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Divinity School faces questions regarding its treatment of African-American, LGBTQ students

<p>Duke Divinity School</p>

Duke Divinity School

A long history of issues around Duke Divinity School's treatment and relationship with LGBTQ+ and African American students has left some students frustrated about what the school is doing to address their concerns. 

The Divinity School has also faced complaints about its treatment of students with marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities. Those grievances came to a head at a protest at a State of the School address in March. 

The school says that it is committed to the importance of diversity and “seek[s] to build a diverse and inclusive community," according to its website. A statement on the importance of diversity from the Divinity School reads that a diverse faculty, staff and student body contributes to broader and deeper understanding of theology. 

The University also has a nondiscrimination statement that prohibits discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, among other categories. 

However, the Divinity School is a United Methodist Church-affiliated school, whose official stance on homosexuality is that LGBTQ+ individuals are allowed to attend worship services, but “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained. 

The Past

Reverend Brett Webb-Mitchell, who served as an assistant professor of Christian nurture in the Divinity School from 1993-2003, recently wrote an opinion article in The Herald Sun that dates LGBTQ+ issues back to the late 1980s. 

He claimed that there was a time when anti-LGBTQ+ graffiti in the bathrooms lingered there for months until a small protest built up against the administration’s inaction to get it removed. Additionally, John Blevins, who was an openly gay Baptist student, was told to drop out of school by two professors because he was gay and would never be ordained, Webb-Mitchell said. 

In 2000, President Nannerl Keohane made the decision to allow same-sex unions to take place in the chapel. Although there were many supporters, the article stated that the Duke Conservative Union did not support the decision because it undermined the rights of religious students. Additionally, Bishop Marion Edwards of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church said in the article that the decision conflicted with the church’s official stance on homosexuality.

More recently in 2014, former Divinity School Dean Richard Hays stated in a panel on diversity at the Divinity School orientation that students must be aware of the Church’s position on homosexuality. He read from the Book of Discipline that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

In a lengthy letter to the Divinity School, Hays explained that his statement was misinterpreted. 

“We in the Divinity School are in the business of actively seeking reconciliation with our communities…while at the same time respecting the complexity of our traditions and their engagement with biblical and theological resources,” he wrote.

Hays stated that he read the concluding words in the Discipline in full, which urges families and churches to not reject lesbian and gay members. He acknowledged that the Church’s position on these issues is under debate.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, M. Div. ‘74 and Ph.D. ‘80, wrote a letter condemning Hays. She stated that it is morally wrong for him to create a hostile environment, and that he is obligated to create a supportive climate. Thistlethwaite wrote that his statement harmed the theological education of all students and was in violation of Duke University policy. 

“Today, I regret to say I am not proud of being a graduate of Duke Divinity School,” the letter ended. 

Hays stirred more controversy in 2015 when he published a letter that defended the school’s decision to not allow Muslims to sponsor a call to prayer from the Duke Chapel. He acknowledged that the Divinity School supports the public practice of many different religions on campus, but the Chapel is unmistakably a Christian place of worship and should not be identified with another faith.

Hays stepped down as dean of the Divinity Aug. 2015 to begin treatment for pancreatic cancer. An interim chair served for one year until Elaine Heath was announced as his replacement in March 2016. 

In February 2017, Anathea Portier-Young, associate professor of Old Testament, sent an email to the department inviting everyone to attend a diversity training. According to the original email exchanges, Paul Griffiths, the Warren professor of Catholic theology who has since resigned, replied to everyone encouraging them not to attend.

“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,” the email wrote. “When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual.”

Heath then replied that she was looking forward to the diversity training and that it was inappropriate to use mass emails to make disparaging statements. In response, Thomas Pfau, Alice Mary Baldwin professor of English, wrote that his experience of trainings like the one presented makes him agree with Griffiths. He explained that Griffiths does not oppose the goal of the training but the idea that faculty should give up so much of their time to the trainings.

