Diversity trouble at Duke Divinity

The interior of Goodson Chapel at the Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) Reports of the resignation of Paul Griffiths, a professor of Catholic theology at Duke Divinity School, relate his departure to a disagreement with a dean over diversity training.

But there’s a bigger story behind the story at Duke Divinity.

Many of its black students are troubled by what they called, in an April 19 letter to Duke’s provost, their experience of “continual inequity” at the divinity school. They expressed concerns about grading, internship placements and the treatment of black faculty and staff, among other issues.

Paul Griffiths. Photo courtesy of Duke University/Les Todd

It’s the important backdrop to the friction between Griffiths and Elaine Heath, dean of the divinity school. Their differences became public after Heath recently invited all divinity school faculty to participate in two days of racial equity training.

Griffiths responded with a series of emails sent to faculty that refuted the merits of the training, blasted it as a challenge to academic freedom and implored others to sit the course out.

“I exhort you not to attend this training,” Griffiths wrote. “Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. 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.”

Heath condemned Griffiths’ emails and requested a meeting with him, which reportedly never took place. Then The American Conservative website published his emails.

Griffiths said his subsequent decision to resign was about academic freedom.

But his departure doesn’t bridge the divide that led black students to request diversity training and other changes in their April letter to Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth.

Dean Elaine Heath of Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy of Duke University/Les Todd

“As Black students at Duke Divinity School, we have been subjected to systematic discrepancies that have deeply affected our learning environment,” the letter states. “Our experience is one of continual inequity that occurs in grading, discrimination and insensitive environments in classrooms, internship placements in field education sites that are not conducive to black students’ professional development, attrition of black faculty, among a host of other institutional factors.”

As for the students’ concerns about black faculty and staff:

“During our time at Duke Divinity, we have witnessed other faculty discredit their presence and scholarship,” the letter states.

In addition to mandatory anti-racism training for preceptors, black divinity students requested more support for the Office of Black Church Studies, the hiring of black faculty and the implementation of a blind grading system to address alleged bias.

Black students are asking difficult, complicated questions.

Among them: Is the goal of theological education to teach people to serve the church, or is it to offer the tools necessary to critique the church and question its role in the public square? Will Duke cater to white, evangelical Protestants? Or will there be space to study the radicalism of the black faith tradition?

To his credit, Griffiths offered thought-provoking classes on the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism. What Griffiths, and others, fail to offer is instruction that helps black students delve deeper into questions that impact the black church.

A sign at Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/R. Manoske

As black students prepare to serve as leaders of predominantly black congregations, what will it mean if Duke shifts its emphasis on social justice toward evangelism, reconciliation and prosperity?

The good news is black students at Duke are demanding more than a place to affirm white theological perspectives. They desire more teaching that contemplates the difficult conceptions of faith that take into account black subjugation and liberation. They know their lives and witness require them to journey beyond the norms of white theological formation.

This is part of a witness of faith that reflects the tension they carry as future leaders in the black faith tradition. Many black evangelicals consider this tension outdated. Some seek to reconcile black and white Christians outside of a theology that considers history, repentance and reparations.

If theological education seeks to serve the purpose of white evangelical religion, a point that deserves more intense reflection, then the future of black liberation theology is in danger.

That’s why black students demand to be taught their own story from professors who understand the life and witness of the black church.

Griffiths is right about one thing. It will take more than two days of racial equity training to fix this.

It will take an emphasis on theological formation that considers the context of the black faith tradition to advance the goals and needs of black students.

(Carl W. Kenney graduated from Duke Divinity School and is executive producer of “God of the Oppressed,” an upcoming documentary that explores black liberation theology)

About the author

Carl W. Kenney


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  • Wonder how the American Conservative got Griffiths e-mails? Me thinks he perhaps protested too much to support that his assertions as to diversity training being intellectually flaccid or asserting totalitarianism and his actions in encouraging other faculty to not attend.

