NPR logo Black Ministry Students At Duke Say They Face Unequal Treatment And Racism

Black Ministry Students At Duke Say They Face Unequal Treatment And Racism

African-American students say they matriculated at Duke Divinity School expecting to enhance their calling with top-notch theological training at a prestigious program. But instead, they say, they entered a racial nightmare. Jackie O/Flickr/Creative Commons hide caption

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Jackie O/Flickr/Creative Commons

African-American students say they matriculated at Duke Divinity School expecting to enhance their calling with top-notch theological training at a prestigious program. But instead, they say, they entered a racial nightmare.

Jackie O/Flickr/Creative Commons

African-American students say they matriculated to Duke Divinity School expecting to enhance their calling with top-notch theological training at a prestigious program. But instead, they say, they entered a racial nightmare seemingly from another era, with students being called the N-word and other slurs in class, consistently receiving lower grades than their white colleagues.

The racial animus and suspicions of unequal treatment have led to numerous protests on the Durham, N.C., campus over the past year and created a tense school environment, where students of color feel they are targeted by other students and faculty for speaking out, according to interviews with current and former students.

"One of my classmates was sitting in a class, and she texted me and asked me to come to her class because a student was in her class saying, 'N****** like you come here and think that you can just change everything. Why don't you just learn what Jesus is really about?' " said Amber Burgin, president of the Black Seminarians Union, who is in her third year at Duke Divinity. "We are in classes trying to pull each other out of class to hear people making inappropriate slurs, like a white student calling someone a jigaboo and then claiming they didn't know what that means. Or a white classmate calling a black classmate 'ghetto.' ... I've had classmates who have had to take leave; I've had classmates who have left the program because they were tired of being treated in such a way."

Burgin stressed that the intolerant atmosphere also targets Latino and LGBTQ students.

"People are blatantly allowed to question the humanity of LGBTQ students and no one does anything about it," said Burgin, 34, who received a master's degree in psychology at North Carolina Central University before she matriculated at Duke Divinity. "This is a reflection of the church and the people of God's church. Why are we teaching in a space where we are not edifying all of God's people — or at least we say we are but then we're treating each other like this?"

Carl Kenny, a prominent African-American minister and journalist who graduated from Duke Divinity in 1993, said the tense racial atmosphere at the school is a byproduct of changes that have occurred in recent years as the school has increasingly come under the influence of the conservative white evangelical community inside the United Methodist Church.

Though it was founded in 1926 by the UMC, Duke Divinity says it has an ecumenical approach to theology and boasts on its website about the school's commitment to diversity to "foster more faithful, hopeful, and loving forms of common life."

"As a local pastor here in Durham, I witnessed the development of students coming through the divinity school over the years that was positive and inspired me as an alum to be happy about the divinity school," Kenny said. "What I witnessed over the past couple of years has been the steady decline of that type of presence."

Of the 631 students enrolled in the 2016-17 school year, 16 percent were African-American, 6 percent Asian, 4 percent Latino and 68 percent white.

Kenny said the evangelical community has gained more influence on seminaries across the country.

"We have a shift in the way theological education is being taught nationwide that reflects the impact of evangelical teaching, primarily white evangelical ideas, and how they're being pushed upon the black church," he said. "To me it's bigger than just racism on the campus; it's how it impacts the black church. When you look at seminaries across the country, the funding of those seminaries is coming from evangelical entities who are very conservative. When I arrived at Duke, there was a place for dialogue around issues of race and homosexuality. But the evangelical thrust has pushed Duke in a different direction."

Kenny said he is worried that black people of faith now have such a limited presence in seminaries that it will affect the kind of pastors leading black churches in the future.

"That's my primary concern, that the future of the black church is at risk," he said. "In the future, you no longer will have people like Jeremiah Wright and Johnny Ray Youngblood who are really centered around black liberation theology and giving a message to people about social justice. You will see the kind of conservative black pastors who support the Trump administration, with an emphasis on reconciliation without any dialogue. That's a very dangerous place for those who are committed to the black tradition."