Griffiths responded with a final email that detailed the disciplinary actions initiated by Heath and Portier-Young. He explained that the disciplinary proceedings were not about his views, but his expression of them. 

“Intellectual freedom—freedom to speak and write without fear of discipline and punishment—is under pressure at Duke Divinity these days… Elaine Heath and Thea Portier-Young, when faced with disagreement, prefer discipline to argument,” the email wrote. “In doing so they act illiberally and anti-intellectually; their action shows totalitarian affinities in its preferred method, which is the veiled use of institutional power.”

Heath prohibited Griffiths from attending faculty meetings and possibly limited his funding due to inappropriate behavior. Griffiths resigned from Duke in June 2017.

These events led up to the student protest for better LGBTQ+ student treatment that occurred in March at the dean’s state-of-the-school address.

Student perspective

Jasolyn Harris, a second-year master’s student in the Divinity School, identifies as a queer, black student. She explained that many of the current diversity issues in the Divinity School stem from four important black faculty leaving the school. 

The summer before she joined the Divinity School, two black faculty—William Jennings and Eboni Marshall-Turman—left Duke Divinity to work at Yale University. Right after Harris arrived at Duke, Esther Acolatse also left the University and moved to work at Knox College. Lastly, William Turner Jr.—James T. and Alice Mead Cleland professor of the practice of preaching—will retire this year.

Madeline Reyes, a first-year master’s student in the Divinity School, participated in the student protest in March and was one of four queer women of color who interrupted Heath’s speech. 

“Duke is a historically and presently very Methodist and white school, so the culture of Duke is inherently white supremacist and oppressive to LGBTQ people,” Reyes wrote in an email.

The Divinity School currently has five black faculty out of a total of 59 faculty. Duke Divinity also does not have any faculty who are openly out.

“We were feeling frustrated about black faculty leaving before we even got here, then finding out that more black faculty would be leaving,” Harris said. “We weren’t sure what the school’s plan was to hire more people. Now it’s spring 2018, and at the end of the day, no black faculty have been hired.”

She added that there are no queer theologians at Duke and no queer theology courses. Peer institutions, such as Harvard University, offer queer theology courses.

Harris and other students previously identified a Ph.D. student who would be able to teach a queer theology course. They followed the formal process of setting up the course and obtaining over 200 signatures for the course. But the course was denied last semester, Harris said this was because they started the setup process too late. The Divinity School said they could take queer-focused classes in the gender studies department. 

“In the end of the day, we felt silenced. We felt like our needs were not being met," Harris said. "We were not just going to sit back and let them wait us out until we graduate." 

After the student protest in March, the protesters released a list of demands. Harris said that of the five immediate demands, the first three have mostly been met, but demands four and five have not. Of the five short-term demands to be met by Fall 2018, none of them have been met, although there is some work being done on the fifth demand. 

The diversity issues within the Divinity School have taken a toll on the mental health and wellness of students, and some have been physically sick, Harris explained. She said that it has been “terrible” and “tragic” that they have spent so much of their time planning and organizing, which takes hours away from their study time.

Reyes said she is considering leaving Duke altogether.

“The climate, the backlash from the protest, and the general act of being a queer person of color in such an oppressive Christian space is having an impact on my health, my mind, and my spirit,” she wrote.

Harris also noted that the Divinity School often deals with race and queer issues separately. She works at the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity and claims that the Divinity School cancelled a diversity training because they needed to focus on the race issues at the moment, rather than queer issues.

“For some of us living in black, queer bodies of color, we don’t have that ability. It’s not distinct to us, we’re living in one body,” Harris said. 

She explained that the diversity issues have made her experience harder than those who can choose to not deal with the problems. 

There is not one day where she does not experience a microaggression, Harris said. One particularly problematic class was her first-year mandatory spiritual formation class, where a small group of students shared their personal spiritual thoughts. She said she experienced a lot of emotional trauma from the class by having to sit and listen to people say things that were harmful and hurtful to her. 

