Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When an Apology is Not an Apology

During a New Student Orientation panel on Diversity & Inclusion at Duke Divinity School last week Dean Richard Hays made some comments about homosexuality, and read a passage from the Methodist Book of Discipline, that many students found inappropriate and unwelcoming. In response, students planned a peaceful gathering at the DDS opening convocation on Tuesday, which you can read about in the Durham Herald-Sun here.

Then, yesterday evening, Hays sent a letter to the Duke Divinity School community in response. Even though I have tutored and precepted at Duke for two and a half years I don’t receive community emails, so I asked a student friend to forward the letter to me. Turns out I could have just waited, because the letter was publicly tweeted by DDS a while later. This should not have surprised me. The letter sounded more like a public statement than a personal letter to the community to begin with.

When people are writing letters to you about violating the university’s diversity policy and CC’ing President Brodhead, and when the newspaper is reporting that one of the top divinity schools in the country is not welcoming to LGBTQ students, as Dean you have a bit of a PR problem.

That letter was not an apology. That letter was an attempt to make sure Hays doesn't get in trouble for violating university policy. Dean Hays’ response during orientation was inappropriately timed, and his words poorly chosen. Then, to make matters worse, instead of simply acknowledging the pain he caused and apologizing, he wrote a letter attempting to explain it all away as a big misunderstanding. The letter was dismissive and disrespectful, not to mention a poor model of leadership for incoming students training to be pastors. His letter was a form of crisis communications, a PR document designed to set the record straight by putting, in print, publicly, his version of the story.

The irony of the situation is that he got himself into this mess in the first place. He was not even one of the faculty members speaking on the Diversity & Inclusion panel. He did not need to say anything. He did not need to insert his voice into the discussion. He did not need to take the mic and make sure his voice was heard. But he did. And no, people did not mishear him. They heard him loud and clear.

Dean Hays’ views on homosexuality are no mystery in the halls of Duke Divinity School. There was nothing surprising about what he said. What was surprising, and hurtful, was the time, the place, and the manner of delivery -- the context. People who were not there have asked for a transcript of what was said initially, but I do not personally think that makes much difference. More than simply what he said (which has been clearly communicated by the intelligent, capable students in attendance), what makes the difference here is when and where and how he chose to say it. I am choosing to trust the room full of students who shrank into their chairs when he spoke, who in a few brief moments went from feeling welcomed to feeling scared. Multiple eye-and-ear-witness testimonies.

I have always disagreed with Hays’ stance on sexuality, but I respect his work as a scholar and I believe in academic freedom. He can research and write what he wants, and I will research and write what I want. But this situation is different. This situation is not about whether or not Hays is himself welcoming in his theological position about human sexuality. This situation occurred because Hays overstepped a boundary, as Dean of a Divinity School that is part of a wider university that does not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation. Because he is the dean, because he can, he inserted his voice into a conversation on a topic he had not been asked to speak on -- a textbook example of the privilege of straight white men with PhDs.

When you are in a position of power, you do not get to decide what is or is not welcoming to those who are not. You cannot tell people how they should feel.

Perhaps what irked me the most about the supposed “apology,” though, was the implication that Hays is doing so much to promote inclusion in the Divinity School. It is deceptive to act as if he has ever been supportive of the Gender, Theology, and Ministry certificate program or Sacred Worth. Both of those programs are wonderful and do a lot to make DDS a safe, welcoming, thriving community for students.

Hays is not involved in them.

Other people may work hard to make the divinity school a welcoming place for LGBTQ students, but he is not one of them. To appeal to their work to absolve himself of offering a real apology is a desperate move indeed. Normally Hays walks the line between his own beliefs about sexuality and university policy, creating an atmosphere of silent unwelcome rather than this more vocal outburst. But it is frankly dishonest to imply that he is actively making DDS a welcoming place for those who identify as LGBTQ.

If Hays is serious about being supportive of the programs he name dropped, then I would suggest that he attend the GTM certificate program graduates’ final presentations every year, and learn about all of the important research they are doing. I would suggest, also, that he meet regularly with the leaders of Sacred Worth and listen to what they have to say about how to make DDS a more safe and welcoming place.

And after he listens, he should listen some more.

