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‘Equal opportunity provocateur’: Sanford dismisses professor ‘largely’ for controversial teaching style

<p>Evan Charney</p>

Evan Charney

When Evan Charney’s contract came up for renewal last spring, he did not expect that it would be shot down.

Charney, associate professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy, will not be teaching at Duke in Fall 2019. After a two-member faculty review committee and a panel of his peers in the Sanford School of Public Policy decided not to renew his contract, Charney appealed to Provost Sally Kornbluth. 

More than 100 students and alumni signed a letter in May 2018 asking Kornbluth’s office to reverse the decision. When that appeal was rejected, he sent a complaint about how his case was handled to the Faculty Hearing Committee—a group of faculty from different departments at Duke—on the grounds that his academic freedom and due process had been violated. That appeal, too, was rejected, even as the FHC stated that he was “an asset to Duke.”

“The members of the panel were disappointed with Sanford’s handling of Professor Charney’s reappointment,” the FHC stated in their report. “Professor Charney was, for many years at Duke, a highly-rated, University-decorated, and—for many, many students—beloved and formative teacher.”

The FHC report found that though the review process was “no model for personnel management and faculty governance, nothing Sanford did in this case implicates the Faculty Hearing Committee’s jurisdiction.” 

Charney finally appealed to President Vincent Price. Price then became the third to reject Charney’s appeal, leaving the professor without further appeal options and without his job at Duke.

A process carried out ‘oddly’

Charney, as a regular rank, non-tenure track professor, was working on a five-year contract. 

He earned his undergraduate degree from the City University of New York—Hunter College, then a pair of master’s degrees and a doctorate from Harvard University. Charney began teaching at Duke in 1999. 

During his review for re-appointment in 2013, then-Sanford Dean Bruce Kuniholm extended Charney’s contract for two years—rather than five—due to “low evaluations” in two Master of Public Policy classes he taught, Charney wrote in a footnote of his appeal to Price. But then-Sanford Dean Kelly Brownell extended his contract until 2019 in a September 2014 letter that cited “a very satisfactory internal review” of Charney’s teaching.

With the extension, Charney’s contract is set to end June 30, 2019. The review for whether to extend it was planned for 2018, the year before his contract was set to expire.

Each school or institute at Duke has a review committee that crafts an “initial report on appointment, reappointment or promotion” for any regular rank, non-tenure track candidate who is seeking one of those three listed objectives, according to the Duke University Faculty Handbook.

Certain items of the report come from a “review portfolio” from the provost’s office, but the school or institute also is able to “have some flexibility to reshape that list [of items] to fit the nature of the position being reviewed,” the faculty handbook states.

Charney’s faculty review committee was composed of Kathryn Whetten and Robert Korstad, both professors in the Sanford School of Public Policy, according to the FHC report. The report detailed that the two professors “prepared a 13-page report that was provided to the Sanford faculty and dated ‘March 2018.’” 

They did not make any “clear, formal recommendation” about whether to re-appoint him, according to the FHC report.

Charney claimed Korstad and Whetten were ideologically opposed to him. 

“[They] obviously have an ideological axe to grind,” Charney told The Chronicle near the beginning of the Spring semester.

Whetten disputed the claim in an email to The Chronicle. 

“Dr. Charney and I are actually very close in our teaching objectives, material that we present and work toward a classroom in which authentic dialogue and exchange can occur,” Whetten wrote. “I do not have any axes to grind with Dr. Charney, ideological or otherwise.” 

Korstad initially referred The Chronicle to Billy Pizer, professor and senior associate dean for faculty and research in the Sanford School of Public Policy, when asked for general comment on the situation. When told Charney alleged that there was an “ideological axe to grind” in regards to teaching style, Korstad responded “it is not true.” 

“I have never said anything like that to Professor Charney or anyone else,” Korstad wrote. 

When it was clarified that Charney did not claim that Korstad had spoken that phrase—but rather it was Charney’s characterization—Korstad declined to discuss the matter further.