“We deal with inappropriate comments from faculty, staff, peers,” Harris said. “There are people who are non-affirming, and there are people who are silent about it, which is just as harmful. Constantly feeling invalidated and constantly feeling silenced takes a toll on our wellness.”

Harris said she is disappointed in the education she was hoping to receive at Duke. She explained that she pays a lot of money to attend this school, and it is not wrong to expect a top-tier school to fit her academic needs. 

Her ultimate goal is that the Divinity School hires a queer, trans, woman of color. If Duke Divinity was able to create a climate where a black, trans, femme person could thrive, then all marginalized students would be liberated, Harris explained. She also wants scholarships for queer people and people of color, and she hopes for more summer placements in black and queer communities. 

Reyes said she hoped that queer and trans students will be valued and affirmed and that they will not have to speak so loud to be heard. 

“We understand that there may not be changes that we see while we’re here, but somebody has to start plowing the ground now so that in five to ten years, when other queer people are coming to the Divinity School—particularly queer people of color—that the climate will be better for them when they get here,” Harris said. “If no one starts doing some of that work, we’re afraid for the future of queer students, particularly queer students of color.”

Faculty perspective

“We are working to increase diversity not simply for diversity’s sake, but because it will contribute to intellectual rigor and will more faithfully prepare our students for ministry in a diverse world,” Heath wrote in an article in the News and Observer.

In 2016, she designated Sacred Worth, the LGBTQ+ Divinity student group, a work space and allowed them to present their experiences to the faculty. The Divinity School has also implemented mandatory implicit bias training, appointed a faculty diversity and inclusion committee and hosted a Racial Equity Institute training experience for faculty and staff. 

Sujin Pak, assistant professor of the history of Christianity, was appointed chair of a task force created in response to the student protests. The task force also includes Douglas Campbell, professor of New Testament, Mary McClintock Fulkerson, professor of theology and Christine Pesetski, senior director for academic programs and registrar.

“The task force is charged to address issues pertaining to curriculum, field education, spiritual formation, staff training, admissions, signage, student conduct, divinity bulletin items—which would be inclusive language—and partnering across the University to find more resourcing,” Pak said. 

The task force cannot hire faculty but only recommend them to the committee on faculty, where the dean makes the final decision.

Pak said the task force will instead focus on addressing the larger climate issues at the school. They will consider the student demands, as well as look at the overarching structure and practices that help make Duke inviting to all individuals.

Pak also noted that despite student's complaints, there are things the Divinity School is doing well that students may not know about. She said the Heath is committed to all-staff training this summer and that she hopes to add a gender and sexuality training, which would be offered at least every two years.

Every floor in the Divinity School also has a gender nonspecific bathroom. Pak hopes to create a gender and sexuality network/resource center that would include affirming faculty and a list of classes relating to LGBTQ+ courses. 

“I take the students critique to heart, [they’re] really tired of debating the issue and having to defend [their] existence. But it’s certainly not true that none of our classes deal with sexuality or gender—a number of classes do,” Pak said.

As academic dean next year, she is also looking at creating a theology class and said she hopes to have a course in place by Spring 2018. 

Still, she acknowledged that it was a crucial point in time when the Divinity School lost three prominent black faculty in two years. Their departure coincided with Hays stepping down as Dean. 

“Circumstances have made it difficult to fill these gaps quickly, due first to an interim dean for a year and then the need for a new dean to settle in and get to know her context and its needs,” Pak said. “Understandably, from the students' perspective, hires have seemed slow, but the school is deeply committed to filling these needs, and we have started to do so with hires this year.”

Both Heath and Pak noted that they are working on hiring black faculty, which has been intentional this whole year. Heath stated the school wants to prioritize hiring an African American woman. It is difficult to intentionally hire a faculty member that identifies as LGBTQ+, Pak said, because the school is not legally allowed to ask the hires their sexuality. 

“I am deeply sympathetic to the concerns of these students. I do see their suffering and their hardship,” Pak said. “I would also say, though, there are systems and institutional issues that students can’t see, and there is a deep commitment to the school to support LGBTQIA+ and African American students in particular.”


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