Katz case illustrates how culture wars have taken over the academy

Why can’t scholars acknowledge that a professor was both mistreated by Princeton and mistreated his former student lover, asks Jonathan Zimmerman

May 27, 2022
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I’m a scholar of the culture wars in the US. I used to believe that universities could provide a kind of solvent for these conflicts, by clarifying different positions and suggesting compromises between them.

I don’t believe that anymore. Universities have embraced the same polarised, winner-take-all spirit as the rest of American politics. And that’s very bad news for anyone who cares about the future of the American academy.

Witness recent events at Princeton University, where president Christopher Eisgruber recommended that the board of trustees dismiss classics professor Joshua Katz. In lockstep fashion, faculty divided quickly into Team Eisgruber – by far the bigger group – and Team Katz. And neither squad acknowledged the validity or even the humanity of the other one. 

The university fired Katz on Monday, citing his behaviour during a sexual relationship with an undergraduate student 15 years ago. Princeton officials already knew about that affair and had punished Katz by suspending him without pay for a year. But they said that the student had come forth with new information, including claims that Katz had discouraged her from seeking mental health treatment – for fear that she would disclose their affair – and that he pressured her not to cooperate with an earlier investigation.


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To Katz’ defenders, all of that was window dressing to disguise the real reason he was sacked: his remarks on race. In 2020, a few weeks after the police murder of George Floyd, Katz published an online essay blasting an open letter about racism at Princeton. Signed by more than 300 faculty, staff members and students, the letter called on the university to dismantle “systemic racism”, “incentivize anti-racist student activism” and apologise to members of a student group known as the Black Justice League for repeatedly rebuffing their demand to remove President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university’s School of Public and International Affairs (three years ago, Princeton agreed to remove Wilson’s name).

Katz’s essay endorsed parts of the open letter, including its support for summer move-in allowances for new assistant professors. But he rejected its demand that junior faculty of colour receive an additional semester of sabbatical. He also charged that the Black Justice League had bullied dissenting students – including African Americans  – in a “struggle session”, which Katz called “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed”.

Most controversially, he described the group as “a small local terrorist organization”. When that quote went viral, Katz became a campus pariah. Colleagues in the classics department posted a message calling Katz’ choice of words “abhorrent at this moment of national reckoning.” Eisgruber denounced Katz’s “false description” of the Black Justice League. And the university featured Katz in a rogues’ gallery of racist Princetonians presented at the university’s first-year student orientation last August. 

The presentation did not mention the handful of professors and students who have defended Katz. Instead, in bold font, it quoted two African American faculty critics. One said that Katz had engaged in “race-baiting, disguised as free speech”; the other said Katz “seems to not regard people like me as essential features, or persons, of Princeton”.

So far as I know, Katz did not receive a chance to respond to these highly derogatory charges. And I haven’t heard of any other university denouncing a standing faculty member in such a public venue. Absurdly, Eisgruber defended the comments about Katz as “teaching material” for the incoming students. But if the university was truly interested in teaching about this controversy, it would have presented supporters of Katz alongside critics of him. Anything less isn’t teaching; it’s indoctrination.

Surely there are many faculty, at Princeton and elsewhere, who believe that flaying Katz at the first-year orientation was wrong, but they’re mostly biting their tongues because saying so would seem to place them in Katz’ corner. Why aid and abet the other team?

Likewise, Katz’ defenders have generally refrained from condemning his newly reported misbehaviour towards his ex-lover. Princeton clearly had a duty to investigate her claims, which she detailed in a formal complaint. And if Katz indeed told her not to cooperate with the investigation – or not to seek mental health treatment – of course he should be held accountable for that. But you won’t hear that from the people on Katz’ side. If they mention the new allegations at all, it is simply to dismiss the charges as a mean-spirited retaliation against an outspoken colleague.

It’s all or nothing, kill or be killed, my way or the highway, heads I win and tails you lose. In other words, it’s a war.

We frequently cite Princeton dropout F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that the mark of intelligence is holding “two opposing ideas in mind at the same time”. If we truly believed that, we could denounce both the university’s mistreatment of Katz and also his alleged mistreatment of his student. But our faith in that principle is hugely frayed, not just outside universities but within them. Indeed, there’s not much of a difference between the two any longer. And that just makes me incredibly sad.

Jonathan Zimmerman is Judy and Howard Berkowitz professor in education and professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which will be published in a revised 20th-anniversary edition by the University of Chicago Press this autumn.

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Reader's comments (2)

This is really a stunning opinion piece. not only does Zimmerman never attempt to answer his beginning question. But he has no interest in establishing the now common right wing dog-whistle that Princeton "mistreated" Katz. Zimmerman's unscholarly prose: "As far as I know, Katz did not receive a chance to respond...." In so far as I know???? Does that substitute for evidence and argument? These are simply not the grounds for parading false equivalencies. The confirmed case of sexual assault speaks independently far louder than the muddled distortions of "academic freedom." It is no surprise that academia is in a state of decay largely of our own making.
One might disagree on the principle, supporting Scott Fitzgerald's wise aphorism, and which Zimmerman carefully reprises in his summation. Sadly the culture wars have overtaken our institutions, including our courts, churches and other halls of ethical pondering and as a consequence of which these issues, of gender as of race, have become paramount in weaponising and polarising the discourse, rather than in finding, which is the basis of all Nichomachean Ethics, a just solution to both sides in what are two competing narratives. I might add that so busy are administrators and other leaders scrambling to take moral sides these days, sometimes outside their field of expertise, that they seem to have forgotten about the wisdom of Solomon.

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