“I have disagreed in public exchanges on multiple occasions with both Whetten and Korstad on matters pertinent to my teaching philosophy,” Charney wrote in the FHC complaint. 

Whetten and Korstad told The Chronicle that they did not remember such public disagreements.

“While Sanford faculty do have discussions about teaching, I do not remember ever disagreeing in public exchanges with Professor Charney’s teaching philosophy,” Korstad wrote in an email. “Our styles are different, but our goals are very similar.”

Whetten wrote in an email that she "never had a public or private negative exchange with Professor Charney." 

The next step for Charney’s reappointment after Whetten and Korstad’s review was a vote from Sanford faculty. The faculty handbook details that “all regular rank faculty, who hold the same rank as the candidate or a higher rank are eligible to vote.”

After two meetings on separate days, the faculty voted against reappointing Charney. 

“Sanford then ended its relationship with Professor Charney through a process that included, oddly, a two-person committee and a report with no formal vote or recommendation, followed by a faculty-wide deliberation and vote,” the FHC report stated. 

Candidates who receive an “unfavorable” recommendation from the faculty can “appeal the decision to the provost within two weeks of the notification date,” the faculty handbook states.

Thus, after receiving an unfavorable recommendation from the Sanford faculty, Charney appealed the vote to Kornbluth, who denied Charney’s appeal. Kornbluth declined to comment in an email to The Chronicle, citing that it was a personnel matter. 

Charney then made a second appeal, this time to the FHC—whose jurisdiction is limited to specific charges outlined in the faculty handbook—on the grounds of “allegations of violation of academic due process” and “allegations of violation of academic freedom,” according to Charney’s written appeal to Price.

In his appeal to the FHC, Charney asked to be reviewed again for another faculty vote in Spring 2020, and that he be made aware of the specific criteria on which he would be evaluated. 

The FHC unanimously decided to take no action on his appeal. 

Charney’s final step was to appeal to Price, who also denied Charney’s appeal. Price declined to comment to The Chronicle, deferring to Pizer.

‘Maybe I should be flattered’

Charney alleged there were a number of issues in the review process that led to his firing, which he outlined in his appeals to the FHC and Price. 

One issue Charney highlighted in his appeal to Price was a document sent to voting faculty between the meetings in which they discussed his reappointment. The email was sent from Susan Alexander, manager of faculty affairs for Sanford, to three faculty listservs of Sanford professors. 

Alexander wrote in the email that a new document “you will want to read before the faculty meeting tomorrow” had been added to the Duke Box folder about Charney’s reappointment.

“Some faculty have asked the committee to put the student course evaluation data and comments from class atmosphere into a different format, which this new document addresses,” Alexander wrote in the email.

In response to a request for comment about who asked her to send the email, Alexander declined to comment to The Chronicle.

“You are talking about a confidential email to our faculty that was sent out over a year ago,” Alexander wrote in the email to The Chronicle. “I do not comment on internal confidential emails or information.”

Charney said the document mentioned in Alexander’s email failed to mention all the positive feedback and reviews he had received over his career, which he said outnumbered the few negative reviews that dotted his record.

From the Fall 2014 to Spring 2018 semesters, Charney’s student evaluation score for “fostering a positive class dynamic and atmosphere conducive to learning” was 4.48 out of 5, compared to the departmental faculty average of 4.34, according to data in his appeal to Price.

Students rated the ability of Charney’s class to help them “communicate ideas orally” as a 3.96 out of 5 during the same period, compared to an average of 3.69 for classes taught by other professors in the department. They also rated his class a 3.94, compared to a 3.82 average for other departmental professors’ courses, for helping them “[learn] to conduct inquiry through methods of the field.”

The only category in which Charney ranked below average that he included in his appeal to Price was for students’ “ability to effectively communicate ideas in writing,” for which Charney’s classes earned a 3.98 compared to a departmental average of 4.00.

