In Princeton’s Contempt for Justice, Shades of Duke Lacrosse

Presidents of prestigious universities often make outrageous decisions inconsistent with such bedrock values as freedom of expression and providing the accused with traditional American due process. The shameful manner in which Princeton University fired Joshua Katz, a distinguished scholar and winner of several teaching awards, leads me to consider Christopher Eisgruber to be the worst Ivy League president, eclipsing even the earlier shenanigans of Yale’s Peter Salovey.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Prof. Katz was fired over alleged improprieties related to an offense—having consensual sexual relations with a 21-year-old girl—that took place over 15 years ago (!). Only after Katz started saying things that the Princeton administration did not like did it punish him for that incident. Fully a dozen years after the 2006 transgression, it suspended Katz without pay for one year. Then, in 2020, Katz expressed his disapproval of so-called anti-racist demands made by some members of the Princeton community after the George Floyd killing. That led to a story in The Daily Princetonian about the 2006 incident, prompting the school to reopen the case, accuse Katz of new improprieties related to the incident, and fire him. (See Katz’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal for more details.)

Princeton’s invidious ousting of Katz is objectionable on at least six grounds:

Certain discussions of racial issues are verboten at Princeton, despite university policies to the contrary.1. It is clearly racist inasmuch as it implicitly asserts that certain discussions of racial issues are verboten at Princeton, despite university policies to the contrary.

2. More generally, it suggests that members of the Princeton community should be at least partially assessed on biological characteristics, such as race, gender, and sexual preference, rather than predominantly on the basis of academic merit and productivity.

3. It exhibits the cowardice of university administrators afraid of offending the fashionably woke progressive leaders of the university community.

4. It shows a hostility towards unfettered academic discourse and is completely inconsistent with Princeton’s fine version of the Chicago Principles celebrating free inquiry and expression, not to mention the First Amendment.

5. Due process standards were ignored—for example, the notion that an accused person cannot be put in double jeopardy (i.e., tried twice for the same offense).

6. It reinforces the rent-seeking behavior of certain members of Princeton University, who are undoubtably given special protection and clout because their politically favored support of minorities has effectively given them privileged status.

On April 6, 2015, the faculty of Princeton became the first such body to adopt what are called the Chicago Principles (following their original adoption at the University at Chicago), stating, “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” Furthermore, “although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”

Interestingly, the 2015 faculty resolution at Princeton was introduced by Sergiu Klainerman, a distinguished mathematician who grew up in the oppressive environment of Communist Romania. Klainerman must have thought he was protecting the Princeton community from the suppression of free expression that he had seen in his native country. Yet President Eisgruber ignored the policy that “individuals may not obstruct … the freedom of others to express views … [they] loathe.” In a style reminiscent of King Louis XIV of France (of “L’état, c’est moi” infamy), Eisgruber ignored faculty-approved rules regarding the foundational issue of free expression, using the fig leaf of reopening a long-settled disciplinary matter concerning Professor Katz.

University presidents striving to be politically correct have frequently thrown principles and fair play aside to appease campus militants, particularly on matters involving race.If this were an aberration in the academic world, Princeton’s injustice would not be a cause for serious concern. But university presidents striving to be politically correct have frequently thrown principles and fair play aside to appease campus militants, particularly on matters involving race. Some 16 years ago, the president of Duke University, Richard Brodhead, threw the book at the school’s lacrosse team after an individual accused three team members of raping her at a party. The team’s season was suspended, the coach was fired, and the accused were kicked out of school. The alleged victim was black, while the supposed perpetrators were white kids from presumably prosperous families. Brodhead was determined to show how fair, progressive, and sensitive to racial injustice and “white privilege” Duke was by acting quickly and decisively, albeit wrongly and immorally.

The true story: After the legal process played out, it turned out that the girl involved was not raped (she is now in prison for murdering a boyfriend). The prosecutor who brought the charges in a sensationalized way to assure his own election was disbarred. Duke paid a huge sum (according to some press accounts, $60 million) to victimized lacrosse players. Yet what happened to Brodhead? Nothing. Even a decade later, he was still flourishing as Duke’s president, getting nice salary increases.

Less selective state universities are not immune to the suppression of academic expression seen at Princeton. Take the case of tenured professor Charles Negy of the University of Central Florida. He tweeted, around the time of the George Floyd murder, “If African Americans … had the same behavioral profile as Asian Americans (on average, performing the best academically … committing the lowest crime, etc.) would we still be proclaiming ‘systemic racism’ exists?” The result? He was fired in January 2021. Recently an arbitrator appointed to adjudicate the issue said that the school lacked just cause to fire him and awarded him his tenured job back, along with lost pay. University ideas of fair play increasingly diverge from the rule of law, adherence to which helped make America great. Additionally, polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose affirmative action policies that favor some racial groups and are common in universities.

Just-issued spring 2022 enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse show that there were 9.4 percent fewer undergraduates enrolled in American colleges and universities this spring than just two years ago. According to Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the Clearinghouse, such data suggest “that there is a broader questioning of the value of college.”

Because of government subsidies, the potency of market forces is weakened in the case of universities, but it still exists. Ignoring widely accepted values like free expression and due process has consequences that will weaken the public support that is critical to colleges’ success.

Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University and author of Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America (Independent Institute, 2019). This article is the first in a two-part series on Princeton’s termination of tenured professor Joshua Katz. The second, by Walt Gardner, can be read here.