Princeton Fires Creepy, Lying Professor Who Happened to be Conservative

There's much more to the story than meets the eye.

In a move foreshadowed for more than a year, the prestigious Ivy has fired controversial professor Joshua Katz. Given that Katz had previously been suspended and put on probation for the conduct for which he was ostensibly fired, and because he’d published a heated op-ed in an alt-right journal against the university’s over-the-top program to remedy past racial discrimination, it was easy to portray this as politically motivated double jeopardy. A closer look, though, reveals this to be a smoke screen.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Princeton Fires Classics Professor Over Relationship With Student“):

Princeton University’s Board of Trustees voted on Monday to fire Joshua Katz, a classics professor, after an investigation found that he had “misrepresented facts or failed to be straightforward” during a 2018 disciplinary hearing that focused on a consensual relationship he had with an undergraduate student he supervised in the mid-2000s. In a statement, the university called Katz’s actions “egregious violations” of university policy and “entirely inconsistent with his obligations” as a faculty member.

Princeton began investigating Katz in February of last year around the time The Daily Princetonian published a lengthy story that offered an unflattering portrait of the professor’s behavior (a friend of the student with whom he had a relationship told the paper that Katz’s conduct was “emotionally abusive”). The article also included comments from another student who said his actions toward her, while not sexual in nature, were inappropriately intimate and “repulsively unprofessional.”

But Katz’s supporters have argued that the investigation was in retaliation for an essay the professor wrote for Quillette in July 2020 that criticized a letter, signed by numerous Princeton faculty members, that made a slew of recommendations about how the university should address racism on campus. Among the recommendations was additional sabbatical time for faculty of color. The proposals, Katz wrote, “would lead to a civil war on campus.”

Katz’s lawyer, Samantha Harris, drew a connection between that essay and the university’s investigation. “There is a straight line from the Quillette article to what is happening now,” said Harris, who was a student of Katz’s when she was at Princeton. “To me, the message this essentially sends is that, if you say something unpopular, it is open season to turn your personal life inside out.” That same idea — that the investigation was actually a response to Katz’s controversial essay — has been repeated in a number of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and the National Review.

Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, pushed back against that charge in remarks he made to alumni on on Saturday. Though he didn’t name Katz, it was clear, in a transcript provided to The Chronicle, that Eisgruber was referring to the case. He told those gathered that the university has “broad and vigorous policies protecting free speech” and that “you cannot discipline people on the basis of their speech, even when that speech is speech that people profoundly disagree with.” He went on to reference the university’s policies on sexual misconduct and noted that those include “requirements of honesty and cooperation in connection to university proceedings and investigations.” The university’s statement said that Eisgruber had recommended to the Board of Trustees that Katz be dismissed.

The university investigated Katz in 2018 for his relationship with the undergraduate student and disciplined him, suspending the professor for one year without pay. According to the university’s statement, the student with whom he had a relationship didn’t participate in the 2018 investigation but came forward last year and provided new information that led to a second investigation. The key findings from that second investigation were that Katz had allegedly discouraged the student from seeking mental-health services when she was an undergraduate and had also persuaded her not to participate in the 2018 investigation “in an effort to conceal a relationship he knew was prohibited by university rules.” Harris, Katz’s lawyer, said that the university was “splitting hairs” and has “cherry-picked a handful of sentences from a voluminous record of correspondence in a way we consider disingenuous.”

Katz didn’t respond to requests for comment. In an essay he wrote last fall, he addressed the relationship with the student, calling it a “grave mistake” and a “sin.” He also criticized the student newspaper’s investigation into his personal life, writing that it relied on “hearsay, innuendo, and hostile anonymous sources.”

Now, CHE has a reputation among some as leaning toward the progressive side of the spectrum. But here’s how Inside Higher Ed (“Princeton Fires Professor for Misconduct“), the more conservative-leaning relative upstart reports it:

Princeton University’s Board of Trustees voted Monday to fire Joshua Katz, Cotsen Professor in the Humanities, effective immediately.

[…]

The unnamed alumna did not participate in or cooperate with the 2018 disciplinary proceeding, according to Princeton. But when she came forward in 2021, she provided what Princeton called “new information,” triggering a new investigation. The second inquiry did not revisit the policy violations for which Katz was previously punished, according to Princeton: “It only considered new issues that came to light because of new information provided by the former student.”

