I didn’t attend Princeton University but I did attend its keg parties. As a senior in high school, I spent much of my free time hanging out on the campus with a small group of upperclassmen who treated me and my friend Mike as something between mascots and proteges. One acquaintance of mine, a graduate student in the Classics department, got me interested in philosophy and Ancient Greek, which I then studied when I went off to a different college.
So, I suppose I have more than the average passing interest in the case of tenured Classics professor Joshua Katz, who was just cashiered by the Princeton Board of Trustees. Ostensibly, Katz’s sin was having an inappropriate sexual relationship with an undergraduate student in 2006 and 2007. Princeton only learned of the relationship a decade later, and the New York Times reports he was “he was quietly suspended without pay for a year.”
Perhaps people should be focused on the “quiet” part of his 2017 suspension because that seems like a nice courtesy that did little to protect future students from inappropriate advances. But it turned out that Katz’s adulterous affair with an undergrad would not remain a secret.
That’s because Katz decided to become an outspoken critic of Black activists on campus during the height of the national controversy over the police slaying of George Floyd in 2020.
The saga began with an open letter to Princeton’s leadership on Independence Day in 2020, when protests over the police killing of George Floyd and demands for racial justice were rippling across the country. The first sentence declared: “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.”
The letter called on the university to take “immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus,” and offered 48 proposals for reform. It was signed by more than 300 faculty, students and staff members.
Prominent signers of the letter included Dr. Glaude; Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Dominican-born Roman historian, who has written that the field of classics is inextricably entangled with white supremacy; and Tracy K. Smith, a former U.S. poet laureate, who has since left Princeton.
One of the demands was that Princeton “acknowledge, credit and incentivize anti-racist student activism,” beginning with a “formal public university apology” to members of the Black Justice League, who were met with institutional resistance when they agitated, several years before it happened, to remove President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs.
Four days later, Dr. Katz, who has repeatedly described himself as nonpolitical, published his riposte, “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor.”
He said that while some of the letter’s signers might have believed in their declaration, he thought that peer pressure played a bigger role, and that others had not actually read it. He was, he wrote, embarrassed for them.
And while he agreed with some demands, like giving summer move-in allowances to new assistant professors, he wrote that he disagreed with others, like giving an additional semester of sabbatical to junior faculty members of color.
He also described the Black Justice League as “a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many Black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.” He described the group’s supporters as “baying for blood” during a “struggle session” recorded on Instagram Live that he said was “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed.”
Now, Princeton is adamant that these remarks did not serve as the motivation or rationale for firing Prof. Katz. But there’s no debate that the remarks directly led to his firing. That’s because it angered and motivated people to look into his past, and that’s when his previous affair and suspension were discovered.
This, then, brought the women, now fifteen years older, out of the woodwork, and she filed a complaint against Katz.
The woman in the sexual relationship did not cooperate with the original Princeton investigation. But after the Princetonian report, she filed a formal complaint that led the administration to open a new investigation, which it said was looking at new issues rather than revisiting old violations, according to the university report.
The new investigation spurred by this complaint is what caused Katz’s termination. But if you listen to Katz’s anti-woke defenders on the right, particularly at the National Review, you won’t hear much about the victim’s complaint. In Nate Hochman’s piece on the controversy, he says “for anyone who’s been paying attention, it’s pretty obvious that the real reason for Katz’s termination was political,” and motivated “by the professor’s criticism of Princeton’s ‘anti-racism’ initiatives.” Hochman makes no mention at all of a new complaint and a second investigation.
It’s essential to the right’s argument that they leave this key detail out. After all, this is largely a debate about cause and effect. Was Katz fired because of his sexual behavior or because he was politically incorrect? There can be a legitimate debate on the relative weight to assign to each factor, but refusing to even address the sexual behavior is not a debate.
And that tactic allows the professor’s defenders to avoid confronting the results of the second investigation.
The university’s statement said a 2021 investigation had “established multiple instances in which Dr. Katz misrepresented facts or failed to be straightforward” during its 2018 investigation into the relationship with the undergraduate.
One such instance, the statement said, was “a successful effort to discourage the alumna from participating and cooperating after she expressed the intent to do so.” The investigation 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,” according to the statement.
These actions, the statement said, were “not only egregious violations of university policy, but also entirely inconsistent with his obligations as a member of the faculty.”
For Hochman, these details go unmentioned because they’re irrelevant: “As a result of the activist-led backlash to [Katz’s] comments, the Princeton administration has been gunning for Katz’s head for some time.” In other words, the assertion is that the president of the university and the Board of Trustees were simply looking for an excuse to fire Katz, and his dishonesty and obstruction of the original investigation, along with new revelations unearthed in the student’s complaint and the ensuing investigation, are mere pretenses used to justify a predetermined event.
Here is what is true. If Katz hadn’t opened his mouth in the summer of 2020 to complain about anti-racist activism on campus, he would almost certainly still have a job. He should have counted himself lucky in that, however, both because his initial punishment was lenient and because he was successful in hiding some of the more damning details of the relationship with the student.
For those on the right who at least acknowledge these facts, they argue that anyone can be destroyed if a Woke mob attacks them and turns over every rock looking for damaging information. And maybe there’s a lot of truth in that, and maybe we should be a bit concerned about how this whole saga implicates free speech on college campuses. But that doesn’t address what a university administration is supposed to do when presented with damaging information.
In this case, it became clear that Katz’s one-year suspension was based on incomplete information and that he likely would have received a harsher punishment, including possible termination, if he had been honest and cooperative at the time. I don’t want to say the cover-up was worse than the initial transgression, but it definitely added to it and provided a reasonable cause for Katz’s firing.
Katz’s defenders might not like it, but the old adage that people in glass houses should not throw stones is apt here. He poked a bear, and the bear poked back, but the response wouldn’t have been deadly had he not had such a giant vulnerability.
Ultimately, Katz was brought down by himself. He lost his job because Princeton could not justify keeping him employed. A Woke mob exposed the truth about his character, but it was his character that did him in. For this reason, he’s a poor martyr for the cause of free speech.