Is Penn going to punish Amy Wax?

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Some students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania have been clamoring for years for the ouster of Amy Wax, the polarizing law professor who courted scandal with incendiary and racist remarks and writings and seemed to relish the resulting controversies. Despite the repeated calls for her removal from her tenured position, and the criticisms of her actions—including by university leaders—that followed each controversy, Wax remained in the position and seemed firmly protected by free speech and academic freedom rights.

That pattern may be about to change: the dean of the Penn law school has started a process that could lead to Wax’s termination.

Last month, he sent a 12-page letter to the chair of the Faculty Senate in which he said, “Although imposing sanctions on a faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania is a ‘rare event,’ Wax’s continuous violations of university standards, the increasingly negative impact her conduct has had on students, faculty, and staff and her flagrant disdain and disregard of university policies and procedures—indeed its core mission—constitutes a major infraction of university standards under the Faculty Handbook. Thus, I respectfully request the formation of a hearing board to conduct a full review of Professor Wax’s conduct, and the severe harms she has caused to our community, and to ultimately impose a major sanction against her.”

A major sanction, according to Penn’s Faculty Handbook, can be “termination; suspension; reduction in academic base salary; [or] zero salary increases stipulated in advance for a period of four or more years.”

Wax did not respond to emails requesting a comment. Reached via cellphone, she said, “I would never speak to you guys in a million years.”

She has exhibited no similar reluctance about sharing her opinions widely and publicly.

In January, she wrote, “I think the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.” Her dean responded by calling Wax’s remarks “anti-intellectual” and “racist,” asserting that her “xenophobic and white supremacist views … are diametrically opposed to the policies and ethos of this institution.”

In 2019, she argued at a conference that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” That prompted a petition from various student groups calling for her to be removed from teaching duties.

In 2018 she co-wrote an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer arguing that “all cultures are not equal,” despite the modern “obsession with race.” The university defended her academic freedom but said that students no longer would have to take her classes, and it removed her from teaching students at the beginning of their law school careers.

“I know that this decision will spur debate and difficult conversations in the days, weeks and months ahead, and I welcome them,” Theodore W. Ruger, the law dean, wrote at the time. “All faculty and students here will remain free to express their views. And all students and faculty are entitled to a law school that welcomes them equally as individuals.”

But it appears that Ruger has now had enough.

What the Letter Says

Ruger’s letter focuses on what he calls Wax’s violations of university policies for faculty members. The letter is organized around principles he says Wax has violated repeatedly.

For instance, under “Teaching faculty must avoid exploitation, harassment, and discriminatory treatment of students and must avoid conducting themselves in a manner reasonably interpreted as creating a hostile or discriminatory classroom,” he lists the following:

  • She told a Black student, “who asked whether Wax agreed with panelist John Derbyshire’s statements that Black people are inherently inferior to white people, that ‘you can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.’”
  • She told another Black student “that she had only become a double Ivy ‘because of affirmative action.’”
  • Wax told a student that Black students don’t perform as well as white students because they are less well prepared and that they are less well prepared because of affirmative action.
  • She said in a class “that Mexican men are more likely to assault women and remarking such a stereotype was accurate in the same way as ‘Germans are punctual.’”
  • She said in a class that “gay couples are not fit to raise children.”
  • She said “after a series of students with foreign-sounding names introduced themselves that one student was ‘finally, an American’ adding, ‘it’s a good thing, trust me.’”

Under “faculty must evaluate each student’s true merit,” Ruger listed the following:

  • “Stating, based on misleading citation of other sources, that ‘women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men,’ women are ‘less intellectual than men’ and there is ‘some evidence’ for the proposition that ‘men and women differ in cognitive ability.’”
  • Stating that Black people have “different average IQs” than non-Black people, could “not be evenly distributed through all occupations,” and that such a phenomenon would not be “due to racism.”
  • Stating “some of them shouldn’t” go to college in reference to Black students who attend Penn Law and its peer law schools.
  • Stating that Asians have an “indifference to liberty,” lack “thoughtful and audacious individualism” and that “the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.”
  • Stating that immigrants with “Brown faces, Asian faces … feel anger, envy, and shame,” and expressing her disbelief that they would criticize the United States when “on some level, their country is a shithole.”
  • Stating that “there were some very smart Jews” among her past students but that Ashkenazi Jews are “diluting [their] brand like crazy because [they are] intermarrying.”

And here are the examples he gave of Wax violating the principle that “faculty must show respect for others, including faculty”:

  • She told a Black faculty colleague that it is “rational to be afraid of Black men in elevators.”
  • While serving a panel with a gay faculty member, she said that “no one should have to live in a dorm room with a gay roommate and, separately, that same-sex relationships are self-centered, selfish and not focused on family or community.”
  • She referred to faculty colleagues who have criticized her as “anti–role models” in a talk to law students.

Summing up his list (of which this article only includes the highlights), Ruger wrote, “Academic freedom for a tenured scholar is, and always has been, premised on a faculty member remaining fit to perform the minimal requirements of the job. However, Wax’s conduct demonstrates a ‘flagrant disregard of the standards, rules, or mission of the university.’ Numerous students have expressed a mistrust of her ability to fairly instruct or judge them based on their individual merit. Moreover, students, faculty, and alumni have expressed that Wax’s persistent racist and bigoted on- and off-campus statements have created a demoralizing and demeaning environment for them.”

Reactions to the Letter

The law school released this statement: “In January 2022, Dean Ruger announced that he would move forward with a University Faculty Senate process to address Professor Wax’s escalating conduct. That process called for, and continues to involve, careful investigation and deliberation in order to protect the students, faculty, and staff who comprise this institution, and to provide fairness and due process to all involved including Professor Wax. Such a process takes time, and thought, and involves multiple decision-makers. Under the University of Pennsylvania’s rules, with the charges filed the propriety of Professor Wax’s conduct will now be assessed by a group of her peers on the university’s tenured faculty. Under the University Faculty Handbook, and to preserve the integrity of the process, no additional comment on the substance of the charges against Professor Wax is permitted at this time.”

While Wax is not speaking, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression is speaking out on the case and criticizing Penn’s action.

A blog post by FIRE says, “Universities should take pervasive complaints against faculty members seriously, and conduct falling outside of First Amendment protection—or, at a private university like Penn, protections promised by the university—should be dealt with in a clear and transparent manner. But faculty must not be penalized for their protected expression, especially protected expression outside the classroom.”

The post continued, “Unfortunately, Penn is creating a chilling precedent bound to haunt other faculty members by muddying the waters to the point where Penn’s future sanctions against Wax inextricably tie to her protected expression. Allowing punishment for speech based on its viewpoint in even one instance threatens speech from across the political spectrum thereafter.”

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