“The 2021 investigation established multiple instances in which Dr. Katz misrepresented facts or failed to be straightforward during the 2018 proceeding, including a successful effort to discourage the alumna from participating and cooperating after she expressed the intent to do so,” the university said. “It also found that Dr. Katz exposed the alumna to harm while she was an undergraduate by discouraging her from seeking mental health care although he knew her to be in distress, all in an effort to conceal a relationship he knew was prohibited by university rules. These actions were not only egregious violations of university policy, but also entirely inconsistent with his obligations as a member of the faculty.”

Katz has previously denied that he engaged in any conduct beyond that for which he was suspended in 2018. He’s argued that Princeton wanted to fire him because of his political speech, including for a 2020 essay in Quillette which he referred to a Black student group as a “small local terrorist organization.” But Princeton’s dismissal announcement sheds new light on what the 2021 investigation was about; contrary to Katz’s public statement that he was being effectively retried for the same violations for political reasons, Princeton was now looking at a different set of allegations from the former undergraduate student herself, in part because Katz had (according to Princeton’s apparent findings) prevented her participation in the first investigation.

Katz’ Quillette op-ed was surely irksome to some in Princeton’s administration. While I mostly agree with its criticisms of the anti-racism open letter on substance, its tone was intemperate, immature, and petty. It was simply unbefitting a middle-aged Classics professor. But, no, I don’t believe Princeton or any other college would have fired a tenured faculty member—let alone an endowed chair with multiple national and international awards—over it or even used it as a pretext to get rid of him given another opportunity.

Still, based on earlier reports, I was predisposed to believe that claim. After all, the relationship in question took place in 2006 and 2007 and was already adjudicated in 2018. But if he in fact coerced her to refuse to participate in that investigation and then she later provided information that substantially changed the nature of the university’s understanding of that relationship, then this isn’t “double jeopardy.”

Further, reading between the lines, I gather the 2006-7 affair wasn’t the last time he crossed the line. It’s one thing for a youngish professor to have a consensual affair with an undergraduate—it’s long been verboten but it happens a lot—and quite another to routinely make female students uncomfortable with sexual advances and innuendo.

And, again, Katz was extremely distinguished. He’s won accolades and honors ranging from a Marshall Scholarship to a Guggenheim Fellowship. And he was an extremely popular teacher. According to his faculty page, which is surprisingly still up (and which hasn’t been updated in years, he won the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching (2003), the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award (2008), and the Sophie and L. Edward Cotsen Faculty Fellowship in recognition of “outstanding undergraduate teaching” (2013-16).

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Hal_10000 says:

    One of the things I’ve been thinking about is that universities need to change their policies on relationships. The arrogance of thinking one can control the behavior of tens of thousands of adults is not helping things. It encourages precisely this kind of abuse, where a professor tries to conceal the relationship to the detriment of the student. A better approach to student-faculty relationships would be a) require disclosure; b) remind faculty that, in the event of an allegation that a student was pressured into a relationship, the presumption will be against the person in a position of power.

    As for Katz, we’ve now seen this playbook a number of times. When you’re found out for bad behavior, cry “Cancel Culture!” and watch the conservative media rally to you. It’s disgusting, frankly.

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  2. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Hal_10000:

    I suspect things have changed over the years, but back in the 90’s (?) this became the standard approach in a lot of places–with the additional restriction that if the student was in any of the professor’s classes, a colleague would have to do the grading of any papers/projects, etc.

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  3. steve says:

    It is interesting the conservative Christian” writers dont seem to care that the guy had an illicit affair. They skim over the unmarked sex part, which I guess is mostly a sin if it is gay people (and you make sure they cant get married so it is always a sin anyway). If one of my guys pressure a 19 y/o nursing student into an affair I would fire them in a heartbeat. Especially if they lied to conceal it.

    Noteworthy here that they kept the guy out of work for a year when they thought it was a purely consensual affair. So even before he wrote his letter it was a big deal. Finding out he told the woman to not cooperate and kept her form seeking care to conceal the affair elevates it to another degree and he should have been fired.

    Steve

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  4. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Define “consensual”. If he hinted that it would be to her advantage to be – shall we say – friends with him, that’s not consensual, especially if it’s a young inexperienced student and he’s a major authority figure in her life. This kind of nonsense has to be stopped and good on Princeton for doing it.