In addition, Charney wrote that they were five mathematical errors in that document provided to the faculty. Charney claimed in his appeal to Price that every error in the document was in the same direction, “all having the effect of making [his] scores look worse.” 

The document stated that in Fall 2014, 40% of students reported scores of 1-3 out of 5 for their “ability to communicate effectively orally.” Yet five out of 15 students reported scores in that range, which amounts to 33%.

For his class in Spring 2015, the document reported that 6% of students rated Charney a 1-3 for fostering a “positive class dynamic conducive to learning.” However, two students out of 42 is 5%, not the 6% figure that was stated in the document.

Charney also cited an error in Fall 2015 class data, for which 11 out of 50 students rated the course a 1-3 for conducting inquiry through methods of the field. The document reported the percentage as 28%, not 22%.

An alleged error in the Fall 2016 semester reported that 11% of students did not recommend the class, despite four out of 40 students—10%—responding in such a manner to the question.

For the fifth and final alleged error, Charney pointed to the Spring 2017 data in the document, which showed that 35% of students awarded the course a 1-3 for helping them communicate ideas in writing. Since 10 out of 32 students gave the course a 1-3, Charney said the correct percentage would be 32%. The Chronicle’s calculation found that the percentage, based on the data in the document, is 31%.

Beyond the mathematical errors, Charney wrote in his appeal to Price that the way course evaluation statistics were presented in the document were “deceptive.” 

In Fall 2016, for example, 47 course evaluations were submitted. In responding to the prompt “My ability to effectively communicate ideas in writing,” the document stated that, of those 47 students, “6 (13%) reported 1s and 2 with another 16 gave 3s (47%).” 

Charney pointed out that although six out of 47 is 13%, 16 out of 47 is 34%, not 47%. The 47% figure is the sum of 13% and 34%. There is no mention in the document that the percentages would be framed in that manner, Charney wrote in the appeal to Price.

“The obvious effect of such a deceptive presentation is to make it seem as if 16 is 47% of the respondents and that the number of respondents giving low scores is in fact higher than 47%,” he wrote in the appeal to Price.

He also wrote in the appeal that he received mostly scores of 4 and 5 on his course evaluations, but the document omitted those positive scores.

He claimed that the document only included questions from the course evaluations that he received the most number of scores at three or below. The categories involving research methods and writing were not applicable to his ethics course, Charney claimed in the appeal, because the class “has nothing to do” with methods or writing skills.

“In my opinion, it’s deceptive,” Charney told The Chronicle near the beginning of the Spring semester. “So maybe I should be flattered that [the authors of the document] had to resort to such an astonishingly misleading presentation to persuade the faculty to vote against me.”

In an April 2018 letter explaining the faculty’s decision, Sanford Dean Judith Kelley wrote that the faculty considered his overall evaluations.

“The faculty recognized that you are a hard-working teacher and that you are passionate about what you do,” Kelley wrote in the letter. “We discussed fully the positive feedback you and others have received about your teaching, and your course evaluations overall… However, the faculty reviewed course evaluations and feedback from deans and others, which found that some students rated your performance very low and examined the varied causes for such low ratings.”

Charney received the email alerting him to the document along with other faculty members on the listservs. According to his appeal to Price, the document was made available to Charney after he had submitted an appeal about his termination.

The FHC report stated that Charney’s firing was “largely” due to his teaching style—the Sanford faculty believed Charney had “a tendency to provoke negative reactions, and perhaps harm, among some students in the classroom,” according to the report.

Charney wrote in his appeal to Price that he found the claim to be “extraordinary,” and that it was not something that students had brought to his attention.

“Despite the picture that the respondents have tried to paint of me, I am deeply concerned with the emotional well-being of my students, and I suggest you look at some of the student letters written on my behalf to get a clearer picture of this,” he wrote in the appeal. 

In his appeal to Price, Charney included a series of letters from students urging administrators to reconsider his dismissal. 

Charney told The Chronicle he aims to upend students’ settled convictions and take them out of their comfort zones. He added that on college campuses today, exposure to viewpoints that students don’t agree with is considered harmful, and this causes a degradation of the core purpose of attending college.

