Princeton University is planning to fire one of the most distinguished classics professors in the country, Joshua Katz, after his criticism of the school’s racial politics made him the target of student protests and the subject of two separate university investigations.
University president Christopher Eisgruber—who in 2020 alleged that Katz had failed to exercise his free speech "responsibly"—passed his recommendation that Katz be stripped of tenure and fired to the university’s board of trustees last week, according to three sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation.
It is rare for a university to fire a tenured professor, and even rarer for a university to fire a professor with Katz’s record: By the university’s own admission, he did not commit fraud or sexual misconduct, two of the most common grounds for revoking tenure. Rather, the university is citing as grounds for dismissal a consensual relationship Katz engaged in with a student more than a decade ago, and for which he was already disciplined by the school in 2018.
The board is all but guaranteed to accept Eisgruber’s recommendation when it meets on Wednesday, the sources said. Board members include Yale Law School dean Heather Gerken, who has presided over several high-profile free speech-related scandals on her campus, including the intimidation of a second-year law student by university administrators.
Princeton University did not respond to a request for comment.
Katz’s dismissal is likely to spark a heated debate about the real reasons for his ouster.
The Ivy League classicist has been the subject of two separate investigations over the past two years, in part because he has been a vocal critic of the argument—advanced by Eisgruber and others—that Princeton is a systemically racist institution. The university had settled the matter of his relationship in 2018—with Katz taking a year’s unpaid leave as a suspension—but decided to investigate it again in the wake of his controversial remarks, leading to speculation the events are linked.
Katz is perhaps the campus’s most outspoken critic of the school’s backbreaking political correctness, including calls from faculty members to award their minority colleagues extra sabbatical time, "course relief," and "summer salary." His criticism has been frank and unsparing: "It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people—extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors—extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation," he wrote in July 2020 in an essay for Quillette. Eisgruber responded in the Daily Princetonian, saying that he objected "personally and strongly" to Katz’s statements.
"While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive," Eisgruber said, "we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly. Joshua Katz has failed to do so."
It initially seemed like Katz would weather the blowback. On July 26, 2020, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he had "survived cancellation" after the university dropped an investigation into the Quillette essay, which characterized a Princeton student group as a "local terrorist organization." That characterization came amid criticism of an open letter, signed by hundreds of Princeton faculty, that claimed "anti-Blackness is foundational to America" and demanded the university "acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism."
Katz was describing Princeton’s Black Justice League, which in 2015 occupied Eisgruber’s office and demanded "cultural competency training for all staff and faculty." The group "made life miserable for many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members' demands," Katz wrote.
Michael Flower, the chair of the classics department—as well as Eisgruber himself—subsequently denounced the essay. Katz’s "false description of a Princeton student group," Eisgruber said, "unfairly disparaged" Princeton students.
The university announced on July 12, 2020, it would "be looking into the matter," but informed Katz later that month that it had dropped its investigation, according to the Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Though the university did not formally sanction Katz, it did include him on a list of racists—such as the notorious segregationist Woodrow Wilson—who have marred Princeton’s legacy, which was published on a university website and presented at a mandatory orientation session for freshmen in August.
The second investigation, conducted by the dean of the Office of Faculty, sealed Katz’s fate. In February 2021, the Daily Princetonian reported that Katz had engaged in a consensual relationship with an undergraduate student in the mid-2000s, violating the university’s ban on student-faculty relations.
The university had already adjudicated the violation confidentially, quietly disciplining Katz with a yearlong suspension after a separate investigation in 2018. Katz, who was in his 30s at the time of the tryst, admitted it was inappropriate and accepted the suspension without protest.
But when the liaison became public through the Daily Princetonian’s report, Princeton launched a second investigation, telling Katz that certain details in the article "remain uninvestigated and unaddressed." Under pressure from students, the school tasked two separate bureaucracies—the Office of the Dean of Faculty and the Office of Gender Equity and Title IX Administration—with investigating the tryst. Though the former undergraduate declined to participate in the 2018 investigation, she did participate in the 2021 inquiry, alleging not just impropriety but sexual harassment.
Her allegations came as campus activists were demanding the university fire Katz. His "continued presence in the classroom," a petition in the Daily Princetonian read, "actively puts students in harm’s way."
But the Title IX office found that Katz hadn’t violated the school’s harassment policies. "Conduct must, among other things, be ‘unwelcome’ in order to constitute sexual harassment," Michele Minter, Princeton’s Title IX coordinator, said in a report reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon. But both Katz and his student "were willing and active participants" in the relationship.
"Accordingly," Miller said, "I am dismissing the formal complaint with respect to sexual harassment."
But the Office of the Dean of Faculty found other violations. It claimed that Katz hadn’t been fully forthcoming in the 2018 investigation and that he’d discouraged the undergraduate from receiving therapy—a charge Katz repeatedly denied.
In November 2021, Princeton dean of faculty Gene Jarrett recommended the school fire Katz, according to documents obtained by the Free Beacon. Katz appealed the decision, alleging that the investigation was effectively a "retrial" of the 2018 investigation.
"I was already punished—and rightly so," Katz wrote in his appeal. With the new inquiry, "I am being subject to double jeopardy," a classic due process violation.
The appeal went nowhere. Katz was informed last week that Eisgruber recommended his dismissal.