After Campus Uproar, Princeton Proposes to Fire Tenured Professor
In July 2020, as social justice protests roiled the nation, Joshua Katz, a Princeton classics professor, wrote in a small influential journal that some faculty proposals to combat racism at Princeton would foment “civil war on campus,” and denounced a student group, the Black Justice League, as “a small local terrorist organization” because of its tactics in pushing for institutional changes.
The remarks in Quillette made him a lightning rod in the campus free speech debate, reviled by some who thought what he said was racist, and lionized by others who defended his right to say it. And they sent up a flare that led to scrutiny of other aspects of his life, including his conduct with female students.
In the latest fallout from that debate, Princeton’s president has recommended dismissing Dr. Katz, according to a May 10 letter from the president to the chair of the trustees.
But the professor, who is tenured, is not facing dismissal for his speech. His job is at stake for what a university report says was his failure to be totally forthcoming about a sexual relationship with a student 15 years ago that he has already been punished for.
Michael Hotchkiss, a spokesman for Princeton, said the university “generally does not comment on personnel matters.” Officials would not say when the board of trustees would come to a decision.
Dr. Katz declined an interview. But his lawyer, Samantha Harris, said she was expecting the trustees to fire him. “In our view, this is the culmination of the witch hunt that began days after Professor Katz published an article in Quillette that led people to call for his termination,” Ms. Harris said on Thursday.
Princeton’s faculty dean, Gene A. Jarrett, rejected that view. In a 10-page report, dated Nov. 30, 2021, the dean detailed reasons for dismissing Dr. Katz. Dr. Jarrett addressed what he said was Dr. Katz’s contention that there was a “direct line” from the Quillette article to being investigated for misconduct.
“I have considered Professor Katz’s claim and have determined that the current political climate of the university, whether perceived or real, is not germane to the case, nor does it play a role in my recommendation,” Dr. Jarrett wrote. That document became the basis for the president’s recommendation.
The case has deeply divided the campus. Many students were already furious about his Quillette article. And the potential firing has only fueled the controversy — with dividing lines between those who see it as thinly disguised retaliation for offensive speech, and those who believe that the furor over his remarks about race incidentally exposed additional troubling behavior.
Dr. Katz, 52, has also become a cause célèbre among a number of conservative columnists, some of whom say that his case represents a troubling escalation in the debate over free speech on campuses, in which expressing an unorthodox opinion is not a matter of protected speech but a stain on one’s character that justifies excavating past wrongs to expunge it. An article about Dr. Katz in The American Conservative last year was called “Persecution & Propaganda at Princeton.”
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“Is this the world we want to live in, where you express an opinion that other people don’t like, and suddenly your personal life is turned inside out, looking for evidence to destroy you?” Ms. Harris, his lawyer, said.
The situation is complicated by the fact that Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, has cultivated a reputation as a defender of free speech. The university adopted the “Chicago Principles,” a commitment to free speech — even if it is offensive — that was formulated at the University of Chicago. He has defended other controversial speech, including skepticism toward transgender identity by another professor, Robert P. George, the director of the university’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the chair of African American studies and a critic of Dr. Katz’s language, said attributing his troubles to his speech was “a bad faith argument” that was “completely inconsistent” with past statements by Mr. Eisgruber in support of free speech.
As to the notion that Dr. Katz was being persecuted, “It sounds like someone is positioning himself to play a certain role in the current iteration of the culture wars,” Dr. Glaude said.
The saga began with an open letter to Princeton’s leadership on Independence Day in 2020, when protests over the police killing of George Floyd and demands for racial justice were rippling across the country. The first sentence declared: “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.”
The letter called on the university to take “immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus,” and offered 48 proposals for reform. It was signed by more than 300 faculty, students and staff members.
Prominent signers of the letter included Dr. Glaude; Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Dominican-born Roman historian, who has written that the field of classics is inextricably entangled with white supremacy; and Tracy K. Smith, a former U.S. poet laureate, who has since left Princeton.
One of the demands was that Princeton “acknowledge, credit and incentivize anti-racist student activism,” beginning with a “formal public university apology” to members of the Black Justice League, who were met with institutional resistance when they agitated, several years before it happened, to remove President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs.
Four days later, Dr. Katz, who has repeatedly described himself as nonpolitical, published his riposte, “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor.”
He said that while some of the letter’s signers might have believed in their declaration, he thought that peer pressure played a bigger role, and that others had not actually read it. He was, he wrote, embarrassed for them.
And while he agreed with some demands, like giving summer move-in allowances to new assistant professors, he wrote that he disagreed with others, like giving an additional semester of sabbatical to junior faculty members of color.
He also described the Black Justice League as “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.” He described the group’s supporters as “baying for blood” during a “struggle session” recorded on Instagram Live that he said was “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed.”
The reaction to Dr. Katz’s views was swift and strong. Mr. Eisgruber told the campus newspaper that he objected “personally and strongly to his false description” of the student group as a terrorist organization.
Several of Dr. Katz’s colleagues in the classics department, including the chair, Michael Attyah Flower, and the chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee, Andrew Feldherr, distanced themselves from him, temporarily posting a message on the department’s website saying that Dr. Katz’s language was “abhorrent at this moment of national reckoning.”
A university spokesman said at the time that Princeton would be “looking into the matter,” but no investigation materialized. Dr. Katz celebrated in July 2020 with a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “I Survived Cancellation at Princeton.”
But with attention focused on Dr. Katz, the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, began an investigation of sexual harassment accusations against him. It culminated in a lengthy report in February 2021 about his sexual relationship with the undergraduate.
Princeton already knew about her. The university had started an investigation after it learned of the relationship in late 2017, and Dr. Katz confessed to a consensual affair. He was quietly suspended without pay for a year.
The Princetonian also reported that Dr. Katz had made at least two other women uncomfortable by taking them out to expensive dinners — and in one case by commenting on the woman’s appearance and giving her gifts. All three women were identified by pseudonyms and could not be reached for comment.
Dr. Katz’s lawyer said there was no pattern of sexual misconduct. He asked numerous students, male and female, to dinner over the years, she said — “so many that he has no idea who that even is.”
The woman in the sexual relationship did not cooperate with the original Princeton investigation. But after the Princetonian report, she filed a formal complaint that led the administration to open a new investigation, which it said was looking at new issues rather than revisiting old violations, according to the university report.
Princeton asserted that Dr. Katz had discouraged the woman from seeking mental health treatment while they were together, for fear of disclosing their relationship; that he had pressured her not to cooperate with the investigation in 2018; and that he had hindered that investigation by not being totally honest and forthcoming, according to the report.
Dr. Katz’s wife, Solveig Gold, said he had lost many friends over the controversy. “Nobody wants to be seen in his presence, in his company, in his friendship,” she said.
Ms. Gold, 27, who is finishing her Ph.D. in classics at the University of Cambridge, graduated from Princeton in 2017. She said that she had been his student, but that there was no romantic relationship between them at the time. They married in July 2021.
Ms. Gold said her husband had several job offers. “The canceled have a way of looking out for each other,” she said. “But none of them is the job that he has loved doing his whole life.”
Some of Dr. Katz’s colleagues are treating his Quillette article as a lesson. It has been included on a university website, “To Be Known and Heard,” that tackles Princeton and systemic racism. The site includes a historical outline of free speech controversies, starting with minstrelsy and ending with quotes from his article.
The timeline states, “Throughout its history, Princeton has grappled with what crosses the ‘line’ between free speech and freedom of expression, and racist statements and actions.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.