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This professor is beloved for making his students intellectually uncomfortable. Duke just dumped him.

‘No professor has this kind of discourse,’ just Evan Charney

About 100 students and alumni have asked Duke University to reinstate a professor whose teaching style encourages students to think critically about their opinions and opposing views.

They believe that the private university refused to renew a contract for Evan Charney, associate professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy, because he made some students feel uncomfortable by playing devil’s advocate on sensitive issues.

“In a time when political tribalism and divisiveness keep us from engaging fruitfully with one another, the skills Charney teach us are necessary to train the next generation of citizens,” they wrote in an open letter published by The Duke Chronicle.

The College Fix reviewed two other letters defending Charney (below), including one from ethnically Chinese students who disputed that his classroom is not a “safe space” for minorities.

Hannah Beiderwieden told The Fix she believes a lot of students are “unprepared to have their views challenged” because “no professor has this kind of discourse.”

“Our identities are so intertwined with our views that we tend to take attacks on our views as personal attacks,” the 2017 graduate in public policy said in a phone interview: “I think that’s what went wrong.”

Spent entire class weighing merits of campus racial protest

Charney’s faculty page says he’s an expert in genomics and behavior genetics, but his publications include “Liberal bias and the five-factor model” and “Conservatives, liberals, and ‘the negative.’” His recent courses range from “Global Inequality Research Seminar” to “Policy Choice as Value Conflict.”

The students and alumni who signed the May 8 open letter – mostly class of 2017 through 2020, but a few going back as far as 2008 – said Charney challenged them regardless of their beliefs so they would gain a better understanding of various opinions on controversial subjects.

“Professor Charney’s teaching style is wonderfully thought-provoking and challenging,” they wrote, asking their peers to send their own stories to Provost Sally Kornbluth.

“His students’ ideas are vetted and sharpened through rigorous debate and discussion on issues ranging from physician assisted suicide to the legalization of sex work,” they said. “No thought goes unexamined; no assertion goes unchecked.”

One incident that offended some students was Charney’s decision to use “a whole class discussing the motivations and tactics” of protesters who staged a weeklong sit-in to protest a racially charged parking dispute in 2016.

He challenged students “to argue cogently in favor of or against the movement,” they said:

Though in some cases this put the burden on protesters in his class to justify their actions, it also exposed the unsavory and borderline racist opinions of others. His rationale is clear: without confronting new ideas, students go through Duke unchallenged and are unable to evaluate the merits of competing claims.

MORE: Duke prof who called diversity training a ‘waste’ resigns under pressure

They also defended him against claims that “his class reproduces systems and structures of inequality involving notions of class, privilege and power” by considering diverse perspectives in society and on campus. Charney makes “sincere and intentional efforts to reach out to students who might feel hurt or offended by the class discussions,” they said.

Charney’s dismissal will not make Duke a “safer” place as some think, according to the letter. It sends “a dangerous message to professors and students alike to avoid the discussions that allow us to engage with difficult and politically charged issues.”

In a brief call with Duke media relations Tuesday, a spokesperson said the school would “never speak about personnel issues” but offered to reach out to the Sanford School. Its dean, Kelly Brownell, has yet to respond to a Fix email Sunday and a phone call Tuesday.

Charney has not responded to Fix emails and calls to his publicly listed contacts.

‘Never actually revealed his own positions to us’

The Fix spoke with two signatories of the Chronicle letter who sent their own letters protesting Charney’s dismissal.

Beiderwieden, a dual U.S.-German citizen who now works for a congressman (below), said everyone she talked to recommended that she take at least one Charney class.

In Charney’s “Offensive Speech” seminar her last semester, Beiderwieden said the professor would take a devil’s-advocate approach, counterattacking a student’s liberal approach with a conservative viewpoint.

He told students that there weren’t enough “cross-cutting debates on college campuses and he thinks that that’s a danger to civil discourse,” but Charney “never actually revealed his own positions to us,” Beiderwieden told The Fix.

She confessed that she would go into class sure about how she felt on a specific topic and “walk out of the classroom and not know how I felt about the topic.”

It was a common response among Charney’s students: “Every single day I looked forward to the class, I put a lot of work into it and we’d all walk out of class talking about it afterward.”

