Duke School of Medicine professor describes mandatory equity training as "Maoist political propaganda," refuses to attend

A Duke professor disputed with department members about mandatory training with the Office for Institutional Equity, calling the modules “left-wing Maoist political propaganda workshops,” according to an email chain among Duke School of Medicine Molecular Genetics and Microbiology department members obtained by The Chronicle. 

On Tuesday, MGM Chief Administrative Officer Kris Matthews informed all department members that OIE and MGM were designing a training module aimed at “helping members of our department be fair and welcoming of individuals who differ in their background,” according to the email. 

“Per School of Medicine guidelines, all faculty are required to attend a session,” the email read. 

Within minutes, Bryan Cullen, James B. Duke distinguished professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, replied to everyone on the email chain. 

“My initial reaction is I refuse to engage in left-wing Maoist political propaganda workshops and, as a tenured faculty, that is my choice,” Cullen wrote in an email reply obtained by The Chronicle. 

Cullen did not respond to multiple requests for comment about his reply or claims made by department members about his past behavior.

Department members reacted to Cullen’s reply within the email chain and on social media. 

"In the below figure, we see a textbook example of a tenured faculty member whose grasp on human decency is on par with his grasp on the reply-all function," wrote MGM doctoral candidate Jeffrey Letourneau in a reply-all email obtained by The Chronicle.

“It is unfortunate you will not be attending Bryan as you might learn that posting comics with transphobic undertones is typically inappropriate for a prestigious Duke tenured faculty member,” doctoral candidate Jonathan Ark wrote in an email reply obtained by The Chronicle.

Ark included an image taken by another graduate student of a comic strip on a bulletin board outside Cullen’s office, according to Ark. Above a “Highly Cited Researcher 2019” certificate presented to Cullen, the strip depicts a young person attempting to purchase beer from a cashier, saying, “I identify as 21! So are you gonna sell me a beer…or are you a hater?”

"No less than 30 minutes before the reply-all, [the graduate student] was complaining about it making light of identity politics. The comic trivializes self-identification of gender," Ark wrote in an email to The Chronicle Wednesday morning. 

In response to Ark, Cullen wrote, “Well freedom of speech is precisely about tolerance for opinions you disagree with, or were you not familiar with that concept? Certainly, intolerance for opinions outside the realm of wokeness is now a defining characteristic of almost all major universities in the USA.”

Ark wrote in his email to The Chronicle that his reaction to Cullen's original response was "visceral disgust," claiming that Cullen has "a history of xenophobic, homophobic and racist behavior." 

On Twitter, Alan Rosales, doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, posted screenshots of the original email and Cullen’s reply and tweeted, “A tenured-professor REPLIED ALL (second picture) with this disgusting response. I should add that this professor has repeated history of transphobia & homophobia.”

Gilberto Padilla Mercado, a doctoral candidate in the MGM program, tweeted that Cullen has “expressed reactionary rhetoric for many years now, and is set to retire soon.”

“Yet another reminder that despite someone's contributions to a field, or the money they might bring in to an institution, academic administrators do themselves and future scientists a great disservice by keeping these types of people around for the long haul,” Mercado added in his tweet.

In a Wednesday email to The Chronicle, Mercado recalled a guest lecture Cullen, who serves as director of the Center for Virology, gave in 2018 that Mercado wrote "reiterated harmful stereotypes about HIV/AIDs." 

Mercado pointed to Cullen's claims that "male homosexuals played a critical role in the early spread of HIV in the USA, especially in [San Franscisco, Calif.] and [New York City, N.Y.]" and that "the promiscuity of African women who then gave British sailors HIV...allowed HIV to spread to Europe" as examples.

"I would broadly describe this, as well as his response to the departmental email, as reactionary. Others may have difference in opinion on this matter, I think that is ok," Mercado wrote in his email to The Chronicle.

Mercado also mentioned the guest lecture in a reply to the MGM department members' email chain Tuesday night. Addressing Cullen, he wrote, “I had long since forgotten the racist, homophobic lecture you gave on HIV in a virology course I took early in my graduate career, but this sure brings back memories!” 

Cullen responded to Mercado individually over email Tuesday night, writing, “To my knowledge, I have never said or implied anything racist in my virology lectures, though the well-established fact that male homosexuals played a critical role in the early spread of HIV in the USA, especially in SF and NYC, was certainly mentioned. The truth can be painful, but that does not mean it should be avoided in a graduate school course.”

"I do not recollect all my many guest lectures, so cannot comment on what exactly I said. However, if I did say what is claimed (which may or may not be the case) then these statements would appear to be fairly accurate, except it was a Norwegian sailor, not a British one," Cullen wrote in a Wednesday email to The Chronicle.

He referred to two segments from a 2018 NBC News article titled, "LGBTQ History Month: The early days of America's AIDS crisis," specifically: "It was not until the late 1970s when the HIV strain that started the North American pandemic had made its way to the United States, via Zaire and Haiti. By then, the sexual revolution was in full swing and HIV was spreading silently among gay male populations in large American cities. Men who have sex with men were, and still are, disproportionately impacted by HIV because it transmits much more easily through anal sex than through vaginal sex," and, "A Norwegian sailor died from AIDS in 1976 after he likely contracted the virus while traveling in Africa."

Matthews, Joseph Heitman, chair of the MGM department and Micah Luftig, vice chair of the MGM department, did not immediately respond to requests for comment and further information in time for publication. 

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in a Wednesday morning message to The Chronicle that he had "nothing to add on this matter." 

In 2017, a similar incident occurred in the Divinity School when Anathea Portier-Young, associate professor of Old Testament, invited Divinity School faculty to a racial equity training over email. 

In a reply, Paul Griffiths, Warren professor of Catholic theology at the time, discouraged fellow faculty from attending the trainings, predicting they would be “intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty.” He described the trainings as anti-intellectual and “totalitarian.” Multiple email exchanges and a disciplinary process launched by Portier-Young through the Office of Institutional Equity ensued. 

Griffiths offered his resignation in the fall of 2017, effective June 2018. 

This is a developing story and will be updated if new information becomes available. 

Editor's Note: This story was updated on Wednesday morning to include Letourneau's email response and comment from Ark. This story was updated again on Wednesday afternoon to include Schoenfeld's response. This story was updated again Wednesday afternoon to include Mercado and Cullen's comments about a guest lecture.

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Katie Tan | Digital Strategy Director

Katie Tan is a Trinity senior and digital strategy director of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 118. 


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