Annette Rodriguez, who graduated from Duke Divinity earlier this month, said students of color have suffered because of the instability in the leadership of the school, which has had three deans in the past three years.

"That has led to a lot of disarray," said Rodriguez, 30, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who earned an M.B.A. and worked in the New York business world before she answered her religious calling and went to Duke. "You have a very small percentage of each incoming class that is black or Latino students, but there aren't faculty and staff anymore to reflect the population of minority students in the school. We've had two highly recognized black faculty go to Yale [Eboni Marshall Truman and Willie Jennings] and there's only one Latino right now [Edgardo Colón-Emeric], with no sign of another Latino hire. The first year I was here, three years ago, the dean made a point to say there were no qualified Latino scholars to teach at Duke, that we had the only one. That was an immense falsehood."

Of the school's 42 full-time faculty members, six are African-American, two are Asian, one is Latino and the remaining 33 are white.

Rodriguez said she grew weary of having to represent the nonwhite point of view in every class. For instance, in a class she took called American Christianity, she felt extremely offended when a white student announced that his ancestors had fought for the Confederacy and they should be honored by students in the class, she said.

"The class had a teacher's assistant who was not well-versed in talking about racism," Rodriguez said. "As we were reading the narrative of a slave owner, I voiced disagreement with the fact that they were giving it an agreeable read, saying this woman was between a rock and a hard place in deciding whether she had to abuse her slaves. The student said even if we didn't like it, it was our job to honor his ancestors because they didn't know any better. And the teacher came to the student's defense. We're constantly put in these positions where it looks like we're difficult as students because the overwhelming majority of voices are white."

Burgin said black students also grew outraged when they began comparing grades and discovered that, as a group, they were consistently receiving lower grades than their white classmates.

"I've had professors question my writing skills," Burgin said. "I got a master's in psychology before I came to the divinity school; I came here knowing that I know how to write. So when I got a paper back that said, 'We don't know that your interpretation is appropriate. Did you actually read the Scripture assigned?' My response was, 'Did you read the Scripture?' "

Elaine Heath, who took over as dean of the Duke Divinity School last fall, said she has made the concerns of students of color a priority in her first year. In an interview, Heath read from a list of relevant measures she has instituted: inviting the staff to participate in racial equity training at the school (she said six of the school's 52 TA's participated — many more volunteered but there wasn't space to accommodate them); requiring all 52 teaching assistants last fall to attend a training session that included training on implicit bias led by Ben Reese, vice president in the Office for Institutional Equity at Duke; forming a diversity and inclusion committee to work on issues of equity; encouraging more faculty members to use anonymous grading in response to student concerns about unequal grading (thus far two of the school's 42 professors have agreed to use it, though Heath expects more to come on board); beginning a nationwide search for two tenured faculty positions she anticipates will be filled by African-Americans (for a professor of theology and ethics and a director of the Office of Black Church Studies); holding regular "brown bag lunches" with students from the Black Seminarians Union to hear their concerns. "I've been working on these issues all year," Heath said.

Regarding the racial slurs in class, Heath said, "Of course that's deeply offensive if these names are being used. Racial slurs are against what we stand for as an institution. I want to do everything I can to make sure those things don't happen in the future."

Burgin said she doesn't blame the new dean for the school's problems. "With all due respect to the dean, I don't think she is doing a bad job," Burgin said. "I think the dean came in with one understanding of the institution she was taking over and got a completely different look when she got here. And it's a lot to take in, to see all the levels of problems going on with the seminary. I want her to succeed because as a woman I think it's important for us to have women in leadership at the divinity school."

Fourteen of the divinity school's 42 full-time professors are women.

Burgin said the school leadership must take seriously the needs of students of color.

"It can't just be when people stand up and protest; it should be the standard," she said. "They have to create a space of diversity even when it's uncomfortable, because it's the right thing to do. As they keep telling us in classes, heaven is not segregated. How are we going to teach people in the community about the love of Jesus Christ if we cannot show that in the divinity school?"

