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Academic Freedom on the Line at Princeton

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Academic Freedom on the Line at Princeton

The university’s Board of Trustees should reject calls to fire tenured classics professor Joshua Katz. May 20, 2022
Education
The Social Order

Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber has asked the Board of Trustees to fire tenured faculty member Joshua Katz, the distinguished Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Classics. The official reason relates to cases stretching back to the mid-2000s involving allegedly inappropriate relationships with three students. But the timing of Eisgruber’s letter suggests that the real cause relates to Katz’s recent criticism of the school’s policies and politics on race.

Katz had the audacity to disagree with a July 4, 2020 “faculty letter” on race signed by 350 of his Princeton colleagues. The letter claimed, among other things, that “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America” and urged Eisgruber to take “anti-racist action” by removing the statue of former Princeton president (and Founding Father) John Witherspoon, who had been a slaveholder, and prioritizing 48 other demands—including one to “constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” In short, the committee would review faculty publications for “racist” thoughts—thus, eliminating academic freedom.

Katz responded with a “Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor,” published in Quillette on July 8, 2020, in which he took issue with the racism-committee proposal and other demands. He also characterized Princeton’s “Black Justice League” as a “small local terrorist group,” noting that he had observed an Instagram video of “one of its alumni leaders” presiding over what was “effectively a struggle session against one of his former classmates.”

The reaction to Katz’s letter was swift and fierce. Eisgruber publicly condemned it. A Princeton-hosted website singled out Katz, effectively labeling him a racist. Organizations like Princetonians for Free Speech, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the Academic Freedom Alliance protested Katz’s treatment by the university, but to no avail.

Eisgruber makes no mention of these episodes in his call for Katz to be fired, however. Instead, he cites the allegations about Katz’s conduct with female students in the mid-2000s. Katz has admitted that he “had a relationship with a student that violated the University’s rules” but has maintained that it was “consensual” and “did not involve . . . any coercion, harassment, or quid pro quo.” After a 2018 investigation, the university sanctioned Katz, suspending him for a year without pay. The Washington Free Beacon’s Aaron Sibarium, who broke the story of Eisgruber’s recommendation to fire Katz, reports that, in a second investigation in 2021, Princeton’s Title IX office “found that Katz hadn’t violated the school’s harassment policies,” though the dean of the faculty found that he had not been “fully forthcoming” in the 2018 investigation.

We don’t know all the details of the case. It’s conceivable that the investigation of these mid-2000s incidents and the belated plans to fire Katz as a consequence are legitimate. But it is a remarkable coincidence, to say the least, that these moves for Katz’s dismissal arose not in the immediate aftermath of those episodes but only years later, when, meantime, Katz had stirred up so much reaction with his 2020 Quillette article.

The campaign against Katz has all the hallmarks of the increasingly popular two-step procedure by woke mobs: first, rail against the dissenter and, next, engage in character assassination. Woke mob activists know that the first step is not enough: too many people still value free speech. But character assassination usually works, moving the dissenter into a “leper colony,” as a colleague of mine recently described it. It’s a clear warning to everyone who dares to side with Katz: we will find something on you, too.

Katz’s firing would be a victory for the speech-suppression crowd. Though it would be achieved under the guise of a different allegation, it would leave few illusions as to the real reason for the firing. The Board of Trustees should not follow through with Eisgruber’s recommendation. One hopes they have the backbone to make a principled decision.

Photo: luvemakphoto/iStock

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