Category: Academia

An interesting conflict has recently erupted within the hallowed halls of Duke University Divinity School. As I understand it, a renowned professor of Catholic theology, Paul Griffiths, was driven to resign, after daring to question the usefulness and political motives of a weekend workshop on racial reconciliation, to which all faculty were invited.

The problem began when he responded to an email circulated by a junior faculty member, Anathea Portier-Young, which sang the praises of the upcoming workshop: “Dear Faculty Colleagues, On behalf of the Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Standing Committee, I strongly urge you to participate in the Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training planned for March 4 and 5. … Those who have participated in the training have described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing. We recognize that it is a significant commitment of time; we also believe it will have great dividends for our community. Please find the registration link below. Details about room location will be announced soon.”

Professor Griffiths apparently rolled his eyes and fired off a provocative, sarcasm laced email that exhorted his colleagues not to “lay waste their time”:

“I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, 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. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.

We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to thnk, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste. This training is a waste. Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize”

Almost immediately he was in hot water with his Dean, Elaine Heath, who fired off her own email, praising the upcoming Racial Equity training and warning all faculty:

It is inappropriate and unprofessional to use mass emails to make disparaging statements–including arguments ad hominem–in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree. The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.

The Dean then insisted on a meeting with Griffiths in which he would not be allowed a representative, and he declined, prompting sanctions that include restriction from faculty meetings and no access to research funding.

Subsequently, the junior faculty member, Dr Portier-Young, lodged a complaint of harassment against Griffiths, via the University’s Office for Institutional Equity (OIE). He is accused of “use of racist and/or sexist speech in such a way as to constitute a hostile workplace.”

More information is available at the New York Times and elsewhere. The initial breaker of this story, and principle source of leaked documents is the blog The American Conservative.

This story has begun to reverberate around the web as an example of an ongoing purge of conservatives from higher education, though I’m not sure whether Professor Griffiths fully fits the mold of “conservative” based on other controversial stances alluded to in the New York Times piece. I also see this being mentioned as a parable of the chilling effect of “social justice warriors” on free speech and academic freedom, and this is certainly disturbing. It should be noted that Professor Griffiths wasn’t actually fired, or directly pressured to resign; he could have fought on for his right to express his opinion, rather than quitting and publicizing the emails. Still, he seems to have accurately described the situation when he criticized the far Left’s “illiberal and totalitarian tendencies.” It is dismaying what an intellectual straitjacket one must wear in academic circles just to survive.

Reflecting further on the express purpose of divinity schools, which is to train pastors, it is also dismaying to consider the potential spiritual wreckage of rampant political correctness. How many intellectually and spiritually eviscerated seminary grads are emerging from places like this and being foisted upon the churches of our land?

If it seems like certain viewpoints on college campuses are being enforced with a zeal that is almost religious, that’s because they are. Even as Christian student groups have been getting booted off campuses, a new and intolerant religion has been rising, complete with zealots and a rigid dogma.

NYU Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has been studying the phenomena. In an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, associate editor Bari Weiss discusses Haidt’s view that it is natural for humans to create “quasireligious experiences” out of secular activities. This is having the downside of wreaking havoc on intellectual freedom and freedom of speech, and ultimately releasing students into a workforce that they are ill equipped to handle.

These believers are transforming the campus from a citadel of intellectual freedom into a holy space—where white privilege has replaced original sin, the transgressions of class and race and gender are confessed not to priests but to “the community,” victim groups are worshiped like gods, and the sinned-against are supplicated with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”.

Unfortunately, this can also lead to violence. True believers are agitating to purge dissenting viewpoints and punish those who violate the norms.

“What we’re beginning to see now at Berkeley and at Middlebury hints that this [campus] religion has the potential to turn violent,” Mr. Haidt says. “The attack on the professor at Middlebury really frightened people,” he adds, referring to political scientist Allison Stanger, who wound up in a neck brace after protesters assaulted her as she left the venue.

The article is worth a read.

So much for the purity of academia. Here is another blemish on their record–another entry in our “reflections of the Fall” series.

The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the JAMA Internal Medicine paper.

You can read more in today’s New York Times

Spring: Birds chirp. Warmth and the faint aroma of blossoms begin to fill the air (causing not a few to begin sneezing). And in nearly every community, the social buzz turns to the end of another school year, and to life transitions. Gowned students parade proudly before their adoring parents and other well-wishers, and receive their diplomas (or degrees). Some students strut, some wave, some beam, and some try to maintain a semblance of dignity. In most cases, the band or orchestra plays Edward Elgar’s aptly named theme, “Pomp and Circumstance.”

