In praise of my university

October 17, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Joshua Katz was a classics professor at Princeton until May of this year, when he was summarily fired for having a consensual relationship with an undergraduate at his school. As this article the NY Times recounts, the circumstances of Katz’s being fired were murky and controversial, as apparently he had already been punished for this relationship 15 years ago and some think that his firing was due to more recent ideological views that contravened Princeton’s “official” views. As the NYT reported on May 23:

Princeton fired a classics professor, “effective immediately,” on Monday after the university’s administration found that he had not been fully honest and cooperative with an investigation into his sexual relationship with an undergraduate student about 15 years ago.

The dismissal of the professor, Joshua Katz, was a rare case of a tenured professor being dismissed, and came after a fierce debate on campus and in wider political spheres over whether he was targeted for his politics. In 2020, he wrote an article in Quillette, an online journal, that criticized anti-racist proposals by Princeton faculty, students and staff.

The university’s statement on the firing did not even allude to the free speech issue. The reasons the university gave for dismissal were based on a “detailed written complaint from an alumna who had a consensual relationship with Dr. Katz while she was an undergraduate under his academic supervision.” That relationship was in 2006 and 2007, but the alumna did not file her complaint until 2021.

Dr. Katz, 52, said Princeton had treated him with “gross unfairness” after he had given his “entire career” to the university.

I have no dog in this fight, and while I agree on bannng relationships between undergrads and professors (the power differential is too great), I don’ t know what went on at Princeton. At any rate, that’s not the issue here, but the article below from New Criterion praises my university, giving me bragging rights. Yes, the author is Joshua Katz, who refers explicitly to his expulsion. The title, of course, comes from the old Sinatra song “My Kind of Town“:

The occasion for Katz’s article was his receipt of a book from a colleague, which used to be a common event before his demonization. Now, after two years, only one lone book arrived—from a colleague at the University of Chicago. Katz writes:

Since becoming a non-person in the eyes of the intelligentsia, however, I have received nearly nothing. This was the first book an American academic had sent to me in over two years.

Here’s why this is interesting: the author teaches at the University of Chicago. If you have been paying attention to the debacle that is American higher education these days, you will know that Chicago is the one elite university with a good record of resisting the worst impulses of society.

Chicago’s presidents have been outspoken champions of free expression. Would that every university were led by a Hanna Holborn Gray or a Robert Zimmer! Administrators and faculty at Chicago have worked together to create three of the most important policy documents in academia today: the Kalven Report (1967), which insists on institutional neutrality on political and social issues; the Shils Report (1972), which bars “consideration of sex, ethnic or national characteristics, or political or religious beliefs or affiliations in any decision regarding appointment, promotion, or reappointment at any level of the academic staff”; and the robust guardian of free speech known as the “Chicago Principles” (2015). As for Chicago’s heterodox students, they have for the past few years been putting out the excellent  Chicago Thinker (motto: “Outthink the Mob”). Few were surprised when the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) last month crowned Chicago number one in the 2022–2023 College Free Speech Rankings.

It’s not quite as rosy here as Katz makes out, as some students and faculty are constantly pushing against our Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report, and those principles have to be defended. So far so good, though: Chicago didn’t lift a finger when students and faculty in Geophysical Sciences, as well as alumni, urged punishments be inflicted on Professor Dorian Abbot for taking stands against DEI initiatives. And over 80 schools have adopted our Principles of Free Speech, though just one, UNC at Chapel Hill, has adopted our Kalven Report mandating institutional neutrality. More schools need to become institutionally neutral, for the taking of “official” political, moral, or ideological positions by departments or university administration serves to chill the speech of those who could suffer for dissenting (as Abbot might have were he another school and as perhaps Katz did).

Katz continues:

No other university has close to as many faculty members who have been supportive of me—and supportive of a good number of others who have fallen afoul of the new academic commissars. You might say “So what?” and accuse me of egotistically pretending an anecdote is data. But given the media attention my story has received, I suppose I’ve become something of a Rorschach test.

Although I have never had any formal ties to the Windy City, over a dozen humanists, social scientists, and scientists in a range of departments and schools at the University of Chicago have written op-eds and blogs (here are three), permitted themselves to be seen with me, or at least checked in regularly to make sure I’m OK. None of these people believes I am a saint or never did anything wrong, as of course I did. But, well, John 8:7, for starters.

I am aware that the University of Chicago is not paradise. Even in the Maroon world, according to FIRE, “42% of students say shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus is never acceptable”—which leaves the other 58 percent. Worse, there’s actual violence: fatal shootings of students around campus don’t stop zealots from demanding that the university’s police force be defunded.

