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Grassley formally questions Duke's academic freedom after dismissal of Evan Charney

Plus: Charney is back in Durham

<p>Evan Charney</p>

Evan Charney

Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy drew some ire when it decided not to renew Professor Evan Charney’s contract and he had to stop teaching at the end of the Spring 2019 semester. 

Now it has also attracted the official attention of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and the Senate Committee on Finance.

Grassley recently penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, mentioning several high-profile cases involving faculty academic freedom in higher education, and sent a formal letter to President Vincent Price requesting answers about Charney’s case. The letter noted Duke’s tax-exempt status and raised broader concerns about academic freedom in higher education. 

Charney, meanwhile, began a new job last month—right back at Duke. The Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity hired him as a research scientist, and he began working there Sept. 2. The new role does not currently include teaching.

“I’m working at Duke, believe it or not,” Charney said. “I was ready to leave, I was set to leave, and I got hired at the Cook Center for Social Equity.”

Charney said he did not know about Grassley’s column until a student pointed it out to him. A staff member from Grassley’s office had reached out a few months ago about the topic and they had a phone conversation, Charney said, but he did not know what would come of it. 

A registered Democrat and self-described liberal, the former Sanford professor said he was not surprised that a Republican senator had picked up the issue. That reflects a larger paradigm shift in higher education, Charney said, as liberals suppress free speech on college campuses. 

Grassley’s letter, dated Sept. 25, comes a few weeks after the Department of Education prodded the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle Eastern Studies about its representation of Islam and use of Title VI funds. 

In the wake of the Department of Education’s letter, Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth issued a statement on academic freedom. Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for government affairs and public relations, pointed to the statement when asked about Grassley’s letter, saying it still stands. 

“No outside entity will determine what Duke faculty will teach, how they teach it, what they choose to research or write about, or who can speak on our campus,” states a line Schoenfeld highlighted from the message.

‘An equal opportunity provocateur’

Evan Charney was sitting outside Au Bon Pain on a sunny Saturday earlier this October, a ring rapping against the metal table with each emphatically-made point about free speech in higher education. 

At this time last year, he was regularly teaching a class called Policy Choice as a Value Conflict in the Sanford School of Public Policy and beginning a public fight against the University about its decision not to renew his contract. 

As an associate professor of the practice, he had been teaching at Sanford on five-year contracts for almost two decades and didn’t expect there to be problems when he came up for review this time. But in early 2018, the Sanford faculty voted not to renew his contract, citing a number of reasons.

Charney appealed the faculty’s decision to Kornbluth, who upheld Sanford’s call. Then he took the case to the Faculty Hearing Committee, filing a complaint on the grounds that the Sanford decision had violated his academic freedom and due process rights. 

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

The FHC unanimously decided to not take action on his request, effectively rejecting it, but acknowledged in its decision that the issue boiled down to his teaching style—“dissatisfaction with Professor Charney’s classroom performance was plainly the primary motive for his nonrenewal.”

Charney appealed the FHC’s decision to Price, who also rejected the appeal. That finalized his departure from teaching at Sanford, and his last class ended in the Spring 2019 semester. 

‘Serious concerns about the state of higher education’

Grassley, the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Finance, published the opinion piece that included Charney’s case in the Wall Street Journal in late September. In “The Senate Takes on Campus Censorship,” the senator also mentioned Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College and Villanova University.

“True cases of discrimination need to be investigated and handled with care,” Grassley wrote. “But media reports indicate many such complaints are frivolous and politically motivated.”

In addition to the commentary and a news release, Grassley also fired off oversight letters to the four colleges with questions about their handling of the cases. 

In the letter addressed to Price, Grassley started by noting Duke’s tax-exempt status as an educational institution and noting that the senator has seen a “variety of media reports discussing incidents in higher education involving faculty suffering difficulties with or expressing concerns about teaching or researching topics that might challenge or encourage critical thinking about the conventional wisdom or a popular ideology of the day.”

“The purpose of this letter is not to re-litigate Duke University’s decision not to renew Prof. Charney’s contract nor is it to question the adequacy of procedures afforded to Prof. Charney in the wake of that non-renewal,” the letter states. “However, Prof. Charney more generally raises serious concerns about the state of higher education.”

The letter goes on to list 23 questions, some of which feature multiple parts, regarding Charney’s case and Duke’s Bias Response Advisory Committee. The questions range from the type of orientation programming Duke has around academic freedom, whether Charney’s non-renewal was “precipitated by students reporting him” to the Bias Response Advisory Committee and the accuracy of statements Charney made regarding awards he has won and his teaching evaluations. 

Grassley asked the universities to respond to the letter by Oct. 25. Schoenfeld confirmed that Duke has received the letter and that the University intends to respond to it. 

“While we cannot comment on personnel matters, I do want to be very clear that that there is no political litmus test for any Duke faculty member,” Schoenfeld wrote. “Duke faculty are protected by the university’s strong and longstanding commitment to academic freedom, which covers their work as teachers and scholars.”

Nicole Tieman, deputy communications director for Grassley on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote that his office sends out a “significant amount” of oversight letters but that these are the first regarding academic freedom that she knows of. When asked what prompted Grassley’s interest in the topic, Tieman said that the office generally keeps an eye on the nonprofit sector and is becoming increasingly concerned about the scene in higher education. 

“It’s one thing to see political correctness go maybe too far at times, but when professors become afraid to teach what they believe in good faith should be taught to students out of a concern for their financial security, then that is something that is worth looking into,” Tieman said.

‘I think I’m an absolute pariah’

Charney began looking for other jobs once he realized that he could not teach at Sanford anymore. He applied to all kinds of jobs, he said, but it became increasingly clear that he was not going to get hired elsewhere. 

“I think I’m an absolute pariah,” Charney said. “Any member of a hiring committee is going to Google my name, and when they Google my name, the entire first page of google results is full of articles about me and they are either going to agree with my losing my job, or they are going to be terrified of hiring someone like me because all they see is controversy.”

William Darity, Samuel DuBois Cook professor of public policy and the founding director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, confirmed in an email that Charney is currently working at the Cook Center. 

He described Charney’s position as being senior research staff. The Cook Center is a research center and cannot make faculty appointments, so Charney is no longer on the faculty. 

“I will say Evan Charney is an excellent scholar, I did not support him being released from the Sanford School, and I am glad to have him as a colleague at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity,” Darity wrote. 

Charney said that he began the new position Sept. 2. His profile page has disappeared from Scholars@Duke, and his name is not listed on the Cook Center’s list of “people” as of Oct. 16. 

The new role allows him to focus on his research as he finishes up his book on genetics. Charney described the time table of the position as being “indefinite,” and said he may one day return to a classroom to teach about matters related to his research, but that he will never teach the type of courses he taught before. 

“At least, if I never got a job, I could be poor with my integrity intact,” Charney said.

‘I won’t set foot in Sanford’

As for what happens once Duke returns Grassley’s letter, Tieman declined to say. 

“I can’t really give you an answer on that, because we haven’t received any letters back from universities,” she said. “That’s a question for a later date, depending on the content of the letters we receive back.”

In the meantime, Charney is working on finishing his book. The former Sanford professor said he enjoys being on campus and catching up with students, but that teaching was a “particular kind of high” that research doesn’t quite bring. You won’t, however, find him around his old haunts anytime soon. 

“I won’t set foot in Sanford, won’t go near there,” he said. 

Stefanie Pousoulides contributed reporting

Bre Bradham

Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head. 

Twitter: @brebradham



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