by Mark Bauerlein
It looks like the long persecution of Professor Joshua Katz by his employer Princeton University has come to an end. The Washington Free Beacon reported last week that the school president “passed his recommendation that Katz be stripped of his tenure and fired to the university board of trustees,” and the board rubber-stamped it Monday. The whole episode nicely exemplifies the cowardice and incompetence of the liberals who run elite institutions in the United States today.
The ostensible cause of the termination is a relationship Katz had with a student many years ago, an impropriety that was handled and closed long before the current controversy began. In truth, this current situation has nothing to do with Katz’s private history. The older matter is a false pretext for his termination. Katz’s current sin originates far from the Princeton campus, on the website Quillette, where on July 8, 2020, he published a piece called “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor.”
That word independence should clue you in immediately to the danger Katz risked when he wrote the essay, for few personality traits are more ruinous in the academic habitat than that of one’s willingness to dissent, to go one’s own way, to gainsay conventional wisdom. For all of the humanities professoriate’s praise of “speaking truth to power,” it is a profession populated by timid conformists with fearful sensibilities. Few fields in the world exert and police their dogmas more vigilantly than does that of our tenured wordsmiths. Katz was doing what all of them pretend to do but don’t—and so he had to pay.
The essay was not an original or separate expression. It followed from something else, an antiracism initiative of his colleagues at Princeton, which they laid out in a forceful letter addressed to Princeton’s high administrators and dated July 4, 2020. (The text of the letter is here—and do note how Katz turned their July 4 timing against them with his own title.) The letter rode the wave of George Floyd protests, asserting that the United States was a fundamentally racist nation whose guilt remains high. Princeton University also has a big race problem, the drafters charged, in that it maintains “anti-black practices” in faculty hiring and service, and it allows “microaggressions and outright racist incidents” to continue to the present day.
The situation calls for immediate reform, the letter insisted. A set of specific demands followed, including:
- An outside committee that would monitor racism at Princeton;
- Anti-racism training for all;
- An extra sabbatical and extra resources for junior faculty of color;
- A policy favoring departments with higher faculty diversity numbers;
- Rewards for “antiracist student activism”;
- Penalties for departments that show no diversity improvements;
The monitoring of faculty research and publication for evidence of racism.
That is just a partial list. There are many more demands, but you get the idea of just how illiberal and hostile to academic freedom this list of demands really is. Call it a faculty version of the dozens of “list of demands” issued by black students back in 2015 in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, which called for changes on campus that even the most liberal administrators realized would crush basic academic norms. Nevertheless, this time more than 200 members of the Princeton community signed it, demonstrating an astonishing willingness of the nation’s elite educators to climb on a shameless and destructive identity-politics bandwagon.
Not Katz, though. His Quillette rejoinder opens with this comment on the signatories: “I am embarrassed for them.” Remarking on the perks assistant professors of color would enjoy should the administrators comply, he considers this “pigmentation” criterion “mind-boggling.” As for the surveillance of faculty research and publication (for signs of racist leanings), Katz calls it “outrageous.” He worries that it will evolve into a “star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, judgment, suspension, even dismissal.” To those who might find that warning alarmist, consider the irony of his concern in light of what has just happened to Katz himself.
(Note: One can hardly imagine a more direct violation of academic freedom than this committee proposal. Not only would it scrutinize faculty work for signs of bigotry each year, but it would also define what bigotry is and where the lines should be drawn. Would a researcher who studies the black-white achievement gap and cites SAT and GRE scores as evidence be guilty of racist activity? He would if the committee said so.)
Katz also had something to add about rewards given to antiracist student activists. The demand letter had gone so far as to single out one such group as deserving of apology. Here is the full sentence:
Acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism. Such acknowledgment should, at a minimum, take the form of reparative action, beginning with a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies.
The letter doesn’t detail why an apology is due. Obviously, there’s a history here, but the letter doesn’t explain it. It merely demands “reparative action.”
This particular exaction Katz did not let stand. His comment upon it refers to one historical episode—but not one the signatories had in mind. Here is what he says:
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. Recently I watched an ‘Instagram Live’ of one of its alumni leaders, who—emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood—presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.
Read that paragraph twice. Those words are, in fact, the crux of the two-year machinations to remove Katz from Princeton classics. Here we have a contrary judgment of a group the letter framed as a wronged party. The letter cast the League as sinned against. Katz marked them as vicious.
