Despite enormous endowments and surging numbers of applicants, all is not well in the Ivy League. Next year, SCOTUS will decide whether Harvard has disadvantaged Asian applicants, and meanwhile, a series of freedom of speech cases is tarnishing the reputation of America’s most elite universities.
At Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and very recently the University of Pennsylvania, the incidents are piling up, with some very negative press.
Penn Law Professor Amy Wax holds a J.D. from Columbia University and a medical degree from Harvard, has argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court, received in 2015 Penn’s Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, and is the author of dozens of academic articles and papers. And now she may be fired?
Professor Wax became a campus pariah in 2017 when she co-authored an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which she argued that the United States was “paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.” The dean of Penn Law, Theodore Ruger, banned her from teaching required first-year law courses after a podcast conversation recorded with Brown University’s professor of economics Glenn Loury came to light. There she noted that black students at Penn Law did not achieve at the level of other students. On January 3, 2022, Ruger excoriated Wax for her words but upheld her academic freedom as a tenured professor. Subsequently, however, Ruger escalated the conflict and on June 23 wrote a 12-page letter to the chair of the Faculty Senate asking it to review Wax and “impose a major sanction against her,” which could include the revocation of her tenure. Ruger’s allegations include instances of what he calls “racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic” language used by Wax, statements that have “caused profound harm to our students and faculty.”
In an interview with me, Professor Wax dismissed these charges as “deracinated and decontextualized accusations” and noted that the majority of them refer to alleged incidents prior to the major teaching award she received in 2015. Wax has a GoFundMe site for her legal defense, launched on July 16, and it has garnered more than 1,100 donations, totaling over $158,000. In response to an email request for comment, Penn Law spokesperson Meredith Rovine stated that Dean Ruger’s letter was meant to address Wax’s “escalating conduct.” Wax insists that she “will stay with this until the bitter end, including litigation challenging any adverse decisions by Penn.” She views her struggle as a defense of principles owed to young people.
The Wax case is arguably the clearest frontal challenge to academic freedom in recent times, privileging anti-racism, as the institution defines it, over free speech, but such an occurrence is not unique in the Ivy League. On May 23, Princeton fired Cotsen Professor in the Humanities Joshua Katz, an internationally renowned scholar of classical languages and linguistics and, like Wax, an award-winning teacher. Princeton insists that it fired Katz because of new evidence concerning a consensual affair he had with a student in 2006 and for which, when it came to the attention of the Princeton administration over 10 years later, he was suspended for a year without pay and required to attend extensive counseling. Given that the intense investigation of Katz’s sexual indiscretion only began after he questioned the legality and academic ethics of a faculty list of demands to combat racism, PEN America and many other organizations across the political spectrum have challenged Princeton’s claim that the termination had nothing to do with the unpopularity on campus of Katz’s speech. Meanwhile, articles harshly critical of Princeton have appeared in Bari Weiss’s Common Sense Substack, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and in British, French, German, Polish, and Spanish media. The New York Times published a highly sympathetic 2,300-word portrait of Katz’s wife, Solveig Gold, and the couple’s life together.
Yale has had a series of incidents that suggest an uncertain policy regarding free speech. On March 10 of this year, students disrupted a panel at the law school, sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society, which featured pro and con discussion of free speech zones and free speech rights on campus. The response of Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken was that “students complied with University policies inside the event” and are therefore not subject to disciplinary action. At least some in the legal profession were unimpressed. According to the Yale Daily News, Laurence Silberman, a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, reportedly sent an email questioning whether such students should be “disqualified for potential clerkships.”
In addition, last year, Yale Law School administrators demanded that a student, Trent Colbert, apologize for using the phrase “trap house” in an email inviting fellow students to a Constitution Day party. Other students objected to the email, claiming it expressed “inherently anti-Black sentiment,” and several filed harassment and discrimination complaints. In response, the administration called Colbert into several meetings and pressured him to apologize. Distinguished professor of law Akhil Reed Amar called the administration’s treatment of the student “dishonest, duplicitous, and downright deplorable.” He added that Yale Law School is “not living up to its highest standards.” It is ironic that Yale still has on its website the 1974 Woodward Report (more formally, the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale), which reads, “The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”
In 2019, Harvard’s actions ultimately challenged an attorney’s prerogative of defending a client, if the client’s actions allegedly violate campus policies on gender. Professor of law Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, had served as deans of Winthrop House, a residential undergraduate house, the first African Americans to hold such a position. Yet after Professor Sullivan agreed to serve on Harvey Weinstein’s legal defense, Harvard refused to reappoint them to this position. Ironically again, the motto of Harvard’s Criminal Justice Institute that Sullivan directs is “Let us remember that justice must be observed even to the lowest.” Harvard privileged the students’ complaints over that principle of legal defense which has been a pillar of American legal practice.
The Amy Wax case is likely to be a watershed moment in the history of the American academy. It is hard to interpret Princeton’s termination of Joshua Katz as anything other than anger over speech that is clearly protected by academic freedom and consistent with the American tradition of free speech. If Penn Law succeeds in severely punishing and possibly firing Professor Wax, then Penn, like Princeton, will be sending the message that campus orthodoxy supersedes academic freedom and the pursuit of truth. Self-censorship will increase, reinforced by administrative inquisitions that unjustly punish anyone whose words depart from campus norms that are increasingly divergent from the beliefs of most citizens.
This article originally appeared in Forbes on 08/03/2022.