At Duke, “Intolerance” Can Cost You Tenure

Befitting its vision as one of the nation’s great universities, Duke declares that it grants tenure only to the best. Tenure at Duke, according to the university’s official policy, “should be reserved for those who have clearly demonstrated through their performance as scholars and teachers that their work has been widely perceived among their peers as outstanding,” with “good teaching and university service” expected but not in and of themselves sufficient.

Duke lists no other criteria for tenure. Until now.

Last week, the anti-campus free speech movement migrated from Yale, Missouri, and Amherst to Duke. This is, of course, a university with a record of indifference to student civil liberties: in the lacrosse case, dozens of faculty members unequivocally declared that something “happened” to false accuser Crystal Mangum; and after the collapse of this case to which they had attached their public reputations, dozens signed a statement affirming they’d never apologize. (They didn’t; instead, Duke spent millions in settlements and legal fees to, in part, shield the faculty from liability.)

In response to Yale/Missouri/Amherst-like student protests, Duke President Richard Brodhead joined, at a campus forum, the new dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University, Valerie Ashby. (Ashby started at Duke this past July.) Brodhead, to his credit, openly opposed censorship, and cautioned that suppressing speech could eventually justify the silencing of the student protesters. At the same time, he neutralized this commitment by suggesting that Duke could institute a policy addressing “hate speech” (whose parameters remained undefined) modeled on the school’s due process-unfriendly sexual assault policy.

In the event, Brodhead didn’t have the last word on this issue. After he made his statement against censorship, Dean Ashby jumped in. She revealed a previously non-public university policy, announcing that untenured faculty is subjected to continuous evaluation for a university-approved level of tolerance. A video of Ashby’s remarks is here. Her key line: “You can’t be a great scholar and be intolerant. You have to go.” Chillingly, the assembled audience then burst into applause.

Nothing in Duke’s written tenure policy suggests that a “great” scholar’s failing to fulfill a definition of “tolerance” offered by Brodhead and Ashby constitutes grounds for denying tenure. Indeed, Ashby’s emotional concluding line—“you have to go”—suggests that the dean considers it possible to immediately dismiss those untenured professors who fail her tolerance test.

The academy’s recent debates about “tolerance” revolve around questions of race and gender. While Duke has now made clear that the “intolerant” can be fired, in her public statement, Ashby provided no clarity as to what specific views constitute dismissible offenses. For instance, would a junior professor who publicly opposed racial preferences be deemed “intolerant,” especially given Brodhead’s earlier criticism of tenured Duke professors whose research raised questions about the effects of racial preferences? Would a junior professor who urged the university to change course and provide due process to students accused of sexual assault be deemed “intolerant,” and thus worthy of dismissal under the new standards? If the Ashby principles had existed during the lacrosse case, could they have been used to terminate untenured Duke professors who criticized the Group of 88?

I asked two Duke spokespersons whether this new tenure evaluation policy had been provided in written form to untenured faculty; neither spokesperson replied. (Duke’s website contains no indication of a written policy, and Ashby defined the new standard only as “this is what’s tolerable here, this is what’s not,” without providing any degree of specificity.) At the very least, then since Duke’s new “tolerance” criterion remains appears to be wholly arbitrary, any junior professor who wants to stay employed needs to self-censor.

To date, Duke seems to be the only elite university that has abandoned all pretense that excellent scholarship, teaching, and service is sufficient for tenure, and held instead that these accomplishments can be trumped by a “tolerance” test imposed by the senior administration. Will other universities follow course?


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

12 thoughts on “At Duke, “Intolerance” Can Cost You Tenure

  1. “Dean Ashby jumped in. She revealed a previously non-public university policy, ”

    Yes, we understand. It’s the infamous little-known codicil that every Dean somehow seems to know about.

    It’s double-secret probation.