And that ends the story of Katz’s crimes. We can stop right there. Nothing more needs to be pondered or analyzed or debated about the case. Those two sentences say it all; they sealed his doom the moment they were read in central New Jersey.
The reason is simple. In higher education in America in the 2020s, if you have tenure and a decent record of publication and teaching, you can argue over many things, raise doubts about this or that leftist dogma, pose worries about identity politics, challenge the secular religion that rules the departments, and only suffer a little ostracism here and some discrimination there. If you do it with a smile, firmly but collegially, some will surely despise you, but others will stay polite and even pleasant. Everyone knows you are no threat to the prevailing order, and life goes on.
But—you must never, ever criticize students of color, especially the black students. At elite universities, those individuals are sacred. Really, they are. They possess a moral authority that surpasses that of everybody else. Those 19-year-olds scare the presidents and provosts and deans to death. If you ever want to see a $500,000-per-year college leader, usually so composed and involved, turn to stone—no confidence on his face anymore, the firmness gone from his posture—just get eight black students to march down the corridor to his office with menacing scowls on their countenances.
Our president knows what it means: nothing but pain. Remember, those kids were recruited to Ivy U with prophecies of success and joy and welcome. “You will prosper and thrill at our most inclusive and inspiring haven,” they were told. Promises were made, and if those students one year in weren’t happy, if their lesser grades knocked them out of pre-med, if they didn’t find the school’s traditions to their liking, well, that’s the school’s fault. Administrators and professors told them so every time they raised the question of systemic racism and noted the rarity of black professors in their own departments.
Katz wouldn’t play this dishonest game. He blurted a discomfiting truth about those sacred ones. When he called this one activist group “terrorists,” the charge could not stay put as a narrow description of the nasty acts of specific persons, which, we may add, Katz stated were perpetrated against other black students as well as whites. No, a taboo had been broken; no qualifying distinctions could be admitted. Katz had chided a black group, period. He was guilty, the verdict was instantaneous, and termination was inevitable. All that remained to do was to find a pretext for the execution, one that went beyond words (and thereby didn’t deny Katz’s academic free speech). The old case of a student relationship was revived, the patent farce of it being the time of the involvement: 2006.
The whole sorry affair reveals a sickness in elite academia that goes much deeper than political bias. It’s not an ideology—it’s an anthropology. Our leading intellectuals have made skin color into a focus of taboos, prohibitions, shame, crime, and punishment. In the name of antiracism, they have countenanced overt wrongs against conscience. They have elevated racial difference into a treacherous and imposing reality. How one behaves relative to it is closely watched. The ones who operate cannily within it, who know how to exploit its codes—not just obey them—and who cleverly direct its policing toward inconvenient personages—they prosper. You don’t get to be president of such institutions unless you are an unprincipled, scheming, finger-always-in-the-wind, ever so flexible, superficially conscientious and deeply calculating bureaucrat, as is the current holder of that post at Princeton.
Katz couldn’t take it anymore. He had to speak up and speak out. His blunt Thoreauvian dissent did, indeed, offend his colleagues and supervisors. The identity politicians knew immediately that this brand of refusal had to be shut down. They didn’t want him to inspire any imitators.
As for the more or less moderate liberals on campus, those utterly bourgeois figures who flirt with radicalism in a nice, safe way, they had a different response, though still a reactive one. Katz made them uncomfortable, especially where they agreed with him. He put them on the spot: “You know how illiberal this letter is—I have protested—you should, too.” In other words, he pressured them to live up to their own pretensions, and they didn’t like that. No way would they swim against the woke tide. His action forced them to acknowledge their own weasel character. To have done that to a group of people who regard themselves as superior beings was unforgivable.
Katz will move on to a more interesting and fulfilling life. I am sure of that. Princeton’s leadership believes that with Katz gone, the troubles will pass. But, as with every other elite university, the Princeton brand has been slipping for years, and the Katz affair adds one more degradation to the record.
Our major institutions are led by people who don’t understand that the protective politically correct actions they take only harm the institutions they lead. They can’t do otherwise, of course, or they would lose their jobs. One wonders, though, if any of those well-paid executives ever look in the mirror and feel a sore temptation to hit the office and do exactly what Katz did, pronounce a great big “no” to the forces of political correctness. If they did, they’d end up in early retirement but perhaps much happier. The spiritual improvement that comes with honesty may be worth a lot more than the material cost.
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Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.
Photo “Joshua Katz” by Princeton University.