By guest authors Douglas Belkin and Melissa Korn from the Wall Street Journal
Princeton University’s president has recommended that the school’s board of trustees fire a tenured classics professor, concluding he didn’t cooperate fully in a sexual-misconduct investigation, according to a copy of his letter to the board’s chair reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The recommended dismissal is being assailed by the professor’s supporters as a politically motivated cover.
The professor, Joshua Katz, drew ire from corners of the university in 2020 when he criticized faculty proposals to address the school’s legacy of racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Dr. Katz’s allies say Princeton is targeting him because he is an outspoken critic of the school’s liberal faculty.
A Princeton spokesman declined to say when the board will next meet and said the school generally doesn’t comment on personnel matters.
Dr. Katz didn’t respond to requests for comment. Samantha Harris, Dr. Katz’s lawyer, said a past relationship with a student had already been adjudicated and that the university was condemning the professor for his political beliefs.
“If expressing an unpopular opinion is an invitation to have your personal life turned inside out looking for damaging evidence, how many people are going to be willing to speak out?” she said.
The controversy has drawn attention across academia as it involves hot-button issues that have roiled campus life in recent years, including sexual relationships between students and professors, free-speech protections, efforts by universities to redress histories of racism, and the institution of tenure at one of the country’s most prestigious schools.
“With the firing of Professor Katz, Princeton will have sent a message,” said Edward Yingling, co-founder of Princetonians for Free Speech, a group comprised of Princeton alumni formed in November 2020 to promote free speech and academic freedom at the school. “If a faculty member or student says something that contradicts our orthodoxy, we will get you—if not for what you said, then by twisting your language, by using the extensive resources of the university to shame you before the student body, and by investigating your personal life for years past.”
Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber’s recommendation for dismissal, dated May 10, is based on a 10-page report, written last November and signed by faculty dean Gene Jarrett. Dr. Jarrett didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Eisgruber declined to comment on the report via a school spokesperson.
The report said that in 2018, Dr. Katz didn’t fully cooperate with investigators examining a consensual sexual relationship he had with an undergraduate student beginning in 2006, after her junior year, and continuing until her graduation. The student declined to participate in the investigation at that time.
After the 2018 investigation, which found Dr. Katz had violated school policy prohibiting sexual relationships between teachers and the students under their supervision and its nepotism policy, Princeton suspended him for one year without pay.
In 2021, the school’s student newspaper investigated the relationship, and the former student sent a 63-page complaint to the school.
That prompted a second investigation, which found two violations of school policy: Dr. Katz didn’t fully cooperate with and misled investigators, and discouraged the former student from seeking psychiatric help when she threatened self-harm. Mr. Eisgruber cited those reasons in his written recommendation for dismissal, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Dr. Katz, who started teaching at Princeton in 1998, has been on paid administrative leave since July.
That investigation played out shortly after a free-speech showdown between Dr. Katz and Princeton administrators that began in the summer of 2020, following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and its aftermath.
Since July 2020, about 300 Princeton faculty, students and alumni have signed an open letter asking the school to address its history of racism including bias in hiring, admission and recruitment. The letter laid out dozens of suggestions including proposing that Princeton create a committee “composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.”
Dr. Katz responded four days later with an online essay in which he said the letter embarrassed the faculty who signed it and predicted that proposed changes would have a chilling effect on free speech on campus.
He also condemned the behavior of the Black Justice League, a student organization that staged a sit-in at the president’s office in 2015 to advocate for the removal of former President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the public-policy school. He called the group a “small terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.”
Mr. Wilson was the school’s president for eight years beginning in 1902. Princeton stripped Mr. Wilson’s name from the public-policy school in June 2020.
In a July 2020 op-ed in Princeton’s student newspaper, Mr. Eisgruber condemned Dr. Katz’s description of the student group as “irresponsible and offensive.” Still, he said, the words were protected by the school’s free-speech policies and Dr. Katz “can be answered but not censored or sanctioned.”
Days later, Dr. Katz declared that “free speech and robust debate have prevailed at Princeton,” in an opinion article in The Journal.
When Dr. Katz met with Dr. Jarrett last October, the professor linked the disciplinary matter to Princeton’s “political liberalism,” according to Dr. Jarrett’s report. “The current political climate of the University, whether perceived or real, is not germane to the case, nor does it play a role in my recommendation,” Dr. Jarrett wrote in the report.
This spring—at Dr. Katz’s request—a faculty committee reviewed Dr. Jarrett’s report and evidence and determined that the inquiry was fair. The committee determined that “dismissal is not an unreasonable recommendation,” according to Mr. Eisgruber’s letter.
It is unusual but not unprecedented for faculty with tenure protection to be fired. Princeton last did so in 2018, dismissing an electrical engineering professor for violating the school’s policies prohibiting consensual relationships with students and requiring honesty and cooperation in university matters. That professor has sued Princeton, citing gender bias in the investigation. Much of the suit was dismissed by a federal district court, and the professor has since appealed the decision.
Appeared in the May 20, 2022, print edition as ‘Princeton Seeks Professor’s Firing’.