  • What I feel the problem is with diversity training is not that it attempts to address the issue to be more inclusive, but that it goes about it through the wrong assumptions.

    The whole theme is that whites are the problem, no other group is culpable for anything. It also is based on a theory, white privilege, that has major issues/perceptions that are false. Then, like everything in this world, there is the quality of the training. Who is giving this training, what is the focus of teaching about diversity, what is the desired outcome. Outcome could be to bring superficial awareness, or are they attempting to touch more deeply on the subject thereby not having enough time to really address the topic.

    I have been to an intensive 4day anti-racism workshop about 10yrs ago. There were parts that were very interesting and enlightening, there were topics that were helpful and not so helpful. Some theories, like white privilege, dipping, that while the overview was plausible the details were not. I wonder if workshops, training, etc are societies way of getting a certificate to prove the persons who have attended can either prove they are indeed inclusive, or their employer is absolved and the “offender” is now acting on their own accord.

  • Diversity training is broad. We could be talking about race, the sexes, LGBT, etc. The problem with all of it, as Griffiths is well aware, is that bureaucrats and apparatchiks, as he accurately calls them, try to enforce, ironically, a uniformity of thinking. You better think this way or you’re a bigot.

    Griffiths, like many faculty, is clearly one that doesn’t let others do the thinking for him. Hence the pushback when you get mind-numbing HR-types telling you how to think.

  • One problem with having a substantive conversation about this issue relates to the way those with privilege often can not see or feel it. That does not mean it is nonexistent, but the inability to understand one’s power sets one up for reacting to another’s real marginalization. Privilege comes in many forms. I have to own mine that comes by virtue of gender and race, as well as other dynamics. In terms of class, others probably wield more than I. So there are many factors involved, and once we start to react instead of contemplating the value of others, we miss the opportunity to grow. I am not so fragile that I fear listening to the struggles of others or considering the ways that dominant cultures (including those that support me) push people aside. I will refrain from assumptions and stereotypes, even as I will question the overarching stereotypes that sometimes come with training programs. But above all else, I will seek to love and learn.

  • I applaud black divinity students for challenging Duke Divinity School to confront the intellectual and practical deficiencies concerning theology, hermeneutics, and ethics which arise whenever theological education is based primarily (if not almost completely) on traditional notions of classical (meaning white) theism. Their protest shows that black students realize, and are unwilling to be perpetrators of, a sad reality — namely, that the theological and hermeneutical perspectives of evangelicals have historically been allied with and responsible for maintaining oppressive order, not achieving liberation from oppression based on affirmation of a salvation perspective rooted in a deeper and wider notion of divine justice and love.

    Because they have not interpreted the Bible in terms of its relevance to social justice in general and liberty, including (but by no means limited to) religious liberty, evangelicals primarily consider liberty (including religious liberty) an essential attribute for a well-ordered society, not a moral and ethical imperative arising from the divine passion for liberation from oppression in all its forms, manifestations, and mechanisms.

    Granted, a two-day session about racial justice, cultural competence, and inclusion will not be adequate to undo any systemic injustice, let alone bring people fully to repentance about their personal and professional complicity in systemic injustice (whether in the academy or otherwise). Nevertheless, every treatment for any malady requires that the patient begin somewhere, somehow, and with some treatment provider. The issue is whether Duke Divinity School, and every other theological institution, is committed to envision what must be done as an essential and permanent process of repentance, not merely an event aimed at mollifying criticism in this moment.

    As one who has been engaged in cultural competence and inclusion work and consulting for decades, I realize that institutional discomfort with this subject exists. Professor Griffith’s objections to it are not reasons to avoid confronting the discomfort, but must not be dismissed out of hand nevertheless. The discomfort, including objections such as those raised by persons such as Professor Griffith, should be understood as part of the requisite lament we must share for the tragic legacy and ongoing persistence of racial injustice that has been sacralized by white religionists, including those in respected theological institutions such as Duke Divinity School.