The use of the word "reconciliation" in that letter disgusts me. You do not get to use that word unless you are willing to do the work. You do not get to jump to reconciliation if you are not also willing to repent for the pain you inflicted, purposefully or not. Deploying the word “reconciliation” as a weapon in a letter meant not to apologize but to placate, to dismiss, is not reconciliation. It is a reminder of who controls the PR machine, of who narrates the events that take place within Duke Divinity School walls, of who decides which stories matter.

It is not the students. They do not get to tell their own stories.

They will be told what they heard, how they should feel, and that, apparently, as leaders they never have to admit that they were wrong.

Most days I am proud to be a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Studying with Amy Laura Hall, Willie Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, and others (not to mention the many doctoral students who precepted my classes and have now moved on to other institutions) has formed me as scholar and as a Christian. Many of my closest friends are people I met within the walls of Duke Divinity School. But make no mistake: those hallways do not always feel safe and welcoming, not even to me.


  1. How might I find a copy of that non-apology? (And excellent post btw, obvs)


  3. I am a 1987 graduate of DDS. That was a bleak and terrible time for LGBT students. I remain hurt and sad that the University as a whole has tolerated the poisonous atmosphere at DDS for all of these years. The damage done to souls and to the beloved of the Kingdom of God should not be underestimated by those in authority who intimidate, shun, reject, threaten, or otherwise harm the neighbor. Meghan, I do not know you but thank you for a very passionate and clear response to Dean Hays' non-pastoral response.

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  5. I am a 2009 graduate of DDS. After talking to some current students and staff, I wrote the following response:

  6. Hello Megan,
    I am going to be brief (I wrote a longer comment and then it was lost).

    First, I wanted to say you articulated well an LGBTQ and Feminist perspective of the event in question.

    I also wanted to remind you and your readers that deconstructionalism is a knife that cuts both ways. You say Dr. Hays is a privileged "white male with a PhD" who is stopping conversation and protecting the status quo, but I could say that you are a feminist, womanist, progressive liberal who has no respect for tradition, also known as the democracy of the dead. Your authority seems to lie in autonomous individual freedom, but Dr. Hays places it in the Scripture and the Church's historical interpretation of it. To cut people down when you do not even have the same starting point, instead of trying to understand their starting point is poor practice in conversation. I would suggest that you and others try to understand Dr. Hays point of view as the Dean of a United Methodist School and leader of a Divinity school which claims to stand organizationally in line with the historical orthodoxy of the Church.

    Lastly, I, as a white, orthodox, evangelical, Christian of European descent, did not feel safe before coming to Duke. Until Dr. Hays spoke at the panel, I did not know if I would be welcome to the table here. He gave me permission to have a voice, because he gave me a voice at the panel. Now you and others are saying, "Actually you don't have a voice." This seems to be because of your self-proclaimed criteria which excludes me, criteria over which I have no control (sounds familiar). The only way that conversation can happen is if we are more suspicious of ourselves than others. As much as you say I, Dr. Hays, and others are wrong, I would ask you to consider that you may be wrong as well.

    God bless, peace.

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    1. Diana,
      Thank you for your kind reply. I hope also that my understanding and empathy will continue to expand for those different from me in these next three years. I don't have a lot of free time to read extra, but I will keep in mind your book suggestion (I also have on my shelf "In Memory of Her," by Fiorenza, which I hope to read in the near future).

      I am primarily pointing out here Dr. Hays is being accused of the same thing being done to people (men and women) like me. I find it to be a double-standard that one side is held to, but the other side is not. I would encourage you and Meghan to read Dr. Hays "Moral Vision of the New Testament" in total, but more specifically his case study chapter on homosexuality. I think that you will find he is not so far removed from the issue as Meghan tried to assert in her blog.

      God Bless, Peace.

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  8. Meghan,

    Proud to know you. I'm also disappointed in Dean Hays. He was my academic advisor at Duke and though I'm not surprised by his views, I think at the very least he could admit to his own insensitivity. It's troubling to find a divinity school dean using the same arguments as the talking heads on Fox News. "Tolerate our Intolerance" is not a convincing argument however well articulated.

  9. Great post. Sadly, this kind of hypocrisy also lurks in other areas of Duke; I found it to be a very intolerant, anti-diversity environment and those policies are a facade (as far as I can tell). They exist to protect Duke from lawsuits- not to protect students and employees.