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).