  2. If you watch the entire community conversation (1 hr 32 min) it turns out that while Dean Ashby’s Orwellian proclamation is indeed troubling, it’s really the student body* that has lost its marbles. They all want their safe space. They want faculty and counselors to look like them, to be from their “community” (meaning not the Duke community, but their ethnic/gender/etc. community). They want Duke to block websites they find offensive from their internet service [boo hoo, someone is mean on the internet! Film at 11!]. They look for reasons to be offended, to declare themselves victimized and marginalized. It’s pathetic. Every year Duke welcomes higher and higher achievers in terms of not only GPA and test scores, but the impact they have in their community, field of interest, etc. But then they arrive and join the permanently aggrieved class, because apparently every generation of students needs something to protest. If you watch the whole community conversation, the administration – as flawed as they are – comes off FAR better than the immature, paranoid, thin-skinned students.
    *At least the ones who spoke up at this meeting.

  3. Sagehen.
    It’s too simplistic to say only the SAGE profs contribute to making a great u.But,the non STEM areas have become ‘knowledge free’ zones.I dropped out of my Ph D program and went the MD route because I felt I wasn’t smart enough to do the former. Still looking at some of the people on the left reminds me of CP Snow’ “The Two Cultures”.

  4. Are they going to chase away all the brilliant young biochemistry, computer science, materials science, math, physics, genetic engineering, and other STEM faculty? Aren’t great universities great (and rich) mostly because they have great STEM departments? How many patents do all the various “studies” professors file each year? Hmm…

  5. The dean should be fired, and Duke’s accreditation withdrawn, and all private donors should take back their money.

  6. The purpose of all these student agitations appears to be the removal of white University leaders in order to replace them with minority (preferably black) ones. The new rulers understandably do not share the old regime’s tolerance of free speech, which is what allowed the coup d’etat in the first place. We live in interesting times.

  7. What constitutes “intolerance”? Well, that would depend on whose doing the complaining, doesn’t it.

    If this is enforced, it really does limit academic investigation. Would a sociologist ever study discrimination against whites or men?

    Would a scholar who examines the roots of Islamic extremism that doesn’t blame the west for it be subjected to tenure review?

    We can be sure that it will never be applied to gender studies that include texts like the SCUM manifesto that calls for male gendercide.

  8. Being an outstanding scholar means publishing articles in respected journals or books by respected publishers. It’s not entirely without subjectivity, but most people have some idea of what is required. But being tolerant or intolerant is so nebulous as to be unworkable with even the best of intentions from the administration, and there is no need to assume the best of intentions from Duke.

    1. I’m surprised so many people are unclear on how to define intolerance. Intolerance is whatever the braying mob says it is. When the mob is at their doors, the professors will know they have been intolerant.

  9. Well, this is truly frightening. The worst part about it-oh, hell, how does one even go about finding “the worst part about it”? Anyway, of great concern is the failure to define what constitutes intolerance. I am sure there will be a lot of “executive discretion” in this, and that is precisely when arbitrary stuff happens.
    I used to want to be Dean of Students. No more. I think an important role of campus administrators, especially in student and academic affairs, is to manage “student demands” in a way that educates the students about life and reality but maintains order and fairness on campus. But what I see is a lot of weakness and caving in. It is probably a bad mix of true-believerism and fearing-for-my-jobism.
    Very bad. I hope this gets better before Helen Jr. goes to college.

  10. Duke won’t be the last. It used to be the case that despots like this Dean masked their will to despotism by dissembling, staying in the closet, couching their edicts in vague bureau-speak. But the recent cascade of coups and putsches has emboldened them and now each seeks to one-up the last in moral preening and in wielding the hammer. I myself would enjoy the spectacle except for having children in these minefields we call college.

  11. It is common in some conservative blogs to describe rules such as the ones at Duke described in this article to be a product of left-wing domination of academia. I think we need to call it what it is: fascism.

    Multiculturalism is separatism lite. Diversity is segregation with a human face.

    It is time for academics who care about such liberal values as free speech and due process to stand up and oppose the shredding of these fundamental tenets of a democratic society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *