Former Duke prof calls out university president’s 'Orwellian' anti-racism letter

Calling the letter “Orwellian,” a Duke psychology professor issued a scathing response to Price’s assumptions.

Duke president Vincent Price issued a statement reflecting on “anti-racism” and calling for mandatory bias training.

A former Duke University psychology and neuroscience professor, John Staddon, wrote a critique of the Duke president’s recent statement on “anti-racism,” calling part of it “Orwellian.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Duke University President Vincent Price sent a letter to the Duke community explaining the steps that the school would take as the nation “confronts the horror of police violence against Black people, amidst the backdrop of systemic racial inequities and injustices that have been laid bare by the pandemic.”

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Saying that he could not, as a White person, “begin to fully understand the daily fear and pain and oppression that is endemic to the Black experience,” Price declared June 19 a “day of reflection” for the entire Duke community.

In addition to several policies about onboarding a more diverse staff and student body, Price called for Duke to “incorporate anti-racism into our curricula and programs across the university, requiring that every Duke student—in undergraduate, graduate and professional programs—learns of the nature of structural racism and inequity.”

In his response, Staddon addressed the assumptions behind Price’s statement, as well as the actions Price proposed for the Duke community.

Pointing to the fact that Black people have held and currently hold positions of power in the highest levels of government, Staddon cast doubt upon Price’s assumption that Black people experience “the daily oppression of racism” to a significant degree.

Addressing Price’s self-described feelings of remorse as a White person, Staddon noted that “Unless the discussion can be moved from feelings to facts, no harmony is possible. Empathy, guilt, and good intentions are a dodgy basis for sweeping resolutions.”

Staddon said that Price’s use of the phrases “lived experiences,” “personal transformation,” and “do that work” struck him more like “psychotherapy or a call to religious conversion than a policy prescription.”

[RELATED: Duke prof calls ‘traditional grading’ an ‘injustice’]

He asked for greater specificity about the systemic problems to which Price was pointing: “How have they affected Duke and how is Duke involved in them? Or are they societal concerns and thus the responsibility not of a university but of government, the church, and civil society?”

Furthermore, Staddon challenged Price’s assertion of racial diversity should be a priority.

“Making diversity a priority therefore puts the cart before the horse: a (racially) diverse faculty may, or may not, be an excellent faculty. You never explain why we should value diversity ahead of scholarly and academic excellence,” said Staddon.

With mandatory anti-bias training, Staddon wonders what would happen if an elderly professor would rather focus on his research paper than participate, or whether the training will extend to the cafeteria worker who is not interested in politics.

Calling Price’s proposal for mandatory training “Orwellian,” Staddon concluded that “In no case should faculty and students be forced to undergo training that seems to resemble not education but Uighur-style re-education.”

Staddon told Campus Reform that he has received “nothing from the Duke president or his acolytes.” He said he wrote Price privately asking for a response, but Price has not yet answered his inquiry.

[RELATED: Universities implement mandatory anti-racism training for students, faculty]

Staddon said he has not experienced any negative backlash from colleagues so far, but has received “nervous emails of support from a few faculty.”

“I would hope that faculty and staff would refuse to submit to indoctrination, but I am often surprised in cases like this,” he said.

Campus Reform reached out to Duke University for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft