Duke Community,

The Sanford School of Public Policy recently decided not to renew the contract of Evan Charney, a professor of the practice who teaches PPS 302 (Policy Choice as Value Conflict) as well as courses on free speech and genomics. We, the co-signed, write this letter to demonstrate our support for Professor Charney and to express our desire for the Provost’s office to reverse this decision.

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. In this Socratic format, the professor leans into student discomfort in order to encourage self-examination and critical inquiry. 

Because of this, Professor Charney often takes on positions that are not his own in order to illustrate perspectives from across the spectrum. For example, in 2016 during the peak of the Allen building protests, he spent a whole class discussing the motivations and tactics of the protestors and challenging his students to argue cogently in favor of or against the movement. Though in some cases this put the burden on protesters in his class to justify their actions, it also exposed the unsavory and borderline racist opinions of others. His rationale is clear: without confronting new ideas, students go through Duke unchallenged and are unable to evaluate the merits of competing claims.

To be sure, 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 his class reproduces systems and structures of inequality involving notions of class, privilege and power. The concern here is 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.

Duke is no stranger to the ongoing national debate over controversial campus speakers, free speech and safe spaces. Events such as the ill-advised invitation of Zuhdi Jasser to speak on domestic Muslim radicalization or the abhorrent alumni response to Duke’s “People’s State of the University” protest suggest that Duke still has a long way to go before it is a safe and open campus. More recently, the controversy on the Duke memes page and unacceptable racial slurs discovered at 300 Swift have plunged this campus into a full-blown debate over the imposition of hate speech codes. 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. Additionally, we do not believe that the discomfort voiced by some is the result of a deliberately hostile environment intended to harm or marginalize students. Rather, Charney regularly calls out students for opinions laden with microaggressions and logical fallacies.

We respectfully request that the Sanford School of Public Policy reconsider its decision. We further ask that anyone reading this letter who has taken a course with Professor Charney to speak up. Whatever your opinion of Professor Charney, please take the time in the next few days to write a letter to Dean Sally Kornbluth (sally.kornbluth@duke.edu) to share your personal story.

Signed:

Marisa Aleguas, Class of 2020

Hannah Beiderwieden, Class of 2017

Adam Beskind, Class of 2020

Isabel Billig, Class of 2019

Justin Bryant, Class of 2017

Chantae Campbell, Class of 2012

Robert Carlson, Class of 2020

Angela Chen, Class of 2018

Oderah Chidom, Class of 2017

Catherine Choi, Class of 2020

John Clarke, Class of 2018

Julia Collins, Class of 2019

Christopher Cook, Class of 2018

Eleanor Costley, Class of 2018

Ziqi Deng, Class of 2019

Lizzie Devitt, Class of 2018

Rebecca DiLuzio, Class of 2020

Peyton Dilweg, Class of 2018

Haley Dishong, Class of 2018

David Duquette, Class of 2018

Brian Englar, Class of 2018

Marissa Farbman, Class of 2018

Grace Francese, Class of 2020

Mark Francis, Class of 2017

Callie Fry, Class of 2018

Steven Gitsin, Class of 2020

Sara Goering, Class of 2020

Ofir Golan, Class of 2019

Taseen Haque, Class of 2018

Christopher Hill, Class of 2018

Kendrik Icenhour, Class of 2019

Elle Infante, Class of 2018

Walker Jester, Class of 2019

Allen Jones, Class of 2017

Tyler Joyce, Class of 2020

Daniel Kastenbaum, Class of 2019

Aateeb Khan, Class of 2018

Sakshi Khanna, Class of 2018

Benjamin Klein, Class of 2018

Amy Kramer, Class of 2018

Ethan Kwok, Class of 2019

Lucy Laird, Class of 2017

Joshua Landsberg, Class of 2019

Baker Laura, Class of 2018

Julia Leuchtenburg, Class of 2018

Robert Levine, Class of 2020

Jiahui Liao, Class of 2019

Shaina Lubliner, Class of 2020

Hayden Manseau, Class of 2020

Jack McGovern, Class of 2017

Reed McLaurin, Class of 2018

Cameron McNeely, Class of 2017

Rajan Mehra, Class of 2017

Brina Melton, Class of 2020

Grant Michl, Class of 2017

Ethan Miller, Class of 2019

John Minchew, Class of 2018

Charlie Moore, Class of 2020

Hannah Morris, Class of 2017

Ryan Netter, Class of 2020

Ryan Nicholson, Class of 2018

Natalia Ortiz, Class of 2018

Gregory Pera, Class of 2019

Riley Pfaff, Class of 2020

Jacob Salomon, Class of 2019

Alia Sani, Class of 2018

Ryan Savell, Class of 2020

Katherine Scandura, Class of 2018

Adam Schutzman, Class of 2017

Kelsey Sicard, Class of 2018

Jack Skinner, Class of 2020

Bonnie St Charles, Class of 2018

Jackson Steger, Class of 2018

Quinn Steven, Class of 2018

Ethan Susser, Class of 2019

Sondayi Tapiwa, Class of 2017

Colin Taylor, Class of 2018

Jessica Van Mier, Class of 2017

Connor Vasu, Class of 2019

Olivia Wall, Class of 2020

Victoria Wang, Class of 2019

Caroline Wang, Class of 2019

Amy Wang, Class of 2018

Julie Williams, Class of 2019

Emily Wilson, Class of 2020

Brandon Yan, Class of 2018

CJ York, Class of 2019

Alex Zrenner, Class of 2017

Tijana Suvacarov, Class of 2019

Virginia O'Connor, Class of 2019

Emily McAuliffe, Class of 2018

Benjamin Berger, Class of 2018

Spencer Hutchinson, Class of 2019

Andrew Bates, Class of 2019

David Bernstein, Class of 2018

Ischiropoulos Dean, Class of 2018

Pearce Godwin, Class of 2008

Chrissy Godwin, Class of 2008

Meryl McCurry, Class of 2018

Diana Ye, Class of 2017

Andrew Jordan, Class of 2018