Posted on March 15, 2023

UPenn Accuses a Law Professor of Racist Statements. Should She Be Fired?

Vimal Patel, New York Times, March 13, 2023

Amy Wax, a law professor, has said publicly that “on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites,” that the country is “better off with fewer Asians” as long as they tend to vote for Democrats, and that non-Western people feel a “tremendous amount of resentment and shame.”

At the University of Pennsylvania, where she has tenure, she invited a white nationalist to speak to her class. And a Black law student who had attended UPenn and Yale said that the professor told her she “had only become a double Ivy ‘because of affirmative action,’” according to the administration.

Professor Wax has denied saying anything belittling or racist to students, and her supporters see her as a truth teller about affirmative action, immigration and race. They agree with her argument that she is the target of censorship and “wokeism” because of her conservative views.

All of which poses a conundrum for the University of Pennsylvania: Should it fire Amy Wax?

The university is now moving closer to answering just that question. After long resisting the call of students, the dean of the law school, Theodore W. Ruger, has taken a rare step: He has filed a complaint and requested a faculty hearing to consider imposing a “major sanction” on the professor.

His about-face prompted protests from free speech groups, which cited one of tenure’s key tenets — the right of academics to speak freely, without fear of punishment, whether in public or in the classroom.

For years, Mr. Ruger wrote in his 12-page complaint, Professor Wax has shown “callous and flagrant disregard” for students, faculty and staff, subjecting them to “intentional and incessant racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic actions and statements.”

The complaint said she has violated the university’s nondiscrimination policies and “standards of professional competence.”

Her statements, the complaint added, “have led students and faculty to reasonably believe they will be subjected to discriminatory animus if they come into contact with her.”

Professor Wax has fought back, arguing that the university is trying to trample on her academic freedom.

Universities want to “banish and punish” anyone “who dares to dissent, who dares to expose students to different ideas,” she said on a recent podcast. “That is a really dangerous and pernicious trend.”

Professor Wax did not agree to interview requests, but at a time when scholars say their speech is under attack from the left and the right, many free speech groups, including the Academic Freedom Alliance, PEN America and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, have criticized the dean and said that Professor Wax should not be fired because of her public statements.

“Academic freedom cannot be a privilege of those who only espouse prevailing views but a protected right of all faculty,” the Academic Freedom Alliance wrote in July to the university’s president, M. Elizabeth Magill, arguing that the school should end the process to sanction Professor Wax.

But for many students, her public speech, which often mixes public policy with insulting broadsides, is the point.

Students have asked: Aren’t these statements relevant to her performance in the classroom? Don’t they show the potential for bias? And does this professor, and this speech, deserve the protection of tenure?

Dean Ruger, who declined an interview request, seemed to embrace these concerns by including a litany of Professor Wax’s public statements in his complaint.

Free speech groups acknowledge that some personal discussions with students — if true — could be deemed abusive, and are not protected by tenure. But they have winced at the dean’s inclusion of public statements in his complaint.

Professor Wax is a test case of academic freedom, “right up on the line,” said Alex Morey, the director of campus rights advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

But, she said, “We have not seen any evidence that it crosses the line.”

She added, “Academic freedom has to protect the Amy Waxes of the academic world, so that it can be there for the Galileos of the academic world.”


Professor Wax cut an unconventional path to Penn law school.

Raised in an observant, conservative Jewish family, she received a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a medical degree from Harvard.

On a podcast, she said she realized medicine was not for her, and in 1987, received a law degree from Columbia University. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, she argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court. And after seven years at the University of Virginia, she joined Penn with tenure in 2001.

Though Professor Wax had been a subject of debate for years, student demands for sanctions began in earnest in 2017, after she co-wrote an opinion article in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She argued that many of the country’s social problems could be traced to veering from 1950s norms, like getting married before having children, respecting authority and avoiding coarse language.

The article said “all cultures are not equal” and lamented “the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.”

After some students called for her firing, conservative media rallied, allowing Professor Wax to spread her views across the conservative firmament over the years, including writing for The Wall Street Journal and appearing on Tucker Carlson’s daytime show on Fox Nation.

Along the way, her rhetoric grew more extreme. She has described some non-Western countries as “shitholes” and stated that “women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men.”

Speaking with Mr. Carlson last year, she said “American Blacks” and people from non-Western countries feel shame for the “outsized achievements and contributions” of Western people.

On a recent podcast, she said, “I often chuckle at the ads on TV which show a Black man married to a white woman in an upper-class picket-fence house,” she said, adding, “They never show Blacks the way they really are: a bunch of single moms with a bunch of guys who float in and out. Kids by different men.”

She has also acted as something of a provocateur on campus.

In 2021, she invited a white nationalist, Jared Taylor, to a class and then lunch with students. She argued that he was an appropriate speaker for a seminar on conservative thought, according to a grievance she filed against Dean Ruger this past January and obtained by The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper. Mr. Taylor has said that “when blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western Civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears.”

Throughout, the administration had supported her right to speak and took significant action only once, in 2018, in reaction to her comments on a podcast about affirmative action, when she said that Black students at the law school do not perform well.

“I can think of one or two students who’ve scored in the top half in my required first-year course,” she told the host, Glenn Loury, a professor at Brown University.

After some students objected, Dean Ruger disputed her data and took away her first-year course. She did not have a right, he said, to violate confidentiality about student grades.