“Universities are supposed to be a place where unorthodox and heterodox points of view can be freely expressed,” he said.

Why was Charney fired?

The FHC report stated that though “dissatisfaction with Professor Charney’s classroom performance was plainly the primary motive for his nonrenewal,” the Sanford faculty evaluated “Professor Charney’s research and service quite negatively,” which “had not been major concerns for Sanford prior to 2018.”

In the April 2018 letter to Charney explaining the reasons for the faculty’s decision to not re-appoint him, Kelley described their opinion on his research, service and teaching. Kelley wrote that the faculty found his research during the last review period to be “weak.”

However, Charney argued that he was not aware those factors would be taken into account, since the only job description he said he had ever received about the role of associate professor of the practice was related to his teaching. The professor said that description came when he was originally moved to the professor of the practice role from a tenure-track position.

“When I switched from assistant professor to associate professor of the practice, [it] was made clear to me at the time by Dean Phillip Cook and Associate Dean James Hamilton, that the offer of this position was based upon my excellence as a teacher,” Charney wrote in his complaint to the FHC. “In other words, I was being offered a position of professor of the practice because of what the Sanford Bylaws, under the description of professors of the practice, describes as ‘contribution to the teaching mission of the school.’”

Although Charney argued in his appeals that it was not clear to him that his reappointment would be predicated on certain expectations in all those areas, Kelley outlined in her April letter that those three areas “have been consistent in letters requesting materials for reviews going back to your 2008 initial appointment.” 

She included in the letter a description of professors of the practice from the Sanford bylaws, which state that “satisfactory performance” teaching undergraduate or professional students is typically required for reappointment. 

“Reappointment also requires satisfactory performance in administration, program development, research and writing, fundraising, to the extent that these activities are included in the job definition,” the bylaws state, according to Kelley’s letter.

Concerning his service, Kelley wrote that the C.V. Charney submitted did not show service outside of a list of journals that he reviews for. The faculty, she wrote, found his service to be “very weak,” and that he “seemed to have become largely absent from the life of the school.”

In his appeal to Kornbluth, Charney outlined more details of his service, including his affiliations as a faculty fellow at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and an admissions committee member for the MD/Ph.D. program at the Duke University School of Medicine. 

As for his research, Kelley wrote that the faculty found “the new body of research produced during your recent term insufficient to stand on its own as a reason for reappointment.”

“The faculty therefore found your research productivity weak,” she wrote.

In the appeal to Kornbluth, Charney included a list of articles and book chapters he had produced since his last review and wrote the “weak” characterization was a “gross misrepresentation” of his productivity. He also noted that he intends to complete a book manuscript by the end of the summer of 2019, and that his research should be reviewed by an outside reviewer.

Regarding his teaching style, Kelley wrote that the issue was not with his use of the Socratic method or a “radical free speech approach,” or whether the issues discussed in his classes would be considered “politically correct.” 

“Rather, it was a concern about whether you implemented the approach with the necessary care,” she wrote. “The faculty discussed that even if many students benefit from your approach, it was significantly counter-productive for other students. Despite your high ratings from many students, the faculty therefore found your teaching record mixed.”

Charney’s appeal to Kornbluth noted that he was the inaugural recipient of the Susan A. Tift Undergraduate Teaching and Mentoring Award in 2010.

‘I feel like it’s a very thorough, deliberative process’

Pizer, the senior associate dean for faculty and research in Sanford, gave an overview of the process dedicated to renewing contracts, which is detailed in the faculty handbook.

“We have a set of procedures and processes that have evolved over a long period of time and have been debated and discussed by the faculty themselves,” he told The Chronicle near the beginning of the Spring semester. “Duke is fairly well known for the strength of its faculty governance. I feel like it’s a very thorough, deliberative process.”

Pizer stressed the confidentiality of each decision, and would not comment on the specifics of Charney’s case.

