Penn Law Professor Removed From First-Year Classes After Controversial Statements

downloadThere is a major controversy unfolding at Penn Law School.  Professor Amy Wax has been removed from first-year courses after making controversial comments about the performance of black students at the school.  Regardless of the merits of Wax’s comments, the action raises serious questions over academic freedom and free speech.  We have been discussing controversies over academics being punished for controversial views including two recent cases involving the use of the “n-word” in classes on offensive speech at DePaul and Princeton.

The controversy centers on a video titled “The Downside to Social Uplift” by Brown University professor Glenn Loury.  Loury’s video shows an interview with Wax from last September stating, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class and rarely, rarely in the top half. I can think of one or two students who’ve graduated in the top half of my required first-year courses.”

Wax defended her comments and told the Daily Pennsylvanian that “student performance is a matter of fact, not opinion. It is what it is.”  The school has denied the factual assertions.

After an outcry from critics, University of Pennsylvania School of Law Dean Theodore Ruger announced that Wax would be barred from the first year.

“In light of Professor Wax’s statements, black students assigned to her class in their first week at Penn  Law may reasonably wonder whether their professor has already come to a conclusion about their presence, performance, and potential for success in law school and thereafter. They may legitimately question whether the inaccurate and belittling statements she has made may adversely affect their learning environment and career prospects. These students may also reasonably feel an additional and unwarranted burden to perform well, so that their performance not be used or misused by their professor in public discourse about racial inequality in academic success. More broadly, this dynamic may negatively affect the classroom experience for all students regardless of race or background.

After consulting faculty, alumni/ae, Overseers, and University officials, I have decided that Professor Wax will continue to teach elective courses in her areas of expertise, but that are outside of the mandatory first-year curriculum. This curricular decision entails no sanction or diminution of Professor Wax’s status on the faculty, which remains secure. Normally, this decision would be private, but because Professor Wax made these inaccurate public statements, and students and alumni raised their concerns publicly, sharing it with our community is important.”

The question again is not the merits but the protections afforded to free speech and academic freedom.  Wax’s comments did not suggest that she would actively engage in discrimination and indeed referred to social causes for underperformance.  Moreover, most first-year courses are graded anonymously.
We have been discussing how faculty around the country are supporting the abandonment of free speech principles to bar speakers and speech with which they disagree. The most extreme form of this rejection of classical liberal values is the antifa movement.  We have seen faculty physically attack speakers or destroy messages that they oppose.  We have also seen faculty physically attacked and intimidated.  In some of these incidents, other faculty have supported students in shutting down speakers or fellow academics (here and here).
The decision to remove Wax is one that should be addressed by the entire faculty in determining the standards that apply for such actions.  If this is a content-based standard, the school should be clear about that standard and how it will be applied evenly.  Otherwise, there is a chilling effect on academic speech that could prompt any group to allege discomfort or disagreement with an academic.

75 thoughts on “Penn Law Professor Removed From First-Year Classes After Controversial Statements”

  1. Reading these threads after 65+ comments are posted is like listening in on a debate and it has for the most part been very good. Focusing in on Karen and Isaac’s comments, I don’t see that they disagree too much on the current state of education as it specifically relates to the challenges facing black students. Their major differences seem to be in how to fix the problem and that solution stems from what they perceive as the root cause of the problem. That’s like arguing in the cockpit over all the factors that might have caused your plane to begin plummeting to the earth when your attention should be on doing those things that are known to make the plane fly. It may not be a perfect analogy, but gravity doesn’t care what model your aircraft is, how much it cost, who’s profiting or the demographics of the souls onboard.

    In my opinion, the purpose for education should be to create citizens able to positively contribute to this country’s goal of becoming a more perfect union. Perfect would be where everyone is equally secure in their life, liberty and property. Our gravity is all the forces working against that goal. A classical education model teaches students how to think (critical-thinking), not just what to think. It’s a proven model that prepares the student to deal with that gravitational force. Instead of sticking with what works, the teaching models are changed to give the illusion of education. We keep changing the teaching process to adapt to our culture instead of adapting our culture for the teaching process. As a result, we have developed generations of citizens that no longer know how to think. And gravity is winning.

    1. “Focusing in on Karen and Isaac’s comments, I don’t see that they disagree too much on the current state of education as it specifically relates to the challenges facing black students. ”

      I agree completely with that statement. I think most are looking for the same ends, but the means to get to that end is where the debate is all about. To understand what the “means” are from various perspectives one needs to know the truth. One of the ways of doing that was discussed on Washington Journal C-Span where James O’keefe was interviewed. In the interview, he demonstrated agreement with Noam Chomsky on certain aspects of the media. It’s a worthwhile interview as for O’Keefe it isn’t political viewpoint rather the truth he is after. I think all of us are looking for the truth.



    “A Class Divided – An elementary teacher teaches tolerance and observes discrimination and shows how easy it is to instill feelings of dislike and inequality into young children and by extension for adults as well. Based on this observation how can we counteract increasing ethnic and religious intolerance?”

      1. I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating, little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.”

        Social Justice Warrior class???

        Squeeky Fromm
        Girl Reporter

      2. “The Anti-Racism Experiment That Transformed an Oprah Show Audience | Where Are They Now | OWN”

    1. “Based on this observation how can we counteract increasing ethnic and religious intolerance?”

      We are not children but adults who are supposed to control our feelings. The problem occurs when some wish to cross over lines and try to control what others think and believe.

  3. Why is it okay for Blacks to use the ‘C’ word and/or the ‘H’ word or the ‘WD’ words?
    Crackers, Honkies, White devil

  4. “Wax’s comments did not suggest that she would actively engage in discrimination and indeed referred to social causes for underperformance.”

    Though the video was garbled on my end so that I missed a lot it sounds like this is what she is saying:

    Take a smart kid from an underperforming school, no matter what his color, and provide him some type of affirmative action that gets him into a university he might otherwise not have gotten into. A lot of times that is not doing the student any favors for suddenly he is faced by others that have had to compete on a much higher level. That can cause failure in the “affirmative action” student even if intellectually smarter than most.

    The solution is extra preparation or going to the school one would normally be accepted at. There the student might be at the top of his class.

    The question is whether or not Amy should have been able to state the truth as she saw it and whether or not those statistics should be open for review. It might please some to keep secrets about potential problems of this nature but that is cruel to the students that would have done better, been happier and more successful. IMO this blind acceptance that destroys students is a racist way of looking at things. Those wishing to shut Amy’s mouth are a big part of the problem.

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