We just discussed a lawsuit by UCLA Professor Gordon Klein who alleges that the university threw him under the bus over a controversial email when it suspended him and posted statements strongly suggesting that he is racist. Now a second such case may be developing at Princeton with an even more direct university allegation of racism against Classics Professor Joshua Katz. The university recently featured Katz in a mandatory freshman orientation video that included a “Race and Free Speech” section in which he is condemned as a racist. According to the site College Fix, his lawyer has said that legal possible action is being explored.
The school featured the controversy that began with a Quillette article in which Katz questioned racial justice demands lodged by faculty members in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Katz was responding to 48 demands and expressly supported some.
Indeed, plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support. It is reasonable to “[g]ive new assistant professors summer move-in allowances on July 1” and to “make [admissions] fee waivers transparent, easy to use, and well-advertised.” “Accord[ing] greater importance to service as part of annual salary reviews” and “[i]mplement[ing] transparent annual reporting of demographic data on hiring, promotion, tenuring, and retention” seem unobjectionable. And I will cheerfully join the push for a “substantial expansion” of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which encourages underrepresented minorities to enter PhD programs and strive to join the professoriate.
However, as a faculty member of 25 years, he objected to faculty of color receiving special “course relief and summer salary” and an extra semester of sabbatical. He criticized “extra perks for no reason other than … pigmentation.” The article is direct and many faculty likely felt insulted by the criticism. The issue is the role of the university in effectively calling these objections as raw racism. He also objected to the editing of his comments to remove counter evidence of his motivation or intent.
In the article, Katz denounced the request for the university to issue a formal public apology to members of the Black Justice League student group:
“The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.”
The original posting removed the reference to the group attacking black students, but was later reportedly changed after objections. Such editing can be used as evidence of actual malice in a defamation lawsuit.
The page also includes a statement that “President Eisgruber condemned the words used by Katz, stating, ‘While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly.'” The posting does not mention that, despite his initial comments, Princeton President Christoper Eisgruber walked back a threat to investigate Katz. Nevertheless, Katz may argue that he does not actually call Katz a racist. Yet Katz could say that the university is responsible for the entire presentation of quotes that leave little question on the view of Katz as a racist.
The page includes a statement from Professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Chair of the African American Studies Department, stating “Professor Katz, at times in this letter, seems to not regard people like me as essential features, or persons, of Princeton. That’s the feeling I got from reading the letter.” It also features the statement of Tracy K. Smith, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, that “Members of the BJL have already begun to see an uptick in death threats. We have seen all too clearly how such race-baiting, disguised as free speech, can be deadly.”
That last comment seems to draw a connection between Katz’ criticism of the BJL and threats against its members.
The University is likely to argue that these statements are merely giving the countervailing views of faculty, including the university president. However, the page is the creation of the university and clearly paints Katz as a racist. These faculty clearly do have free speech rights, but the question is the inclusion of Katz as an example of racism as part of a mandatory program.
It is also an example of the type of shunning and pressure applied to faculty who offer dissenting views on such subjects. Few faculty would risk being the subject of this type of campaign in voicing dissenting views or opposing the university. Two exceptions are Princeton professors John Londregan and Sergiu Klainerman who wrote a Sept. 1 op-ed supporting Katz. They also criticized the mandatory video and material, calling it “a weird, out-of-context presentation of racist views, such as those of the 20th-century physicist William Shockley, a figure with no notable connection to Princeton.” They added:
The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office of Princeton University has a message for incoming students: It wants them to participate in “tearing down” the very institution they have worked so hard to attend. And to drive this message home, the office is more than happy to tear down those who dissent from its official orthodoxy.
The attack on Katz may find its way into court. However, there is a separate debate that should be held on the impact of such university-sponsored attacks on academic freedom and free speech. Katz was not investigated for, let alone found guilty of, racist commentary. Indeed, such an investigation would have been, in my view, entirely inappropriate. Yet, he is still featured in a type of rogue’s gallery of racism for his criticism. Despite his stellar credentials and publications, the impact of such targeting is devastating on his career and creates a chilling effect on others who may have similar concerns.