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  5. Modulo Myself says:

    I think it’s possible for a consensual relationship to happen between a professor and a student. But it can’t be your thing. This guy went on to marry one of his students. He’s lucky he didn’t get fired the first time and an insane narcissist to draw attention to himself by calling a black student group terrorists after he was investigated.

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  6. grumpy realist says:

    And of course Dreher over at TAC is wringing his hands and boo-hoo-ing over how Those Nasty Woke People were so evil to Katz.

    I find it impossible to believe that Dreher was ever a journalist. He never seems to actually research anything or find independent confirmation (two or more sources), or ever ask himself “what if this person is bullish*tting me? Am I being biased because this story hits all my outrage buttons?” Something comes along that he can get outraged about and he goes all frothing-at-the-mouth (all the while piously intoning “Live Not By Lies”). And everything, just EVERYTHING, has to fit into his cookie-cutter mentality of The Gays Are Bad/The Trans Are Bad/The Liberals Are Bad/We Christians Are So Picked Upon.

    ARRRGH!

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  7. Chip Daniels says:

    It is always interesting to see how unconscious class consciousness is in our culture.

    Were Mr. Katz a retail clerk or janitor or any other employee his firing would be a nonstory. We know this because thousands of at will employees are fired every day for the most trivial or outrageous reasons.

    And yet it just seems so assumed that members of the elite class should be immune from the harsh realities of employment law.

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  8. DK says:

    @Hal_10000: Or faculty members could just preference relationships with the other millions of available adults. Rather than invite personal and legal headache for themselves, colleagues, and their institution via a workplace entanglement with a power imbalance and a likely maturity and experience gap.

    Why bother with unnecessary drama? Did we learn nothing from Bill Clinton’s himbo eruptions?

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  9. CSK says:

    @DK:
    I think the power imbalance is precisely what some of those professors like about sexual relationships with students.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @grumpy realist: Well, he is still hanging on his martyrs cross, don’cha know.

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  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: It certainly makes them easier to control.

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  12. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Faculty/undergrad relationships can’t be consensual in the same manner that doctor/patient or guard/prisoner or any other similar situation. There’s no way to extract the power differential.

    I’m single and I use online dating apps. A few times per semester, someone who looks like they might be an undergraduate (at any school) will message me. I either won’t respond at all or I’ll send a quick reply telling them that I’ll be happy to wish them a Happy Graduation when the time comes.

    Whether they are currently a student at my college or not is irrelevant to me. There’s no world in which it would be worth the hassle of having someone I went on a date with pop up in my classroom down the road.

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  13. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    That’s the appeal for them.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    If he hinted that it would be to her advantage to be – shall we say – friends with him, that’s not consensual, especially if it’s a young inexperienced student and he’s a major authority figure in her life.

    I agree, but take it farther. He doesn’t have to hint. This is always wrong. If you have authority over someone you shouldn’t date them, flirt with them, give their ass a little pat or anything else. Full stop.

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  15. Chip Daniels says:

    @CSK:
    I recall hearing a quip about how “If writers only wrote about what they know, all novels would revolve around middle aged English professors contemplating an adulterous affair with a student.”

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  16. CSK says:

    @Chip Daniels:
    There’s a lot of truth to that, at least in the case of male academics who are also novelists.

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  17. MarkedMan says:

    @CSK:

    I think the power imbalance is precisely what some of those professors like about sexual relationships with students.

    I’m going to get into trouble here, but what the heck – I think the power imbalance is somehow attractive to the students too. In fact, I think when it is coupled with significant age difference, the power imbalance is necessary to allow the deluded pairing to kid themselves into believing it’s true love.

    I’m 61 and, while not hideous, if a 22 year old is sexually attracted to me they need a friend to shake some sense into them. If I’m behaving in such a way that a 22 year old is thinking about me as a potential boyfriend, I better check my behavior. And while I can find a 22 year old sexually attractive in the abstract, if I find myself thinking it would be a good life choice to date one, I need to get counseling.

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  18. Hal_10000 says:

    @DK:

    That’s preferable, yes. But we also need to be realistic. On a campus with thousands of professors, some are going to sleep with their students no matter what we tell them. Better to have it open than concealed.

    1
  19. Jay L Gischer says:

    I once was a professor. I ended up marrying a student, though she was never in my classes, or even my department. We are still married after 30+ years. These things can be handled well. I would characterize my situation as “abundance of caution” along with “abundance of consent”.

