MILLER: The hazards of Duke

Images of the N.C. State Belltower, UNC Chapel Hill Old Well, Wake Forest Wait Chapel and Duke University Chapel via AP/Public Domain.

The following is the second of four installments that mark the low points in the Big Four universities tacking left

In last week’s column, I identified Michael Skube as the whistleblower who exposed the decline of NC State’s English department under leftist control. It was Michael Skube who coined the phrase “the hazards of Duke” when he saw that Duke’s English department was inspiring a nationwide takeover of English education. 

It all began in 1986, when Duke landed renowned scholar Stanley Fish to chair its English department, but only on the condition that Dr. Fish could pay whopping salaries to other hotshot recruits who would help him make the department over in his own image — smug, despotic, and impervious to bad press from dissenting colleagues or from outsiders who noticed that the Fish plot was being reenacted nationwide.    

By 1990, the infighting in the English department was making national news, pitting Fish against African-American scholar Kenny Williams, who had challenged Fish’s claim that “literature has no intrinsic merit,” as well as Fish’s resolve that “paying too much attention to spelling and grammatical errors” upsets student writers unnecessarily. 

A reporter for the Durham Herald had already noted that Fish’s protégés “aren’t interested in teaching. Their real ambition is to empower the oppressed. And what they offer is cotton candy for the mind.” 

But it was insider Kenny Williams who made national news, telling columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz that she would not be “doing social work or teaching oppression” at Duke.  For exposing the Fish plot in the Wall Street Journal, Williams would no longer be serving on committees or teaching grad students either because colleagues in the so-called “Fish Tank” had agreed to make Williams “invisible.” 

At the same time Duke became known as the PC capital of American universities, critics were mocking Fish’s protégés for their twisted reinterpretations of the classics — for Eve Sedgewick’s obsession with “homoeroticism” in Jane Austen’s novels and for her grad student protégé’s focus upon the “face/butt metonymy” in Swinburne’s poetry. 

But it was Marxist Fredric Jameson who made international news for winning the worldwide “Bad Writing Contest” — twice — for writing prose so garbled reading it “was like swimming through cold porridge.” Despite the unintelligible prose, Jameson’s anti-capitalist stance has made him a hero to the American left, and even more tellingly, to the Chinese Communist Party.         

Such was not the case in 1998, when an external review found that the department’s “meteoric rise has given way to a rapid descent.” Soon after, both Fish and his star recruits bolted, leaving a faculty still divided along pro-Fish and anti-Fish lines and a curriculum that was “a hodgepodge of uncoordinated offerings.” In 1999, Lingua Franca columnist David Yaffe said that Fish had, with “shameless, and in academe unheard-of entrepreneurial gusto,” taken a “staid Southern English department and transformed it into the professional powerhouse of the day,” briefly, until it became “The Department That Fell to Earth.”        

Fish and his ilk may be long-gone, but faculty who cast themselves as liberators of the oppressed now rule campus-wide at Duke, and the penalty for dissent is still making news. In 2017, Divinity School Professor Paul Griffiths urged faculty not to attend Duke’s Racial Equity Institute’s “Phase I Training,” citing its “illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies.” The blowback had the Institute charging Dr. Griffiths with “harassment” and Dean Elaine Heath censuring him for “unprofessional conduct.” Nine weeks later, Griffiths announced that he would be leaving Duke at the end of the school year. 

In 2019, university-decorated Public Policy professor Evan Charney was fired after a handful of students complained that during a class discussion on race, Dr. Charney had presented opposing points of view, distressing students who think there’s only one correct way to talk about race. 

While professors emeriti pay no penalty for exposing totalitarian tendencies in their former colleagues, professors emeriti can also be ignored — as Professor John Staddon has recently discovered. After reading President Vincent Price’s June 17 announcement that he would take “transformative action” to end “structural racism and inequality” at Duke, Dr. Staddon wrote an open letter to Price, calling his plan “alarmingly Orwellian,” because it mandates “anti-racism and anti-bias training for every member of our faculty, student body, and staff.” Staddon also noted the plan’s comply-or-else subtext, plus the hint that without such training Duke might become a community of scoundrels. 

President Price’s failure to respond to Dr. Staddon makes clear the university’s position on free speech; it is free so long as it kowtows to a leftist agenda. I’m not the first to liken that position to McCarthyism — with a twist. While Sen. McCarthy preyed on citizens suspected of engaging in “un-American activities,” Duke administrators threaten the careers of professors caught engaging in an essentially American activity — the right to express views that run counter to the ruling orthodoxy.   

It was Stanley Fish who set the stage for Duke to rescind that right, but unlike the old brand of McCarthyism, the new brand proceeds unchecked.