I had a recent taste of this sort of thing myself, as I was honored to be inducted as a Fellow in my professional society. I travelled to the annual convocation, at which I and others like me donned robes and had our new status conferred upon us by the president of the College. Stately classical music, a robed assembly, presence of symbolic objects (such as the Mace of the College), and speeches extolling the high and noble virtues of our profession, all marked the solemnity of the occasion.

When Christians speak of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, we have in mind this kind of thing. The graduating students we honor each spring are ascending to a new academic status. We sometimes even use this kind of language directly when refer to students as “rising 9th graders”, meaning that they are in transition from 8th to 9th grade. “Rising 9th graders” aren’t pupils who are growing taller, nor do we intend to be referring to a bunch of levitating students.

Similarly when Jesus ascended he didn’t merely levitate into the air. He ascended from one status to another. You could say that he graduated. But his ascension is even a bit more than a mere graduation or career transition. The word “Ascension” also carries a connotation of obtaining the privilege and right to a throne or seat of power. For all of the solemnity with which we mark the ascension of a student to the status of graduate, or a Diplomate to the status of a Fellow, these are but dim shadows of the splendor and glory of Christ’s Ascension. Jesus didn’t earn an earthly diploma, or even a PhD. He became something vastly more important than any earthly office or title can convey.

In Christian theology the great feast of Ascension celebrates the fact that when Jesus last addressed his followers on earth it was as the rising King of Glory. Christ left us in order to pass into the invisible realm of God, there to attend his coronation. In the presence of God he is enthroned now as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Christians believe that this event was glimpsed by the prophet Daniel:

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.

And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14, from Holy Bible, King James Version).

Currently, the reality (mostly invisible to us) is that Jesus has graduated earth and ascended to his throne, where he reigns in glory. He reigns now–not just in some distant future era. The illusion we have now, that there is no such King, or that we are perfectly sovereign over our own lives, will someday evaporate. The curtain will part for us as it did for the martyr Stephen just before he was executed:

“But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.”(Holy Bible).

P.S. We would be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to give our heartfelt best wishes to all of those who are graduating from school or college. May God illuminate your paths.

It should not shock or surprise that an occasion of great malfeasance on the part of one may be the impetus to heroism in another. I was recently informed of a situation that shows both the darkness and light that resides within us.

First, let us examine the darkness. More tha 117 patients were enrolled in clinical trials at Duke University, conducted by Dr. Anil Potti. His work had offered the hope of using cDNA microarrays to individualize cancer treatments. Sadly, it has turned out that much of the work by Dr. Potti was falsified. After investigations by the Institute of Medicine, Potti’s collaborator, Dr. Joseph Nevins was forced to take a closer look at the data. CBS News reported in a “60 Minutes” segment:

Fearing that reality, Joseph Nevins, whose own reputation was at stake, reviewed the original data which had justified the clinical trials for 112 patients. Dr. Nevins discovered that when the underlying data disproved Dr. Potti’s theory, the data were changed.

Nevins: “It became clear that there was no explanation other than there was a manipulation. A manipulation of the data, a manipulation of somebody’s credentials and a manipulation of a lot of people’s trust.”

The bright spot in this story is the courage of a young man who stood up for the truth. In 2008 a medical student named Bradford Perez, who was doing research in Potti’s lab exposed these misdeeds in a report that he presented to administrators at Duke University Medical School. He decided to take his name off all papers published by Potti, and repeat his research year at Duke in a different lab. His concerns apparently were initially covered up, and it took two additional years before the clinical trials were halted.

An outside reviewer had high praise for Perez:

“The medical student was very brave,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center, who was asked to review the materials cited in this story. “That was quite an act of courage.

“I have a feeling his lowly status made him someone that they would be able to hope would just go away,” Caplan said. “There was a little bit of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out.

“Perez can look at himself in the mirror. Every day. But he paid the price.”

You can read more about Anil Potti and Bradford Petez at Cancer Letter.


(Photo: Edward Burne-Jones – The Adoration of the Magi; in the public domain)

“Wise men still seek him” or so proclaims a popular slogan that appears on cards and facebook posts this time of year1 (well, more at Christmas, but I digress). Relieved I was therefore to see the headline of a recently discovered copy of a 2014 Time magazine that boldly proclaimed, “The Search for Jesus.” Aha, thought I, the search is on again. Another batch of wise men are on the move.

Reading the article naturally deflated me a bit–these men apparently weren’t of the same mind as those earlier magi. They seemed more “wise guys” than wise men. Like so many popular articles that purport to unearth or reexamine the “historical Jesus”, this Time Magazine piece merely rehashed the statements of Christianity’s fifth column, revisionist scholars like Rudolph Bultmann and the members of the “Jesus seminar.” The summary statement of the article went like this:

This time of year, many people will conclude that those scholars are asking the wrong questions. They’ll answer as one reader did in the letters to the editor following the 1996 story: “It doesn’t matter who Jesus of Nazareth was or what he was,” he wrote. “What’s most important is the lessons he taught.” (You can find this online at Time Magazine’s website.)