    I’m pretty sure nobody would characterize Katz’ behavior that way.

    I’m ok with policies as they are. You can require reporting, but it won’t happen, and nothing much will change.

    I recall, long ago, seeing an essay entitled “Stay the Hell Away From Bambi”. This was advice to (male) professors on how to have affairs with female students. It was a humorous way to say stay away from the young, naive ones. Preference the older women, the returning ones, the divorcees.

    This was from the Nineties. Perhaps young female coeds are less naive now, and feel its unfair to describe them as “Bambi”. That might be true generally, but there’s always the one that wants people to think that, but is very much out of her depth and scared. I mean, weren’t we all that way?

    I can’t find that essay now, I don’t know how it reads in 2022. Maybe not so well, it’s hard to say.

    3
  20. Jay L Gischer says:

    @MarkedMan: Yeah, let’s keep in mind a corollary of Rule 34: No matter what it is, its someone’s kink.

    I am aware of a young, college-age woman who sought a sexual relationship with a much older man where there was no structural power relationship. They met at a square dance. This stuff happens.

    And while at 60 the whole thing probably does seem silly, at 40 it maybe doesn’t seem so silly. Especially if one is lonely for other reasons. At 30, often the age of a junior faculty member, it doesn’t really seem silly at all.

    1
  21. DK says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Better to have it open than concealed.

    Is it better? I mean, I know that my boyfriend having bowel movements is a thing that happens, but please close the bathroom door homie. I don’t need to smell that.

    4
  22. Matt Bernius says:

    @Hal_10000 and I already discussed this on Twitter, but I wanted to share here as well. My take is that his proposal is better than the current standard. However, I still have issues with it.

    I don’t think schools should allow sexual relationships between anyone in direct teaching and grading relationships. That would include Professors being in a relationship with someone and also being on their review committee or Professors/Instructors/Grad Students with anyone they are lecturing or grading. The power dynamics for everyone involved (including other students) are just impossible.

    After that everything gets really sticky (especially when factoring in non-traditional students). And I agree with DK that it’s best that you just don’t date students, I also understand how the academic environment (in particular in more secluded locales) creates lots of barriers to that (as bad as that sounds). If you accept the reality of that, then Hal is correct that transparency is the best option possible (and arguably, may also discourage this very behavior).

    3
  23. grumpy realist says:

    @Matt Bernius: I’d allow the relationship….grudgingly…if it were between a prof and a student from another department. But in direct line of authority? Uh, no.

    2
  24. MarkedMan says:

    @Matt Bernius: 100% agree and add this: Allowing such liaisons is a liability nightmare for a University or any workplace. Fer crying out loud, just look at all the lawsuits we read about day in and day out – Boss dates employee. It ends. Badly. Employee sues company. Employee settles for huge sums. What made the company liable? They turned a blind eye to an executive having an affair with someone they had power over. In what world can you you write HR regs that allow that but somehow protect the company from liability?!

    Yes, humans are humans and they are going to have affairs with people they supervise. They are also going to steal. They are also going to grossly make fun of fellow employees in what they thought was a private email and then have it leak out. They are also going to pee in the milkshake mix. Humans do all kinds of stupid, destructive stuff. The answer isn’t to “have it in the open.” The answer is to fire their ass before things get worse.

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  25. wr says:

    @Modulo Myself: “I think it’s possible for a consensual relationship to happen between a professor and a student. ”

    I’d be more sympathetic to a relationship between a professor and a grad student. For one thing, the age and power differential may well be a lot less — a 34 year old professor and a 27 year old student — and their life experiences are probably fairly similar. Even if the prof is older, once the student is pushing 30, while there is still potential for abuse, there’s also potential for the basis of a real relationhip.

    But a 50 year old professor hitting on his 19 year old students? That’s a horny old guy using his position to get young girls.

    3
  26. Joe says:

    @MarkedMan:
    When I was in my younger 50s and a few years divorced, I had a 20-year-old decide I was what she wanted. And while she was attractive, I sorted out pretty quickly that there was something fundamentally off about her interest in me and this was a trap to be avoided at all costs. It helped my strong disinterest that she was friends with my kids who were barely younger than she was. On the NYE after she turned 21, she sent me a text suggesting that we meet up because “we are 2 consenting adults.” While I found a politer way of diverting that suggestion, my internal response was “no, we are one of each.”

