over a decade, but will be resigning from his position as the Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at the end of the next academic year. Why you ask? Well, the answer depends on who you ask and where you fall on the spectrum of free speech (I make this statement knowing already this scenario isn’t so cut and dry, and like most cases, is harder to decipher than it first appears).

Without giving a complete retelling of a story that has been told in dozens of other articles (News&Observer and WSJ), the resignation of Griffiths began with an email request from fellow faculty member, Dr. Anathea Portier-Young. The email encouraged staff to attend a two day seminar dealing with diversity training. Upon reading the email, Griffiths responded back in his own mass email to the rest of the faculty encouraging them not to attend the “definitively anti-intellectual” training sessions. From there Dr. Elaine Heath, Dean of the Divinity School, became involved and voiced her support of the diversity training. It would appear the two parties were unable to come to terms to a sit down meeting. The disagreement quickly escalated; with a harassment suit being filed by Portier-Young through the University’s Office for Institutional Equity and charged with unprofessional conduct by Dean Heath. Griffiths’ resignation would come soon after and accompanied with a published explanation of why he did so.

It would be easy to play “Captain Hindsight” here and explain why this disagreement between two faculty members couldn’t have been settled in a more professional manner. From an exchange of emails, it would seem the situation moved so fast that perhaps lines were drawn before the opposing parties really knew what was at stake. My general thoughts, after having time to process this story, were like many in the comment sections of the articles I have linked to above.

Why did Griffiths respond in the matter he did using a mass email?

Was his response part of a much bigger issue and back story we “the readers” are not privy to?

Did Portier-Young take the criticism more as a personal attack vs. a critique of the purposed diversity training? If not, why file the harassment suit with the university?

Why couldn’t three highly educated adults find a time to sit down and work this out?

These are just a few of the questions that I, and others, have asked ourselves as this story continues to unfold. I for one would prefer this to be a simple case where there is a clear victim and perpetrator, leaving me to know exactly whom to side with. I must admit at first I thought it was that easy. I read the story with the understanding that Griffiths was being confrontational and maybe a bit of a contrarian. Why would someone not be in favor of diversity training? Certainly a professor at a prestigious divinity school would support gatherings encouraging inclusivity, right? I began to paint a picture in my head of a academic elitist who thought he was too good to sit and listen to a panel of speakers explain to him what he should already be aware of in his classroom. And yet, as I began to read article after article I began to see a different side to the story. One that didn’t make it so cut and dry as I would like it to be.

I used to work in manufacturing and logistics. Working in those environments I was part of numerous mandatory meetings dealing with large companies’ policies ranging from harassment to diversity. As I began to reflect back on those experiences I started to realize, “God, that kinda was a waste of time.” Before you think I’m a horrible person for not wanting to sit through this type of training, let me say very clearly that I by no way believe that to be aware and informed of these type of issues within the workplace (and in this case a university) isn’t important. Discrimination towards people groups and individuals happens all the time, and I want to be part of a process that helps bring this to end. I did however question the motive and means in how this training was approached and taught. Who was benefiting from this training? Could it be done in a better way? Why wasn’t I asked for feedback? It seemed I was being “talked at” instead of being asked to join a conversation. Instead of eagerness I met those times with resentfulness. Maybe Griffiths felt something similar. Once I saw this, Griffiths’s situation became relatable.

And here is where it started to get tricky for me.

Griffiths’s response seemed harsh and somewhat demeaning to me. Yet, his mass email was a candid expression of what he thought of the training…much in the likes of Portier-Young. Where she was for, he was against. They both used the same platform, email, to point out why they felt the way they did. When I began to break this down, this is what I came to; two intellectuals in the same respected field of study disagreed on something. Instead of having discourse and walking away with mutual respect for one another, one filed a harassment suit and the other felt the need to resign.

This might be an assumed misconception, but bear with me. I have been brought up to believe the Academy of academia was where the best and brightest go to learn and teach. Professors representing different schools of thought could come together to offer an experience where all sides of a situation could be heard and dissected for examination. Particularly in higher education regurgitation of material was not sought. Instead, concepts and past knowledge were tested and leaned into to see if they actually held up. New ideas could be brought to the table with dialogue being key in understanding not just theories, but each other better (I think of the debating friendship of G.K Chesterton and Bernard Shaw). Disagreement is part of the academic process; it’s what makes us/them better at what we do.

When I see two fine intellectuals at a flagship institution like Duke Divinity not being able to work out their differences I worry for the rest of us.

An opportunity representing two diverse opinions (oh the irony) presented itself and the individuals and university were not able to take advantage and engage with it. The resignation of Griffiths means his voice/stance will no longer be heard at the university concerning this matter. This act could lead others to feel the same way and depart from the university because they feel as if their voice isn’t being heard. As a Baptist, when voices start becoming silenced at a university my ears perk up. I have heard of the stories and incidents that took place at the major Southern Baptist Seminaries in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Depending on whom you ask these institutions experienced a conservative resurgence or a fundamentalist take-over. Either way a number of highly accredited Moderate-minded professors were dismissed, or felt they could not stay at these seminaries in good conscience because their understanding of scripture and how they taught differed with their colleagues. I hope I’m not comparing apples to oranges here, but I believe the general notion of one side pushing another out can be seen.

In the end, this issue has become more gray than “black and white” to me. I agree with Portier-Young and Dean Heath that diversity training is a needed and good tool. However, I am for Griffiths having the ability to question and critique the reasoning behind the training. In a nutshell; I want to push for diversity, but should always be willing to reevaluate how I approach those means in which I operate. My hope is that Duke and other universities learn from this ordeal. When one surrounds themselves with “head-nodders and yes men” the outcome steers one away from needed and sometimes difficult conversation. I expect more from them (Duke Divinity, Portier-Young, Griffiths, Heath) because I really want to expect more from myself.

“We” are better than this.