    Thus, I challenge the Duke faculty, staff, student body, and alumni community to view this situation as an opportunity–and even a divinely appointed one–to rethink, lament, and embrace the essential work of repentance about the ways racism (among other evils such as materialism, militarism, imperialism, sexism and homophobia, techno-centrism, and xenophobia) has worked and continues to function in the way we do theology, hermeneutics, and ethics. I have written about this in The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope (Judson Press, 2017, Chapter 3) in case anyone is interested. And I am willing to consult with Duke and other institutions and organizations that want to engage in the serious and liberating work of rethinking, lamenting, and embracing the repentance I’ve mentioned.

    I commend the black divinity students. I hope Duke’s academic community will embrace this kairos opportunity. I implore that all who believe in divine love and justice to hope and pray for them, hope and pray with them, and work in our various situations to be people of divine love, justice, hope, truth, and peace.

  • Popular assumption of the Diversity Bullies:
    1. The old “When did you stop beating your wife?” premise.
    2. Being white of European heritage in the 21st century is analogous to the Christian theology of original sin.
    3. Only by being baptized through diversity training can you rid yourself of the original sin of white privilege. (That and continual confession of “white privilege” followed by penance.)
    4. You are guilty until proven innocent.

  • Diversity and inclusion in the church continues to be an issue. The struggle to move away from cultural minimization towards cultural integration is not new to America or to the church. Lack of church diversity and inclusion remains visible and embedded in institutional, divinity schools, and church leadership.

    A commitment to diversity and inclusion is not passive, it is an intentional act. Admitting students of different cultures includes the responsibility to share cultural education. In turn, we honor and value those we have sought to bring into community and create greater understanding of each other.

    We must engage leadership to embrace new skills, knowledge and attitudes. These conversations are required to lead in an increasingly diverse world. As a church diversity coach and an African-American pastor of a Burmese refugee congregation, I speak from experience and navigate the rarely charted territory of engaging with and within a different culture as a pastor and worshiper. I wrote about it here. http://www.diaspra.com/about

    Reaching all people for Christ, embracing the broadness of God and crossing cultural boundaries is an intentional ministry to pursue with our hearts, hands, and minds. This conversation is the start of an engagement of diversity and inclusion. I pray God continues to lead us to be a better church. Our churches, divinity schools, and each of us must ask the question. When we serve the many demographics of our communities, are we prepared to act? Discover new ideas to engage here. https://interculturalministry.com/

  • I think it is more complex than this and merits thoughtful, caring reflection.

  • After going through this nonsense for years – yes years – I’m retiring and glad to be shet that nonsense. And that thoughtful caring reflection should begin with the people who conduct the workshops.

  • …this I know for the Bible tells me so. Yet the Duke prof also has had his fill of this pc nonsense. He called it for what it is – and rattled a few liberal nerves. Good for him.

  • I’m not convinced that it is a Liberal/Conservative issue. I look at it through the lens of power. In the academy, tenured faculty at “prestigious” schools hold power; so do senior administrators and others who have a following, not to mention ecclesiastical “leaders.” How do people with power wield that power? This certainly can cut across presumed stereotypes.

  • And we see how the liberal administrators wield in this case. This prof spilled the beans on how worthless the diversity training is at Duke and now he’s gone.

  • In the good, ole’ days, ‘White Supremacy’ expressed itself Brutally: from putting a rope around your neck, to burning you alive! Today, it’s expressed with obfuscation and racially, arrogant reproachment!! In other words: ‘Killing you with kindness!! So-called Professor Griffith has no excuse to discount these student’s demands, and their right for a curriculum that “contemplates the difficult conceptions of faith that take into account black subjugation and liberation.” His objection and subsequent resignation to avoid doing so makes him just as guilty as those murderous racist holding a noose in one hand; and torch in the other!!!

  • Look at this text:
    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.”

