Penn law professor Amy Wax enraged people with her comments about Asians. Now, she may face sanction.
But some academics who ardently despise Wax’s comments say they would rather she retains the right to say them than allow her to be fired.
University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax over the last five years has repeatedly enraged students with her racist comments, first calling into question the academic ability of Black students and most recently saying the country would be better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.
While Penn has condemned her speech and in 2018 removed her from teaching mandatory courses, she has kept her job and the prestige of working for an Ivy League university.
But that may be about to change.
Ted Ruger, dean of Penn’s law school, said Friday he is “actively considering” invoking a faculty senate review process that could lead to sanctions against the 68-year-old tenured professor, who has worked at Penn for two decades.
“In my view, Professor Wax’s repeated conduct and behavior and statements are both serious and have caused harm and are inconsistent with the norms and expectations of a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania,” he said. “Any action that I would take in light of that harm and misbehavior, even actions far short of stripping her tenure completely, require review through our faculty senate process and I am actively considering invoking that process to seek the university faculty’s collective judgment on what the appropriate standards of faculty conduct are and whether Wax’s repeated actions have violated that.”
It’s unclear how long the review would take or if Wax — a lawyer and neurologist educated at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Universities — would be restricted during such a review. Ruger said he is considering the process now because Wax’s “racist speech is escalating in intensity and in its harmful nature” and that her comments’ effect on the university community have been cumulative. In the past, he said she had talked about “western civilization” in a way that was at least “susceptible to nonracist interpretation,” but more recently has “wholeheartedly adapted the vernacular of white nationalism and white supremacy.”
Wax has not responded to an email requesting an interview. On the podcast last month where she made comments about Asians, she acknowledged there was a movement to oust her, and said, “I’m not terribly worried about it.”
Penn’s faculty senate president, William W. Braham, an architecture professor, did not respond to The Inquirer seeking comment.
Any move to take action against Wax no doubt will trigger ardent and passionate debate at one of the nation’s most prominent universities where the precious right of academic freedom has long been championed. Ruger emphasized that any decision must consider academic freedom and due process, as well as equity and inclusion.
“While it is important to protect our community and hold Professor Wax accountable for her behavior, those efforts must incorporate due process concerns and the imperative of not squelching pure speech,” he said.
Even some academics who ardently despise Wax’s comments say they would rather she retains the right to say them than allow her to be fired. Removing her could open the door to censorship for professors who espouse views opposed by conservatives, such as critical race theory.
“How in the same breath do you oppose those measures but also say you should fire Amy Wax,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a Penn professor of the history of education, who has ardently defended free speech. “I don’t think we can have it both ways.”
Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said Wax’s most recent comments about Asian Americans came on a radio show and a written post she made after the show and are not within her primary area of academic expertise or connected to campus.
“Because of that, it is very difficult for an institution to take action or sanction a faculty member, tenured or not, for that speech,” he said. “Penn has walked right up to the line of what they are allowed to do here. They can condemn her, but they can’t punish her.”
But others argue that Wax’s comments rise to another level, harming students of color on Penn’s campus and calling into question her fitness as a professor.
“She is [wrongly citing], mischaracterizing, lying sometimes,” said Apratim Vidyarthi, 28, a third-year Penn law student from the San Jose area. “She is discriminating overtly or explicitly against students and that’s not part of academic freedom. ... It’s actually actively harming other people’s legal education and making them feel uncomfortable, undesired and unwanted or unheard.”
Vidyarthi is among a group of students that this week presented a petition to Penn with about 2,500 signatures, asking the university to launch an investigation into Wax, whom they allege is unfit to teach and has violated university behavioral standards. The group also is asking Penn to suspend Wax during the investigation and undertake a broader look at its tenure process so that such egregious conduct can be addressed much sooner.
Earlier this week a group of state lawmakers and Philadelphia City Council members called on Penn to revoke Wax’s tenure. In a letter to Penn, City Council members asked the university to begin a review of Wax’s position and role, saying her comments “are not only academically dishonest but feed into dangerous trends of rising animosity and scapegoating of Asian Americans.”
The Philadelphia Bar Association this month also condemned Wax’s latest statements, and the OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates Wednesday called for her suspension or firing.
Around the country, professors who make controversial or racist statements pose challenges for universities, trying to both preserve academic freedom and adhere to tenure rules that set out a detailed process for how complaints against faculty are handled.
The American Association of University Professors says universities can and should discipline professors for gross misconduct, but they must demonstrate adequate cause through a process that involves a faculty hearing body, said Greg Scholtz, AAUP’s director of academic freedom, tenure, and governance.
“The burden of proof is on the administration to demonstrate the faculty member’s academic performance or conduct is so severely lacking that it warrants dismissal or some other severe sanction,” he said.
Social media has brought increased scrutiny, ratcheting up the speed with which comments are conveyed and reacted to. The increase in online learning during the pandemic also led to more complaints as students recorded professors and shared their comments, Scholtz said.
“The virtual universe has had an inflammatory effect on reactions to professorial speech and conduct,” he said.
Nationally and locally, university responses have varied, depending on circumstances. After Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill’s controversial 2018 comments about Israel and Palestinians, the university condemned the comments but defended his right to free speech.
In 2016, a Christmas Eve tweet by a Drexel professor, “All I want for Christmas is white genocide,” brought a rash of threats and complaints. George Ciccariello-Maher said he meant his post to be satirical, a way to mock white supremacists who use the term to oppose interracial marriage or other dilution of their race. Drexel called the tweet “utterly reprehensible” but did not discipline him, citing protected speech. Nearly a year later, after another controversial tweet, Drexel placed him on administrative leave, citing safety reasons because of threats to the school. He resigned.
Last August, a group of Saint Joseph’s University alumni complained when the university removed a visiting assistant math professor and assistant baseball coach from the classroom after his anonymous posts on social media in February against reparations for slavery and race and bias training.
A Troy, N.Y., native, Wax got her bachelor’s degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale, graduating summa cum laude. She then studied philosophy, physiology, and psychology at Oxford. She graduated from Harvard Medical School, trained as a neurologist, and later got her law degree from Columbia, according to her curriculum vitae listed on Penn Law’s website. From 1988-94, she was an assistant to the Office of the Solicitor General in the U.S. Department of Justice and argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
She started her academic career at the University of Virginia and came to Penn in 2001. In 2017, Wax authored an op-ed in which she said, “All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.” Then she said during an interview that she didn’t think she’d ever seen a Black student graduate in the top quarter of the class at Penn Law and “rarely, rarely in the top half,” a claim that Ruger later refuted. In 2018, the law school barred Wax from teaching mandatory courses. Ruger said he took that step so no student would be forced to learn from her.
That didn’t deter Wax. In 2019, she found herself under fire again after commenting during a conference about immigration.
Then last month during a podcast with Brown University economist Glenn Loury, she said immigration policies should be geared toward “cultural compatibility” and called “the influx of Asian elites ... problematic.” She later wrote on Loury’s site that “as long as most Asians support Democrats and help to advance their positions, I think the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.”
Complaints against Wax, who is teaching two small elective courses this semester, have been increasing in intensity and volume, locally and nationally, Ruger said.
“There can be a point where a colleague’s hate speech is so threatening and pervasive that it does create a problematic atmosphere for working and learning,” Ruger said. “That’s one of the dynamics that I am considering as I consider whether Wax’s conduct has violated university norms.”