Princeton Professor Declares Independence

Posted: Jul 15, 2020 10:30 AM
Princeton Professor Declares Independence

Source: (AP Photo/ Jose F. Moreno)

At least one Princeton professor is not ideologically aligned with the faculty who penned the Anti-Blackness Letter. Joshua Katz, a professor of Classics at Princeton, published an editorial on Quilette describing his consternation over the letter’s content, titling it "A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor."

He begins:

I am friends with many people who signed the Princeton letter, which requests and in some places demands a dizzying array of changes, and I support their right to speak as they see fit. But I am embarrassed for them. To judge from conversations with friends and all too much online scouting, there are two camps: those cheering them on and those who wouldn’t dream of being associated with such a document. No one is in the middle.

His declaration soon attracted praise from conservatives and opposition from many in the Princeton community.

Eddie S. Glaude, chair of the African American Studies Department, told The Daily Princetonian in an interview, “Professor Katz, at times in this letter, seems to not regard people like me as essential features, or persons, of Princeton. That’s the feeling I got from reading the letter.”

He accused Katz of prioritizing liberty and avoiding thought-policing situations over “having a more just Princeton.”

Students and alumni the Classics and Linguistics Department crafted a petition to denounce Katz’s declaration, collecting signatures until Monday, July 13. “We reiterate that Katz’s declaration should not come as a surprise to Classicists, but we hope that this behavior will not be met with traditional silence,” the petition reads.

"Plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support. But then there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate…It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people—extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors—extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation."

One of the proposed changes Katz favors, with qualifications, is “establish[ing] a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.”

“There would be wisdom in this time of disunity in suggesting (not, in my view, requiring) that students take courses in American history and constitutionalism, both of which almost inevitably consider slavery and race, but that is not the same thing,” Katz writes.

Princeton has no undergraduate courses in American history, American government, or the like, as most U.S. institutions of higher learning do. Rather, it offers degrees in American Studies and in three ethnocentric variations. Available courses for the past spring under the American Studies degree include “Topics in Global Race and Ethnicity: The Post-Colonial Imagination and Africana Thought,” “Access to Health: Right, Privilege, Responsibility,” and “The Architecture of Race.” Two courses purport to deal with American government and history broadly, but neither are required.

Katz received the heaviest criticism for denoting the Black Justice League (BJL), dormant on campus since 2016, 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 a former member as “baying for blood” on an Instagram Live video during a “Struggle Session,” referencing a Maoist practice of torture public humiliation. Katz called it “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed.”

Princeton President Eisgruber professed to The Daily Princetonian the importance of exercising the right to free speech “responsibly.” 

“I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a ‘local terrorist organization,” he said. 

Katz explained to Princeton Alumni Weekly that he never characterized the BJL as a “violent” terrorist organization. “In my view, smearing decent and honorable people as racists and white supremacists, with no evidence to back up these epithets, merits the blunt language I chose to use,” he said.

The Classics department published a statement condemning Katz’ alleged lexical missteps, saying he “activate[d] a long history of language used in this country to incite racial and specifically anti-Black violence.”

Others question how Katz obtained a Princeton alumni’s social media post. Black transgender activist Asanni Armon has purported himself as the student who posted the video, but the video is no longer available on their transgender Instagram feed. 

In 2015, the BJL staged a sit-in at Princeton. Demands included diversity quotas among faculty and staff, “cultural competency training,” safe spaces for students of color, and acknowledgment of the racist persuasion of Woodrow Wilson, for whom Princeton’s Wilson School was named.

“The demands include some things I have no authority to do, and some things I disagree with,” he noted,” said Eisgruber. Princeton has since elected to rename the Wilson School.

According to William Dingee, a Princeton PhD candidate, Katz neglected to address perhaps the most significant assertion of the faculty letter. 

“Professor Katz does not make entirely clear whether he rejects this letter’s most important premise: that anti-Black racism remains a problem on Princeton’s campus that is not adequately addressed by existing policies,” he said.

Katz appears to orient his concern to a different, yet equally fundamental issue: 

This scares me more than anything else: For colleagues to police one another’s research and publications in this way would be outrageous. Let me be clear: Racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process. But is there anyone who doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?

I defy any of my colleagues to argue persuasively that defunding campus police is a good idea, even at idyllic Princeton. I defy anyone who signed that letter, directly or indirectly, to send his or her children to a college or university without campus security. Fantasizing that you can do without the police is the height of arrogant privilege.

Samantha Harris, another Princeton academic, decried the faculty letter as “chillingly illiberal.” 

“The type of training that the petition’s signatories are demanding has all of the hallmarks of thought reform, intended not only to share the university’s views with participants but also to push participants to conform their own views to a particular ideology,” she said.

“Independence of thought is considered the hallmark of academia, but everyone deserves it,” Katz concludes. 

“In the United States, thank heavens, freedom to think for oneself is still a right, not a privilege. To my colleagues who signed the Faculty Letter: If you signed it independently and thoughtfully, good for you. I hereby solemnly publish and declare my own declaration."