“People want to be able to have a frank discussion and feel comfortable having conversations that would not be possible if confidentiality was not established,” he said.

In the faculty handbook, there is a description of the confidentiality clause that applies to personnel decisions for non-tenure track, regular rank faculty.

“Pursuant to university custom and policy, all documents contained in the dossier with the exception of the materials directly submitted by the candidate are considered confidential, as is the identity of all external reviewers,” the confidentiality clause states, in part.

In his appeal to the FHC, Charney pushed for documents he said were related to his firing to be made available to him. The FHC denied his access to three of the document categories that he requested, citing confidentiality concerns. The committee rejected the request regarding the fourth category he requested because the committee said the documents were not “relevant” since Sanford faculty had not seen them when considering whether to renew his contract. 

Charney claimed in his appeal that not having access to these documents limited his ability to respond to the concerns that led to his firing.

“It is far from desirable to conduct a proceeding such as this one without allowing all parties to marshal arguments on the basis of all relevant evidence,” the FHC report stated. “However, the panel found itself inhibited from disclosing the materials by the compelling argument that the simple filing of a complaint with the Faculty Hearing Committee not be a means of automatically piercing the confidentiality of Duke’s appointments and promotion processes.”

Samuel Buell, Bernard M. Fishman professor of law and chair of the Faculty Hearing Committee for Charney’s case, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that he could not comment on the case due to confidentiality of the FHC process. He directed The Chronicle to Appendix N in the faculty handbook for publicly available information about the process. 

The FHC—whose members are elected to serve a term on the standing committee that can hear complaints about procedural issues—stated that it was not within its prerogative to set the precedent regarding which documents should be available to complainants, and it asked Academic Council to take up the issue.

“We were very surprised to be told that this issue had not squarely come up in past hearings,” the FHC report stated. “We expect that it will recur and we view it as an important matter of University policy that must be addressed.”

‘An equal opportunity provocateur’

The FHC rebutted Charney’s claim of an academic freedom violation by saying that it was not what he said, but rather how he said it.

“The issue was not what Professor Charney discussed but how he handled discussion of difficult and emotional issues with and among students,” the FHC wrote in its report.

Additionally, the FHC did not find that anyone in the school objected to a specific viewpoint that he raised. The FHC unanimously recommended “no further action” to amend the decision to fire Charney.

“The panel finds no evidence, however, that anyone at Sanford objected to Professor Charney’s raising of any particular issue, or expression of any particular viewpoint, in his classroom,” the FHC report stated. “Indeed, Professor Charney stressed that he intentionally introduces provocative views on all sides of issues and that students would have difficulty determining his personal views.”

For his last semester at Duke, Charney taught the core public policy course Policy Choice as Value Conflict—the same class he has been teaching almost every semester for the past 19 years.

Some of the subject matter can be sensitive for students. For instance, Charney brings in a former sex slave to share her experiences with the class. Charney said that despite how emotionally devastating that talk can be, students rate it as one of the highlights of the course.

“I care enormously about the emotional and mental well-being of my students,” Charney said. 

On occasions where students felt uncomfortable, Charney added he spent hours talking with them afterwards.

“I am an equal opportunity provocateur, which means that, while I am well aware of power differentials, underrepresentation and structural inequalities, I challenge students equally regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation/gender identity, and so forth,” Charney wrote in his appeal of the FHC decision to Price.

During the Spring semester, when Charney still hoped his appeal would be accepted, he told The Chronicle that he felt continuing to teach in his style about topics such as offensive speech was risky. He expressed concerns to The Chronicle that the complaints of a single student could negatively impact his appeal.

Nevertheless, he continued to teach the course.

“Why am I a teacher of a course called Policy Choice as Value Conflict if I won’t teach the most conflictual topics?” he asked.

Stefanie Pousoulides, Nathan Luzum and Jake Satisky contributed to this report. 

Editor's note: This article was updated Wednesday morning to include Whetten's response to Charney's assertion that the two had public disagreements about his teaching philosophy.

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