by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Duke Universty’s Sanford School of Public Policy recently decided not renew the contract of a popular professor named Evan Charney. In response, almost 100 students and alumni have signed a letter asking the Sanford School to reverse its decision. Here are some excerpts:
Professor Charney’s teaching style is wonderfully thought-provoking and challenging. His students’ ideas are vetted and sharpened through rigorous debate and discussion on issues ranging from physician assisted suicide to the legalization of sex work. No thought goes unexamined; no assertion goes unchecked.
His courses undertake the difficult challenge of exposing students to viewpoints that conflict with how they think and what they value—and although many students find this teaching style uncomfortable, this is both welcomed and desired. …
Charney’s courses elicit a discomfort inherent to any situation that requires students to re-evaluate their most deeply held convictions. In presenting differing perspectives on sensitive topics, some are concerned … that, in the name of “diversity of opinion,” the class becomes a staging ground for perspectives that reinforce the negative racial, class, and gender power dynamics that exist in society and on this campus. In recognition of this, he makes sincere and intentional efforts to reach out to students who might feel hurt or offended by the class discussions. In these cases, he seeks to address the offense and listens genuinely to recommended changes to the ways in which he teaches sensitive subject matter.
Students enroll in Professor Charney’s classes in large numbers and award near-universally positive reviews because Professor Charney approaches critical issues with a unique candidness. We believe that this style is an integral element of preparing students for the world of public policy and constructive civil discourse. In a time when political tribalism and divisiveness keep us from engaging fruitfully with one another, the skills Charney teach us are necessary to train the next generation of citizens. …
For some, Charney’s dismissal would signal a positive move towards making this campus a “safer” place. We believe that Professor Charney’s dismissal, however, is a regressive step and sends a dangerous message to professors and students alike to avoid the discussions that allow us to engage with difficult and politically charged issues. In short, we need Charney more than ever.
Although a small number of students have voiced concern with Professor Charney’s class environment, we do not believe that this warrants termination of his professorship or outweighs the overwhelmingly positive experiences of past and current students. …
It’s clear that the signatories believe the decision not to renew Charney’s contract was the result of his politically incorrect teaching style. Two of them explained why in recent interviews with The College Fix:
[Charney] told the class he was worried some students would report him for his teaching style, “which ultimately ended up happening,” [Hannah] Beiderwieden told The Fix: The university is driven by its fear of getting a “negative reputation” from Charney’s style.
On Beiderwieden’s first day of class, Charney “prefaced the course in an unusual way, especially given the contemporary climate of political correctness and hyper-sensitivity on college campuses,” she wrote in a letter to Sanford’s Dean Brownell, Senior Associate Dean Judith Kelley and Associate Dean Billy Pizer.
He said: “‘I don’t care if you are liberal or conservative, black or white, male or female, Christian, Jewish, Muslim; I will challenge you. I will challenge every thought you articulate.’”
[In the letter, Beiderwieden] lectured the deans on the American exceptionalism of the First Amendment:
Our history of silencing dissenters, punishing disrespectful comments on presidents, and imprisoning newspaper editors taught us a fundamental lesson: that the freedom to speak and express yourself is the inescapable necessity und crucial foundation of democracy. … Instead of learning to tolerate ideas we find offensive, we seek to eliminate them from college campuses all together. However, when “offendedness” becomes the standard by which universities judge whether or not to tolerate speech, we risk regulating an inconceivable amount of speech that is critical to classroom debates and the educational experience, especially in the realm of public policy, because virtually any subset of the student population can claim something as offensive to their identity. …
Ziqi Deng [another former student who signed the letter of support] told The Fix that Charney’s “Policy Choice As Value Conflict” course, required for her major, was “entirely one of the best classes I’ve taken at Duke and I kind of decided to major in public policy as a result.” …
Deng said this was her first class at Duke where classmates weren’t engrossed in their phones or laptops: Everyone stayed engaged in Charney’s lectures.
The class did “involve expressing entirely different world views and opinions and forcefully asking people to speak up,” said Deng, who’s scheduled to graduate next year, in response to students who called the class an unsafe space.
“If that’s infringement of safe space then it is. But I don’t think it’s something higher education should discourage especially for public policy students,” she told The Fix. …
“[Charney] told us he doesn’t have a good relationship with the people in the [public policy] department because of the way he spoke and how he didn’t care about the hierarchy in the administration,” she said. Deng could tell that he cared about students more than titles.
It certainly wouldn’t be surprising if, in fact, the social justice warriors are behind the decision not renew Prof. Charney’s contract. They’ve driven talented professors away from Duke before.
A year ago, Professor Paul Griffiths resigned from his post as Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke’s Divinity School over a dispute about political correctness. Griffiths, who was described by a colleague as “one of the pre-eminent theologians working in the United States today and a vital resource for students and colleagues engaged in rigorous theological reflection here at Duke,” had questioned the value of a “racial equity” training program that the Divinity School had organized for its faculty. The school responded by subjecting him to disciplinary proceedings, and, rather than submit to what he regarded as an illegitimate attack on his academic freedom, he announced his resignation.
As a tenured professor, Griffiths could have stayed and fought the social justice warriors who were arrayed against him. Prof. Charney doesn’t have that option. However, he does have a large number of students and alumni who are willing to fight on his behalf.
Paul Griffiths explained his decision to resign last June in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
I recently, and freely, resigned my chair in Catholic theology at Duke University in response to disciplinary actions initiated by my dean and colleagues. Those disciplinary actions, in turn, were provoked by my words: critical and confrontational words spoken to colleagues in meetings; and hot words written in critique of university diversity policies and practices, in support of particular freedoms of expression and thought, and against legal and disciplinary constraints of those freedoms. My university superiors, the dean and the provost, have been at best lukewarm in their support of these freedoms, preferring to them conciliation and accommodation of their opponents.
And so, I reluctantly concluded, 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.