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Inside the campaign to take down Penn Law prof Amy Wax

Here's how the community mobilized when a third-year law student found a video of professor Amy Wax suggesting that black Penn Law students rarely graduated at the top of their class.

A student walks during Penn Law's graduation ceremony in 2017.
A student walks during Penn Law's graduation ceremony in 2017.Read moreUniversity of Pennsylvania

In the first week of March, the campaign to take down University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax spread across the globe:

From Accra, Ghana, where Penn Law students were volunteering at a nonprofit law firm; to Tokyo, where they were learning about judicial review in Japan; to Israel, where students were meeting with officials to study the region's conflict.

It was spring break. But members of Penn's Black Law Students Association (BLSA) had other matters on their minds. They sent hundreds of messages on the chat app GroupMe to discuss what they'd do about the video that BLSA president Nick Hall had found and shared with members shortly before break began.

The video was a September 2017 interview between Wax and Brown University professor Glenn Loury in which Wax said 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."

"I can think of one or two students who've graduated in the top half of my required first-year course," she said.

In the weeks that followed, amid a wide-ranging, coordinated effort led by BLSA to demand a response from Penn Law's administration, dean Ted Ruger announced that Wax would be barred from teaching mandatory first-year law courses. It's a story that has garnered national attention.

Yet according to the law school, no records of grades by racial breakdown are kept.

It wasn't the first time the Penn Law community had come together to speak out against Wax, who declined Thursday to answer questions with the Inquirer and Daily News.

"No point," she wrote in an email. "The law school has the full data and the facts on student performance, I don't (as I admitted) so the game is rigged. … What else is there to say?"

At the start of the school year, after a controversial Inquirer op-ed was published in August from Wax and University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander saying there had been a breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture and stating, "All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy," students with Penn Law's chapter of the National Lawyers Guild issued a statement asking whether Wax should be teaching mandatory first-year courses, given her "bigoted views." That same month, 33 Penn law professors signed a letter stating, "We categorically reject Wax's claims." A group of alumni signed an open letter in September asking Penn Law to take several diversity-oriented efforts.

Save for an op-ed by Ruger published in the Daily Pennsylvanian days after the Inquirer op-ed appeared, the administration declined to take action. Ruger said he disagreed with Wax's views but defended her "right to voice an opinion."

This time, BLSA sensed that things were different. Now it had the Loury interview, in which Wax seemed to have crossed a line, violating Penn's nondisclosure policy on grades, and BLSA was determined to act.

"This was a violation of policy and a breach of student trust," Hall said Friday from a judicial clerkship conference at Pepperdine University in California. "We found it important to mobilize."

When Hall showed Penn Law alumna Ayana Lewis the video, Lewis said she thought, "Enough is enough."

"No one else should have to be forced to sit and learn from someone who has devalued, disrespected, and lied about them," said Lewis, who took Wax's first-year civil procedure course in 2009.

While Hall and his classmates were on spring break, Lewis organized alumni support for a petition demanding that Wax be removed from teaching first-year courses, and that the administration set the record straight on black student performance. It asked for the school to respond publicly, and announce a plan of action. The petition has signatures from 850 students, alumni, and allies, Lewis said. She also gathered a small group of alumni to meet with Ruger last week and reiterate the demands of the petition.

Meanwhile, BLSA took to social media, creating such shareable text and hashtags as #amywaxistheproblem, #blackatpennlaw, and #standwithBLSA for students to use. More than a dozen students shared messages publicly on Facebook (it's unclear how many shared it privately due to Facebook's privacy policies), writing such posts as: "Having been in Wax's class, I can say that her behavior in this video is pretty consistent with the way she acts in class, and why as a POC I did not feel comfortable asking her questions after class or going to her office hours," and, "After subjecting me, and students that look like me, to this abuse, the Penn Law admissions office regularly called on us to show black prospective students around, or host them during admitted students weekend. The answer is NO. I will not be encouraging another student of color to subject themselves to mandatory abuse and discrimination."

Multiple Penn Law organizations, such as the Law Review, the National Lawyers Guild, and the South Asian Law Students Association, also issued statements in solidarity.

By Tuesday, on the second day of classes after spring break, Ruger agreed to all of the petition's demands except removing her from committees. He called Wax's statements about black student performance "false" and noted that Penn Law does "not collect, sort, or publicize grade performance by racial group."

Wax's op-ed co-author defended her: "She is controversial for no other reason than that she always speaks the truth as she sees it," said Alexander.

(Wax has the right to file a grievance to challenge the decision to remove her from first-year courses, said Laura Markwardt, a spokeswoman for the American Association of University Professors.)

Lewis called the move an "important milestone," but said it didn't go far enough: Wax is the only professor who teaches an important class on remedies, which many students deem important in their legal study and would have to take with her, she said.

Hall agreed that there's still more work to be done on diversity and inclusion at Penn, though he felt hopeful about recent events.

"It's been incredible to see how black students and alumni came together, grappled with how to handle this, and moved to create a change," he said, "and I hope that it continues."