THE BLOG

Free Speech at Duke

05/22/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated May 22, 2016

Once again, a professor is widely condemned for racist speech. Once again, the university has properly declined to take any official action against the faculty member. But once again, the university officially joins in condemning the speech, and once again I have doubts about the need for and wisdom of that.

In the case of Boston University earlier this month, incoming assistant professor Saida Grundy had tweeted that "white college males" are a "problem population" and that white people should take responsibility for slavery. In contrast to the previous Twitter case of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, Grundy did not lose her job, though the Boston University president publicly admonished her for stereotyping.

Now we have a new controversy at Duke University over an online comment by political science professor Jerry Hough in response to a May 9 New York Times editorial entitled, "How Racism Doomed Baltimore." The editorial connected the recent Baltimore riots to a long history of poverty, racial segregation and police brutality.

Hough deemed the editorial "wrong." Baltimore Democrats, he claimed, count African Americans as part of their alliance but do nothing to help them: "The blacks get a decline in wages after inflation." As for The New York Times: "The blacks get awful editorials like this that tell them to feel sorry for themselves."

Historically, he wrote, Asians were known as "the yellow races" and were "discriminated against as least as badly as blacks." But rather than "feel sorry for themselves," Asians "worked doubly hard." Noting that Asians and whites date and intermarry, he decried "the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white."

I am a professor at Duke University. Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration. ...

It was appropriate that a Chinese design won the competition for the Martin Luther King state. King helped them overcome. The blacks followed Malcolm X.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations, responded to Hough's comment on May 15. Quoting from the faculty handbook, he recognized that "every faculty member at Duke has a right 'to act and to speak in his or her capacity as a citizen without institutional censorship or discipline.'" But Duke had, and would express, an opinion of its own:

The comments were noxious, offensive and have no place in civil discourse. Duke University has a deeply-held commitment to inclusiveness grounded in respect for all, and we encourage our community to speak out when they feel that those ideals are challenged or undermined, as they were in this case.

I have to wonder how Duke University officially determines which of the myriad writings of its diverse and distinguished faculty are "noxious" or "offensive," or fail to qualify as civil discourse. Are the criteria public? Are the decisions made by the vice president for public affairs and government relations? What about the president? Is there a secret advisory committee of civility experts?

In response to criticism of his comment, Hough wrote:

Martin Luther King was my hero and I was a big proponent of all the measures taken at the time, including Affirmative Action. But the degree of integration is not what I expected, and it is time to ask why and to change our approach. I am, of course, strongly against the toleration of racial discrimination. ...

The issue is whether my comments were largely accurate. In writing me, no one has said I was wrong, just racist. The question is whether I was right or what the nuanced story is since anything in a paragraph is too simple.

Challenging "the obsession with 'sensitivity,'" he blamed it for declining race relations. Blacks should observe how Asians "got ahead" and should "copy their approach." He concluded: "I don't see why that is insensitive or racist."

Perhaps Professor Hough should talk with Professor Grundy, who may differ about what is racist but shares his view that we are a long way from racial understanding and justice. For a civil start, each could defend the other's freedom of speech. And then each could listen to what the other has to say.

But whatever we think of whatever Professors Hough, Grundy, Salaita and others have to say, we must uphold the academic integrity of the university and the intellectual freedom of its faculty and students. Faculty should be hired and evaluated on the basis of their teaching, research, and professional service, and should be free to speak as citizens and persons without fear for their jobs.