There 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.”