Nearly a year ago we told you about Evan Charney, a professor of the practice in Duke University’s public policy school who had fallen out of favor with higher-ups for teaching his students how to think about controversial public policy issues.
That made many of them uncomfortable in a way they appreciated. Indeed, they protested Duke’s decision to dump him. For a few others, it made them so uncomfortable they lashed out by reporting him for creating a hostile environment.
As his 20th year as a Duke professor comes to a close and he prepares to leave the university against his will, Charney wants to share some final thoughts about what his ordeal says about higher education.
In an essay for the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Charney says his ordeal “is being repeated at colleges and universities throughout the country”:
Unfortunately, a growing number of university students equate being made uncomfortable in the classroom with being “harmed.” And in this they are encouraged by a growing number of faculty and administrators who view the mission of the university as more about shielding students from such “harm” (for the sake of “inclusivity”) and less about meaningful education. In the “surveillance university,” students are encouraged to report on the transgressions of faculty, and in what has been called an impulse of “vindictive protectiveness,” faculty are judged guilty and harshly punished.
Charney says he was never told of complaints before Duke told him he wouldn’t be offered another five-year renewable contract, and that the university violated its own bylaws by failing to conduct an evaluation.
He didn’t even get the reason for his pending dismissal – after another year teaching the same classes where he allegedly harmed students – until Charney filed a complaint with the Faculty Hearing Committee.
Its resulting report made clear Duke didn’t like his “tendency to provoke negative reactions” through his “confrontational teaching style.” Charney doesn’t shy away from this appraisal:
I challenge students’ deeply held beliefs and expose them to material some would find shocking and offensive. Far from having a tendency to provoke negative reactions, harm, and polarization, it is precisely my method of teaching that has made me such a popular teacher and has led student after student to assert that my class changed her life.
Charney noted the committee itself criticized the public policy school’s handling of the situation, saying the professor’s teaching was “beloved and formative” for “many, many students.”
He accuses the administration of giving “absolute credence” to a single complaint about a single class session that discussed campus racism, and then distorting the record “to ensure a negative vote of the faculty.”
He calls BS on the administration for claiming to care about students feeling uncomfortable:
The complaint of a group of conservative students who felt singled out or disrespected or uncomfortable in class would be taken far less seriously. I have been on the receiving end of faculty emails making light of just such complaints.
Nor would a complaint by religious students that God and Christianity were mocked by their professor have much purchase. And I have never heard that Sanford’s “safe space” is a welcome refuge for the (generally reviled) minority of “open” Trump supporters on campus, nor have I heard of “trigger warnings” for depictions of disrespect to the American flag or harm to the unborn.
Charney also has a warning to conservatives who might cheer the decreasing proportion of tenured faculty in the academy. As universities rely more on adjuncts, professors who provoke students to help them learn will shut themselves up:
It creates a strong incentive to avoid any style of teaching that might conceivably cause discomfort to students who fall within the ambit of an ideologically driven protectiveness.
Teaching shaped by fear, especially when dealing with controversial topics (assuming such topics are not avoided altogether) will never be effective teaching.