    3
  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Matt Bernius: Back in the late 80s/early 90s (can’t remember exactly when anymore other than that it was a topic in one of my grad-level pedagogy classes) Washington State had a problem that led to the Legislature (of all groups) needing to decide to make a ruling on the problem. That august assembly decided that since someone needed to be the adult, the responsibility would fall on the person who was the actual adult. Subsequently, relationships with students were completely banned until such students were beyond the influence of their teachers until age 25 or five years (IIRC) had elapsed–which ever number was greater. Teachers violating the statute were subject to termination and forfeiture of teaching certificates/revocation of tenure. I don’t know whether it corrected the problem, but the legislators took the action they could. It was, IMLTHO, a good move.

    Now, a funny but connected story: One day, a young woman in a class of high school seniors noticed that I had a Planet Fitness membership fob on my keyring. She suggested that since we were both members, that we should meet there sometime to work out together.

    The other students waited in breathless anticipation of how I would respond. I noted that the suggestion was probably the most flattering thing that had happened to me in as long as I could remember, but that considering my relationship to the district, her relationship to the district, and the difference in our ages–approximately 40 years, IIRC–we should probably postpone the meeting until after she graduated from college. (I did not cite the law in question, but it was included in materials that I had received from the district when I hired on as a substitute.)

    She thought for a bit and replied, “Eww, that was creepy, wasn’t it? I’m sorry.”

    3
  28. mattbernius says:

    @wr:

    I’d be more sympathetic to a relationship between a professor and a grad student. For one thing, the age and power differential may well be a lot less — a 34 year old professor and a 27 year old student — and their life experiences are probably fairly similar. Even if the prof is older, once the student is pushing 30, while there is still potential for abuse, there’s also potential for the basis of a real relationhip.

    Honestly, this depends a LOT on the program. In many cases, the power differential is far worse with graduate students than it is with undergrads if the grad student wants to stay in academia. It’s very easy for a Professor to make or break a grad student’s career (literally blacklist them from jobs and/or funding).

    Part of the issue is that academia is still way too based on a patronage system.

    4
  29. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Call/response like this is why you’ve generally been popular with students, and anathema to “management” over your years in academe.

    2
  30. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    Overall, this whole thing reinforces my notion that the only thing wrong with humans has been the delay in the 2.1 release of Homo Sapiens. Frankly, I’d think the right would be embarrassed to be seen supporting this floating turd, but then I remember the GQP (in general) has no shame. What a sorry excuse for an adult.

    3
  31. Grommit Gunn says:

    @mattbernius: Absolutely. I only think a grad student / professor relationship might be an okay idea if they are in completely different academic divisions. Even then, there’s potential for the grad student to be at a meaningful disadvantage depending on how long that professor has been at that institution, and on what their reputation is in the rumor mill and their history of prior interpersonal relationships with other faculty / staff / administration/ grad students – things that the grad student has no real way of determining ahead of time.

    1
  32. grumpy realist says:

    @mattbernius: Or providing a letter of reference. It’s especially bad as a grad student after you have taken the required courses and passed the required quals/orals. I’d hate to think of the abuse possible when you’re ABD and under the thumb of your advisor.

  33. wr says:

    @mattbernius: “In many cases, the power differential is far worse with graduate students than it is with undergrads if the grad student wants to stay in academia. It’s very easy for a Professor to make or break a grad student’s career (literally blacklist them from jobs and/or funding).”

    I get that. I’ve been fortunate never to be in one of those departments. And I watched my father, a professor of English at Berkeley, develop lifelong friendships with several of his grad students. And as a professor of screenwriting I can maybe occasionally give a student’s career a little boost, but I would have no clue how to go about destroying it. So my take really doesn’t apply across the board.

    The good thing about relationships between professors in the humanities and their PHd students these days is that the students’ careers come pre-ruined, with essentially no chance of ever getting a job. So no risk!

  34. de stijl says:

    Guy was a genius. An evil one.

    He knew he was going to fired for misconduct. He jerry-rigged up the op-ed as a post facto smoke screen. Knew he was going to get national cancel culture coverage and defense.l

    What an utter asshole!

    Calculated RW outrage as cover for a prima facie firable offense. Clever. Evil.

    1