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Diversity trouble at Duke Divinity

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) Black students at Duke Divinity School demand to be taught their own story from professors who understand the life and witness of the black church, writes Carl W. Kenney.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)