Furthermore, a couple of years back, the department of English decided that it would accept “only [graduate] applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies.” The geophysicist Dorian Abbot has been a regular target of attacks, internal as well as external, for speaking up—in a way that a majority of Americans would find wholly reasonable—about the problems with “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” Earlier this year, the new department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity came into existence. And, sure, some faculty members, including one with a high public profile, have gone out of their way to denounce me.

Still, Chicago clearly is different from everywhere else, and we should all ask why. In my case, I am led to inquire what gives so many Chicago professors the courage to stand up to injustice, even when the injustice is to someone to whom they owe nothing—someone at a different institution, in a different field—and even when their actions could well come at a personal cost.

I think the main reason is one of our Presidents—Robert Maynard Hutchins (served 1929 to 1945)—who made freedom of speech, including his refusal to fire Communist professors, a centerpiece of his program. Since then, other Presidents have taken care to uphold our principles of free speech. It is a selling point to those students and parents who prize free expression. But even here, as I said, our professed Foundational Principles are constantly under assault. In the end, Katz calls on our new President, Paul Alivisatos, to continue the tradition:

There is a lesson here for Robert Zimmer’s successor, Paul Alivisatos: he must take care to safeguard the wisdom and excellence of the university he has had the privilege to lead for a little over a year.

I’m hopeful Alivisatos will do the right thing. For now, at least, I give thanks for the University of Chicago: My kind of town, Chicago is/ My kind of people too/ People who smile at you.

Perhaps I’m in a college bubble here, constantly banging on about issues that don’t affect the wider society—yet. But this one does, and will continue to do so. As Andrew Sullivan wrote, “We’re all on campus now.”  Alas, ’tis true. The ideological currents of elite American universities are flowing downstream, and will eventually empty their contents into society at large. For today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders.

9 thoughts on “In praise of my university

  1. If I were advising relatives, friends, or anyone really, I’d point them strongly to Chicago precisely because Chicago adheres to the most important traditional values of a university.

    As far as I can tell from relatives in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, Andrew Sullivan is right – woke ideology has expanded off-campus and further. We may come to appreciate a red-state/rural firewall against this nonsense.

    1. We may come to appreciate a red-state/rural firewall against this nonsense
      That firewall is Idaho – bastion of free speech. Where professors are counseled by university general council that if they discuss birth control, abortion or family planning in a ‘non neutral’ way they may become felons barred from state employment. That if they recommend condoms for any other purpose than the spread of STIs they may be found guilty. Where librarians are facing potential charges for having books on their shelves that don’t adhere to the Christian nationalist worldview.

      Look, i spent a long time in rural, red eastern PNW. I know the game. Seattle is not dying. Portland is still great. I knew I could risk losing my job for voting for Obama. So I kept a lid on it. After more than a decade I moved to the supposedly liberal side of the state. It’s great, and just as Trumpy as the east side, if less classy.

      When the east side can subsidize itself & leaves to join the state of Liberty – or whatever – cool. Let’s see how that plays out.

  2. Sergiu Klainerman (Princeton, mathematics) posted, two months ago, a fascinating piece on Katz and the “woke fanaticism” plaguing his university entitled “Eisgruber’s Emails” at Tablet. The egregious Eisgruber is surpassed, in weakness and in contempt for freedom of expression, perhaps only by Yale’s Salovey amongst the spineless administrators of the Ivies.

  3. … apparently he [Katz] had already been punished for this relationship 15 years ago …

    Jeez, Princeton needs to adopt things comparable to a double jeopardy clause and a statute of limitations.

    His kind of university, Chicago is.
    But (per the tune) does it go in for his kind of raz-ma-taz?

  4. “We’re all on campus now.” Well, yes and no. A few people I know who are intellectuals and book-readers, but have been out of contact with the academic world for decades, asked me what DEI was when I mentioned it in passing. Maybe those ideological currents have flowed mostly into the campus-adjacent world, but are still alien to two large segments of society. One is the group which simply pays llttle attention to the groves of academe; the second is the large segment which is opposed to the woke tide in the ivory towers, when they hear about it. The second group will be roused when the wokely—-particularly those of the critical gender studies communion—start messing with the education of the second group’s kids in the K-12 school system.

  5. My wife is a University of Chicago alumna. She can be proud of her university for its continued stand on free speech. So can you!

  6. I don’t understand the “power differential” argument against relationships between professors and undergraduates. 18-year-olds are adults. There is a power differential between a secretary and his or her boss, a fledgling actor and an agent, and a police officer and a higher-ranking police officer, but we allow all of these relationships. In fact, the person with less power may find the relationship advantageous.

    I think there is an argument against relationships between professors and undergraduates when they pose a conflict of interest. But I have no problem with such a relationship when the undergraduate is not in the professor’s class, or was in it but is not anymore.

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