The congressional aide said she wouldn’t have been prepared for the “real world” if Charney’s class hadn’t shown her how aggressive public policy can be.

MORE: Duke prof faces discipline for calling diversity training a waste of time

The professor told the class he was worried some students would report him for his teaching style, “which ultimately ended up happening,” Beiderwieden told The Fix: The university is driven by its fear of getting a “negative reputation” from Charney’s style.

On Beiderwieden’s first day of class, Charney “prefaced the course in an unusual way, especially given the contemporary climate of political correctness and hyper-sensitivity on college campuses,” she wrote in a letter to Sanford’s Dean Brownell, Senior Associate Dean Judith Kelley and Associate Dean Billy Pizer.

He said: “‘I don’t care if you are liberal or conservative, black or white, male or female, Christian, Jewish, Muslim; I will challenge you. I will challenge every thought you articulate.’”

She lectured the deans on the American exceptionalism of the First Amendment:

Our history of silencing dissenters, punishing disrespectful comments on presidents, and imprisoning newspaper editors taught us a fundamental lesson: that the freedom to speak and express yourself is the inescapable necessity und crucial foundation of democracy. … Instead of learning to tolerate ideas we find offensive, we seek to eliminate them from college campuses all together. However, when “offendedness” becomes the standard by which universities judge whether or not to tolerate speech, we risk regulating an inconceivable amount of speech that is critical to classroom debates and the educational experience, especially in the realm of public policy, because virtually any subset of the student population can claim something as offensive to their identity.

Duke alum Hannah Beiderwieden scolds university for dumping Professor Evan Charney by The College Fix on Scribd

‘As international students, we are so grateful to have taken his class’

Ziqi Deng told The Fix that Charney’s “Policy Choice As Value Conflict” course, required for her major, was “entirely one of the best classes I’ve taken at Duke and I kind of decided to major in public policy as a result.”

Speaking from Europe in a Facebook voice call, Deng said she learned the complexity of social issues when Charney brought in a sex worker to discuss the industry. The class was very difficult and exams didn’t have the usual right-and-wrong framework: They were more like “what would people who believe in A think of issue C?”

Deng said this was her first class at Duke where classmates weren’t engrossed in their phones or laptops: Everyone stayed engaged in Charney’s lectures.

The class did “involve expressing entirely different world views and opinions and forcefully asking people to speak up,” said Deng, who’s scheduled to graduate next year, in response to students who called the class an unsafe space.

“If that’s infringement of safe space then it is. But I don’t think it’s something higher education should discourage especially for public policy students,” she told The Fix.

MORE: Duke hosts ‘Confronting White Fragility’ workshop

Because of health issues Charney wasn’t able to accept a “Flunch” invitation from Deng and her friend, where students take their professors to lunch, but the professor ended up taking them to dinner the next semester, Deng said.

“He told us he doesn’t have a good relationship with the people in the [public policy] department because of the way he spoke and how he didn’t care about the hierarchy in the administration,” she said. Deng could tell that he cared about students more than titles.

“There’s definitely something we don’t know that caused this [unrenewed contract] to happen,” she said.

In their letter to “respected faculty members,” Deng and her friend Angela Chen shared their perspectives as “Asians from China and Canada”:

Oftentimes students at Duke avoid openly discussing their opinions, particularly political views, due to social pressure. As international students, we are so grateful to have taken his class, which exposed us to many viewpoints held by domestic students and encouraged us to actively engage in the conversation, which ultimately contributed to bridge the cultural gaps that we have experienced coming into Duke.

They said Charney was proactive with regard to potentially hurt feelings, “and he explicitly invites students to chat with him about any uneasiness felt in class.”

Deng and Chen praised the “philosophy” of his class: Public policy students must learn “how to navigate and discuss important but difficult issues with people of different opinions” as national discourse becomes “increasingly polarized.”

Duke students Ziqi Deng and Angela Chen ask university to rehire Professor Evan Charney by The College Fix on Scribd

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IMAGES: Evan Charney/Spektrum.de, Sanford School of Public Policy, RateMyProfessors.com, Hannah Beiderwieden/LinkedIn

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About the Author
Diamond Braxton -- University of Houston