The University of Pennsylvania’s law school dean Tuesday announced he would initiate a process that could lead to sanctions against long-time law professor Amy Wax for her racist comments.
In a noon email to the law school community, Dean Ted Ruger said he would invoke a faculty review, which must occur before any action, major or minor, could be taken. The process spelled out in Penn’s faculty handbook covers the issuing of minor sanctions such as a letter of reprimand, or convening a faculty hearing board to review charges for major sanctions such as suspension or termination of employment.
Ruger said he would serve as the complainant in the matter and that he would draw on criticism he has received over the years about Wax.
“Her conduct has generated multiple complaints from members of our community citing the impact of pervasive and recurring vitriol and promotion of white supremacy as cumulative and increasing,” Ruger said. “The complaints assert that it is impossible for students to take classes from her without a reasonable belief that they are being treated with discriminatory animus.”
Ruger said in some cases, Wax “has exploited her faculty access to confidential information about students in ostensible support of her inaccurate statements.”
The 68-year-old tenured professor who has worked at Penn for two decades has repeatedly enraged students with her 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. Penn has condemned her statements and in 2018 removed her from teaching mandatory courses but has cited academic freedom in declining to fire her.
But Ruger said last week that he was considering invoking the review process 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. It’s unclear how long the process will take, though the faculty handbook says such matters will be dealt with “fairly and expeditiously.”
The case promises to raise lots of discussion inside and outside of Penn. Even before the law school released its announcement, The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) issued a statement to Penn President Amy Gutmann, urging Penn not to discipline Wax. The alliance defines itself as “a coalition of faculty from across the country and across the ideological spectrum who are committed to upholding the principles of academic freedom and professorial free speech.”
“Regardless of what one thinks about Professor Wax’s personal political views, the only appropriate action that the University of Pennsylvania should take in this situation is to publicly reaffirm the free speech rights of the members of its faculty,” said Keith Whittington, chair of the AFA’s academic committee. “It is quite clear that her public comments as a private individual on matters of public concern cannot... be understood to constitute a ‘flagrant disregard of the standards, rules, or mission of the University or the customs of scholarly communities’ that might give rise to disciplinary action under the Faculty Handbook.”
Reached by phone, Wax — a lawyer and neurologist educated at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Universities — declined comment. 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.”
Earlier this month, a group of law school students 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.
“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,” Apratim Vidyarthi, 28, a third-year Penn law student from the San Jose area, had told the Inquirer.
Vidyarthi and several other law school students issued a statement Tuesday, calling Ruger’s announcement “a good first step” but said that they hope major sanctions, rather than minor ones, are instituted and they still want the law school to form a committee to look at its tenure process.
“We will will continue to pressure the university (and not just the Law School) to be transparent about this process, including informing students of the involved parties, the timeline, and what sanctions are being proposed,” the group said.
A group of state lawmakers and Philadelphia City Council members also this month 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.”
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who participated in a news conference, called Ruger’s step significant and said he hopes the process results in Wax’s removal from Penn.
“I’m pleased that Penn and the law school and the faculty are acknowledging that the professor at Penn who has been spewing hate for a long time has now frankly gone beyond her professional boundaries,” he said.
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.
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. She started at 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 2019, she was criticized 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.”
She is currently teaching two small elective courses. The law school noted that she “does not serve on any faculty committees; has no role in admissions, curricular planning, or staff hiring; and has no involvement in faculty hiring beyond her single vote.”