But a story that recently hit the national media provides a glimpse into the challenges inherent in changing the atmosphere at Duke. A Duke professor, Anathea Portier-Young, who is white, sent out an email in February encouraging her colleagues to attend a racial equity training session being sponsored by Duke Divinity "to ensure that DDS is an institution that is both equitable and anti-racist in its practices and culture," Portier-Young wrote. But longtime professor Paul Griffiths, who is also white, sent out an email to faculty attacking the idea of the training session, saying it would be a waste of time and encouraging his colleagues not to attend. Heath entered the fray, saying in a mass email that she was "proud" the school was hosting this "important event."

After the dean and Portier-Young initiated disciplinary proceedings against Griffiths, he ultimately resigned. In a headline, the New York Times called the conflict "a battleground over political correctness." Many students of color indicated that the episode highlighted the difficulties they faced in getting the college community to take their concerns seriously.

Heath said while she couldn't discuss the Griffiths controversy because it's a personnel matter, she did say that "most of our faculty seem committed to me to learning, increasing our knowledge of the history and causes of racism and what we can do to dismantle structural racism. It seems to me that most of our faculty are in favor of that."

Heath, who is an elder in the United Methodist Church, said that when she was being interviewed for the dean position, the search committee made it clear that pushing the school to be a more diverse and inclusive environment was perhaps the top priority for the next dean.

"Not only diverse in terms of race and gender but also theological diversity," said Heath, who was a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas before taking the Duke job. "So increasing diversity here at the school is also a priority for the university. We see it as contributing to our intellectual rigor and academic excellence. From my perspective, our school already has a diverse array of faculty across the spectrum in terms of people who consider themselves evangelical and people who certainly don't. My own perspective is we need a variety of voices around the table in order to do our best work. We prepare people for leadership in a wide array of churches and Christian institutions."

One of the most far-reaching complaints students of color have lodged involves what the school calls "field" placements. To learn how to serve a community, divinity school students spend time working in church communities around the country. But Burgin said black students rarely get a chance to work in black churches.

"There are never enough placements for black students," she said. "Though I think we all need to be trained ecumenically, the idea that we are going to be hired and work in institutions with people who look like us but you don't offer opportunities for us to learn in those contexts is a problem. So they wind up sending us to spaces that aren't always safe for us. A lot of my classmates end up in rural white churches who have never seen a black person in their congregation and come back with these horrific stories, like people calling them names."

Kenny said he is most concerned about the inadequacies of the field placements because it means the school is not properly preparing students of color for the communities they will be serving.

"It is important they have access to black churches that are committed to the black faith tradition," he said. "I think that can be a problem, especially when right now black churches are at the crossroads when it comes to this conversation. There's an internal discussion about whether social justice is the work of the black church. We are grappling right now with our own identity. So I think it is important that black students who come to Duke be introduced to traditional black faith practice within those churches so they can serve black communities in a way that makes a difference. I'm concerned in the future that's going to be something that's harder to find."

But Heath countered that for the summer of 2017, more than 90 percent of the African-American students were granted their first or second preference for field education placements. Heath said the school just received an $80,000 grant from the United Methodist Church to give African-American students even more mentoring opportunities in African-American churches with African-American pastors.

"Only a very few African-American students requested but did not receive placement in African-American-led congregations due to specific student-named requirements that could not be met by the Field Education Office," Heath said. "In fact, last summer, we had more field education placements in African-American congregations led by African-American pastors than we had African-American students requesting such placements."


Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and three-time New York Times best-selling author. Follow him @nickwrite.

Correction May 26, 2017

A previous version of this story said that the Duke Divinity School's curriculum does not include black religion traditions. In fact, according to school officials, students in the master's of divinity program must take at least one course that centers on African-American church traditions. The story also said that teaching assistants are not trained in classroom management. In fact, according to school officials, the assistants are trained in classroom management and handling biases.