The recent commentary in Religion News Service on diversity at Duke University is myopic and counterproductive, nor is it truly the “bigger story.” Diversity is not restricted to race alone, as the author narrates Duke’s “troubles,” but include color, sex, religion, age, disability, national origin, genetic information, veteran status, sexual orientation, and gender as well. The focus on race, as opposed to other protected categories, is counterproductive because it pits protected populations against one another, making diversity a zero sum in which the protection of one population comes at the expense of another. Contrary to the title of the commentary, the “bigger story” is not about race, but about the way protection is not distributed equally to those populations in need thereof.
I know because the Divinity School was reported as a hostile environment eight months before Anathea Portier-Young filed a similar internal grievance in March 2017. This has been public knowledge since September of last year, when Duke was placed under investigation by the Department of Labor, a federal agency. In the earlier case, Dean Heath refused to intervene, as she did when Paul Griffiths derided diversity training as a “waste.” I cannot disagree more strongly with that sentiment, but the tragic reality is that protection is too often a privilege that is not extended to all marginalized groups equally. I know because I am the veteran who filed the complaint which lead to the federal investigation.
Veterans have been promised the same kind of concern and institutional resources that black seminarians have since at least 2009, but they continue to wait for those promises to be fulfilled. One reason may be that veterans cannot organize as effectively as other protected populations because the administration, from the university level on down, has repeatedly obstructed attempts to share information and network amongst student veterans, which is otherwise encouraged as a professional value. Another reason may be the comparatively fewer impacted individuals. For the class of 2020, 16% of accepted students were black, for example, or about 276 of total enrolled undergraduates entering in 2015. For veterans, if they’re lucky, that number may be in the single digits, if it isn’t in fact zero.
Within the field of religious studies and theology, that number drops even more dramatically, and does so across the board. Of all 35 COFHE member institutions, only five have seminaries. Of those that do, only the University of Chicago maximizes their participation in Chapter 33 of the GI Bill, otherwise known as the Yellow Ribbon Program. Without full participation, student veterans often must take out loans even after the promises made to them about military service, which is disproportionately about higher education. Duke Divinity, however, limits the number of slots allocated for Ch.33 benefits, meaning student veterans may be required compete against one another to receive the full benefit for which they served. Of the five COFHE seminaries, Duke offers the least in terms of maximum annual contribution; less than $3,000 per year per student veteran, which flies in the face of their “No Debt Challenge.”
And it this is not just a recent phenomenon. There is a statistically significant number of fewer scholars with military experience on faculties of seminaries and Christian colleges than there should be. This is probably because the generation of theoligians that now occupies tenured professorships long ago received exemptions from the draft during Vietnam as seminarians, and later had no obligation to serve because of the transformation to an “All Volunteer Force.” This creates the exact same problem mentioned in the commentary, that veterans, like students of any marginalized social group, need a space that doesn’t simply affirm status quo perspectives. All students, not just veterans but especially veterans, should receive the full benefit of academic freedom and diversity of thought. What prevails, however, are polarizing, false binary perspectives of either Hauerwasian pacifism or Niebuhrian realism.
The intellectual privation of Christian academia is palpable – as the founder of Centurions Guild I have received nearly one unsolicited email from a fellow Christian soldier or veteran every single month for almost decade. I have counseled nearly 150 people since 2008, the latest coming just last week from a pastor in Louisiana in dire need of support for a veteran in his youth group. He, like innumerable pastors and minsters like him, have been left with atrophied abstractions built upon assumptions which rarely align with the embodied reality of military service. Is it truly any wonder that veterans take their own lives at such alarming rates? If the Religious Landscape Survey is at all represented in the military, if about 70% of American service members are Christian, then it’s dangerously likely that 14 of the 20 suicides every day are committed by Christian veterans who identify as Christian. Or did.
The church has an intellectual and practical crisis on its hands. Affirmative action and sensitivity trainings, I grant to its skeptics, are finite solutions to an infinite problem ingrained in human nature. But a finite solution is infinitely better than no solution, or an improperly and inequitably distributed solution. My own attempt at protection as a (white, cis-male) disabled veteran was undermined by none other than the senior Vice President of Institutional Equity at Duke, shortly before classes began last fall. So I know the “totalitarian tendencies” of diversity cliques. But the answer is not to jettison protections and trainings, but to distribute them more justly.
*Originally published at HuffPost on May 25, 2017 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/5926b462e4b090bac9d46bba