Free Speech Group Accuses Penn of Illegitimately Sanctioning Professor Who Enraged Liberals With Statements About Black Student Achievement

The University of Pennsylvania’s law school has for years been seeking to punish Professor Amy Wax, who publicly stated that she had never ‘seen a Black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely in the top half.’

Via YouTube
The outspoken University of Pennsylvania law professor, Amy Wax, has been recommended for severe sanctions by a committee of her peers. Via YouTube

A free speech group, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, is denouncing the University of Pennsylvania for its years-long efforts to punish a tenured law professor, Amy Wax, for her provocative comments about race and gender. 

FIRE’s criticism of Penn comes as documents leaked from Dr. Wax’s June 2023 “trial” bolster her assertion that the charges against her are pretextual and a clumsy attempt by disgruntled administrators to circumvent the professor’s tenureship. Dr. Wax has enraged Penn students and faculty with statements she made about the performance of Black students in her classes, among other heterodox comments.

As the Sun has reported, the documents, circulated in February, detail how a Hearing Committee had recommended severe sanctions against the professor in June. Penn’s then-president, Elizabeth Magill, signed off on the sanctions on August 11. Dr. Wax appealed the decision on August 29 to the University’s Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility, whose adjudications are under way. The proposed sanctions are frozen until the appeal’s completion. 

Although the sanctions were levied against Dr. Wax in June 2023, confidential documents from the initial hearing board’s findings only came to light last month when they were published by the Washington Free Beacon. The documents provided greater transparency into what had been a murky process. 

The president of the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, reads her opening statement during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday.
Penn’s then-president, Liz Magill, supported harsh sanctions against Dr. Wax. AP/Mark Schiefelbein

The documents detail how the board, composed of tenured professors at Penn, creatively combined various charges against Dr. Wax to make a case that there were grounds for “flagrant unprofessional conduct by a faculty member.” Such a violation, the adjudicators hoped, would circumvent the issues of free speech and academic tenure. 

The newfound insight into the hearings brought another round of criticism from FIRE, which has long expressed skepticism about the fairness of Penn’s extrajudicial “trial” of Dr. Wax. After reviewing the leaked documents, FIRE accused the university hearing board of having commingled distinct “charges” against Dr. Wax so as to make it easier to find the polymath professor at fault in a trial conducted by her professorial peers. 

“Penn is adjudicating every claim against Wax — privacy violations, discrimination, and claims about her protected classroom and extramural speech — together, as grounds for imposing a ‘major sanction’ against Wax,” the group wrote in a press release. 

A.R. Hoffman Interviews Amy Wax at the offices of The New York Sun, March 17, 2023.
A.R. Hoffman Interviews Amy Wax at the offices of the Sun, March 17, 2023. Derlis Chavarria via the Sun

It detailed that “the university’s failure to separate its investigation into the balance of the claims against her that involve protected speech, from an investigation into wholly unrelated allegations about unprotected misconduct, has raised serious questions about whether Penn has simply found a procedural loophole to sidestep academic freedom.”

In a statement to Penn’s student newspaper on February 20, Dr. Wax’s lawyer elaborated on the trial’s “procedural defects.” The lawyer, David Shapiro, told the Daily Pennsylvanian that the hearing board had created new rules prohibiting tenured professors from displaying “inequitably targeted disrespect” so as to find the law school professor at fault. Mr. Shapiro also detailed how the board had applied an “incoherent standard, never before articulated, or applied to any Penn faculty member” to target the professor. 

As the Sun has reported, Dr. Wax had infuriated Penn’s reliably liberal community with her statements on race and the nuclear family. The hearing board that recommended sanctions, composed of tenured professors, recommended that the law school professor, who is also a Harvard-educated neurologist, be punished with a one-year suspension at half pay, a stripping of her summer pay, a humiliating stripping of her named chair, and a requirement that, when she speaks in public, Dr. Wax must make clear she is not speaking on behalf of the law school. 

The recommended punishments for Dr. Wax were preceded by years of students, colleagues, and activists demanding her firing, a goal made difficult because Dr. Wax has tenure. 

The University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious law school. UPenn

The professor had stated that she has never “seen a Black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely in the top half,” and that she “can think of one or two [Black] students who scored in the top half” of her “required first-year course.” She also stated that “everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans” because of their “superior” mores.

Following those statements, Penn barred Dr. Wax from teaching any class required for graduation, due to the “harm” she was causing students in the classroom.

The committee’s sanctions recommended in February came from Ms. Magill and a faculty hearing board. The documents recently uncovered by the Free Beacon, which prompted FIRE’s rebuke, detail how the hearing board came to find Dr. Wax at fault. 

Led by a far-left professor of education, Sigal Ben-Porath, the committee found that Dr. Wax’s speech was not “free speech, which is broadly protected by University policy as articulated in the Faculty Handbook, but rather of flagrant unprofessional conduct by a faculty member of the Penn Carey Law School, and of the University of Pennsylvania.”

Amy Wax is the Robert Mundheim professor of law at Penn. A faculty committee has recommended stripping her of the ‘named’ professorship. Penn Carey Law School

The committee declared Dr. Wax’s statements about Black student achievement were incorrect. It added that the “faculty’s primary teaching responsibilities are to teach our students according to the highest professional standards, and to do so equitably. Professor Wax has violated the first of these standards through her uncritical use of data and unfounded declarative claims in some of her courses, campus events, and elsewhere as a representative of the University of Pennsylvania.”

The committee also accused Dr. Wax, through her statements, of having “harmed” “various groups of students — most significantly Black students, but also Asian students, Hispanic and immigrant students, LGBTQ students and women….. These students have a justified expectation of equitable, respectful treatment by faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.” 

The document, which the writer of the Free Beacon report, Aaron Sibarium, circulated on X, is dated June 21, 2023. Ms. Magill, according to the reporter, would ultimately accept the recommendations by the committee, which were later levied by the law school professor adjudicators in February 2023. 

At around the same time, however, Ms. Magill was protecting other examples of offensive speech that targeted Jews.

An event on campus weeks later in September featured antisemitic speakers as part of a “Palestine Writes” festival. It drew the ire of Jewish alumni and trustees, who demanded that the event be canceled. Ms. Magill refused. At the time, she defended the rights of the speakers as being within the purview of free speech, which she stated protects the “expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values.” 

Ms. Magill, though, did not express the same tolerance toward Dr. Wax, whom she agreed had spread “misleading and partial information” about Black people that “violates the University of Pennsylvania’s Faculty Handbook.” 

The new disclosures have incensed FIRE. It detailed how “much of the report singles out Wax’s speech and teaching, divorced from the other misconduct claims, concluding Wax relied ‘on misleading and partial information’ to present ‘controversial views’ in the classroom, resulting in ‘shoddy’ instruction.”

The New York Sun

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