    Here is a prof who has been around the block with diversity training before no doubt. Assuming he has should the admin not listen to him and others, too, who object to this “training”? And if you have listened to the news at all over the past 30 years you can’t help but have heard of the nonsense. And if you’ve been in “diversity training” you may have been exposed to this baloney as well. After 30+ years it’s time for people to stand up and say “enough!”

  • Were the allegations of disparate treatment (different treatment in the grading process, etc.) verified? If the minority students were being subjected to a different grading system than other students this should have been addressed with the appropriate people. I don’t know what the legal definition of an “insensitivity” is, but these kinds of things should also have been investigated before devoting resources into some kind of widespread training.

  • Christopher:

    I don’t want to accuse you of misleading us. You sound admirably even-handed. But when only 5% of humanities and social science faculty at major universities in the US are conservatives, how can conservatives abuse power when they never get to wield it? In 37 years at my University, I have never sighted that unicorn. Would you care to share some cases with us?

  • You make a good point. My experience has been that the abuse of power can often cut across faculty/administrative lines. There are administrations that identify themselves as neo-conservative (not necessarily in terms of doctrine but in terms of corporate-styled “leadership”). I have seen this dynamic in a very personal way. I am not claiming that such is the case at Duke.

  • You obviously did not read the article: Prof Griffiths had nothing to do with the students’ demands. He is not even an administrator at DDS. He just raised objections about the intellectual quality of a diversity training session. But according to you he is the morally equivalent of a murderous racist! I would rather say that you are the moral equivalent of a Stalinist commissar.

  • It would be a mistake to encourage anyone to feel the state of his or her self esteem to be the sole result of “insensitivity” of the “culture”. Comfortable perhaps but not helpful.
    There will always be “culture”. Labeling it bad because it is “white” cannot ever improve it
    any more than calling someone “stupid” because you disagree with them makes them smart. Comfortable and easy to do but not something that leads to progress.Labeling all speech from whites as “hate speech” and therefore not worthy of merit is an easy thing to do since it is merely an “ad hominem” attack. It feels good but not helpful. We need to move beyond this approach. Uncomfortable and not easy but necessary for progress.

  • There is THE CHURCH, not a black church, not a white church, not a Chinese Church. There is simply THE CHURCH.

  • Do you have any idea what the term “neoconservative” means? And what is “corporate-styled ‘leadership'”, and what is its relationship to neoconservatism? I am a university-faculty political theorist (very familiar with neoconservatism) and I have no idea what you are talking about.

  • I chose my words with care and stand behind them. I won’t start referencing my expertise, and if you feel better having scolded me, that’s fine with me. I need to move on to my own work now.

  • Mr. Kenney’s essay is the biggest piece of gobbly gook I’ve ever read.
    What, specifically, is he talking about?? Just more post modern detritus, no substance.

  • i.e. you were blowing smoke when you said that there are university administrators who “identify themselves as neo-conservative” (even though they don’t accept neoconservative “doctrine”!!!)

  • Not at all. Your last response let’s me know how you have misunderstood me. We are talking past one another. I do not need to slam you to derive satisfaction and so am signing off. Other things to do.

  • I can understand the frustration of the black students who feel they are being treated unfairly. A few years ago I went back to pick up several classes I had not taken when I was in college in the old days of racial segregation. In one accounting class of eight students I was the sole white student, but the prof was white. The prof would call on several of the black students and they would give their answer, and they would be told they were wrong. Then the prof would call on me and I would give the same answer that the black students had given and it would be right. I don’t think the prof meant to be racist; he was just like the rest of us–he could not see his own blind spots.

  • You are right. Please accept my apology. I was attempting to disengage. Sorry it landed in your box.

  • Duke Divinity’s started conflict resolution “ideal” – “Members of the covenant community who are aggrieved by the conduct of other members of the community should find a friend and approach the offending party to work out the misunderstanding or offense” The words should either be cut out or an effort should be made to live by them.

  • So you have no other way of making a (middle class) living than “Cultural competence/diversity education”?
    Pretty sad/pathetic.