Perhaps what is meant by “wise” is the root of the issue. One quickly recalls the statement of St. Paul the apostle:
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.
(First Corinthians 3,Holy Bible, King James version).

Of course an ancient Hebrew proverb tells us The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10, Holy Bible, King James Version). The “fear of the Lord” and “knowledge of the Holy” are roughly synonymous (if we recognize here an example of the Jewish poetic form known as “parallelism”). To know the holy God is to revere Him (“fear” here connotes more than dread or terror–it is fuller of the awe of the numinous, and reverence for that which is beyond our mortal coil). The reverence for God and knowledge of the Holy are things that precede and are prerequisites for attaining wisdom.

One might go a step further and say that the journey toward wisdom requires more than a mere “head knowledge” of the Holy. Recalling Jesus’ words to his disciples the evening before his death, it would appear that in some mysterious way an encounter with the Holy is required: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” This indicates that the beginning of wisdom is an encounter with (or the gift of/the activity of) the Holy Spirit of God.

In the end, the slogan should perhaps be reworded this way: “truly wise men still find him”, or better yet, “wise men still adore him”. The “wise guys”, those who know not the holy, who are wise in the world’s fashion, might find themselves forever seeking in vain.

May you have an encounter with the Holy. May you seek the one born to be “Messiah”, and find Him.

1The great Feast of Epiphany among other things celebrates the coming of the Magi to worship Jesus. Traditionally, this is commemorated on January 6, twelve days after Christmas.

In the evolving world of thought control on college campuses, a new concept has emerged. Known as “trigger warnings”, messages akin to the old Surgeon General cigarette labels now flag speakers or concepts that may “cause emotional distress”, so that they may be shunned and avoided. The idea emerges out of the feminist theory of “safe space”, and students, at least radical ones, want their colleges to be “safe” from ideas deemed offensive (in other words, any with which they disagree).

Consider the following excerpt:
You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Christina Hoff Sommers is apparently the kind of speaker whose very presence on college campuses is so alarming that students require advance notice, also known as a trigger warning.

At least, that’s what happened when the American Enterprise Institute scholar spoke this month at Georgetown University and Oberlin College. Campus feminists kicked into high alert, warning students that her lecture on feminism and criticism of the college “rape culture” could make them “feel unsafe.” (From Washington Times).

It isn’t only conservatives that are disturbed by this. A professor wrote an essay for Vox titled, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.”):

I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that’s considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, “Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.” Hurting a student’s feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.

Furthermore: In 2015, such a complaint would not be delivered in such a fashion. Instead of focusing on the rightness or wrongness (or even acceptability) of the materials we reviewed in class, the complaint would center solely on how my teaching affected the student’s emotional state. As I cannot speak to the emotions of my students, I could not mount a defense about the acceptability of my instruction. And if I responded in any way other than apologizing and changing the materials we reviewed in class, professional consequences would likely follow.

It may be no big shock to learn that Christian content might induce a trigger warning. In fact here is a passionately written atheist’s perspective on this: “That last point requires a bit more explanation, because I failed to mention that for some formerly devout people, church and churchy talk can actually be triggers for some very negative emotions. I don’t think our friends and family understand this, which makes perfect sense if you think about it. For them, this stuff is all wonderful. It thrills them and they can’t understand why others wouldn’t have the same reactions to songs about Jesus, about sin, about going to heaven and about getting saved from Hell. It seldom occurs to them that the very same songs, turns of phrase, and even mannerisms which feel so right to them can feel so wrong to someone else, especially someone to whom they are closely related.

In an ironic twist, Duke University students who are Christians are now being “triggered” by a book. Read more at Washington Post. It appears that on their way out of the public sphere, Christians have learned a bit from their leftist foes, and are using this kind of reasoning as a rear guard action to opt out of reading material that is offensive to them as Christians:

It’s also the case that these Christians are simply exercising the newest right on campus: the right to not be exposed to ideas or materials exposure to which might result in a bad emotional or intellectual reaction. Leftists on campus, it is well documented, routinely insist that they be warned if they might come within hearing distance of a conservative idea, book, or speaker, lest they find themselves with a case of the vapors. I have no use for such theatrics, especially inasmuch as it has become an authoritarian movement demanding the abridgment of free speech. Nevertheless, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. Except that for some, it isn’t.

You may read the entire post “trigger warnings are for liberals only” at the Stand Firm BLog, for an introduction and a sampling of some of the delicious howls of rage from leftists who don’t feel that what’s “good for the goose is good for the gander.”

The sad result, of course, is the slaughter of truth and the murder of intellectual freedom. This also causes further disengagement of Christians and non-Christians from each other’s ideas–for better and worse.