Former Penn President Signed off on Sanctions for Speech of Controversial Conservative Prof. She Let an Anti-Semitic Literary Festival Proceed Under the Banner of Free Expression.

Liz Magill, then-president of University of Pennsylvania, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
February 26, 2024

The former president of the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, who resigned in December after telling a congressional panel that calls for genocide of Jews did not necessarily constitute bullying or harassment, signed off last year on sanctions for a professor who had criticized diversity initiatives.

Magill accepted the recommendations of a Penn hearing board in August to suspend Amy Wax, a tenured law professor, for a year at half pay and to strip her of a named chair, according to a report from Philadelphia Inquirer and documents obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon.

Wax had a long record of controversial statements that the school claimed violated its anti-discrimination policies, including her criticisms of diversity, equity, and inclusion officials, who she claimed "couldn’t be scholars if their life depended on it."

In a June memo outlining its recommendations to Magill, the hearing board cited that remark as an example of "inequitably targeted disrespect."

Magill signed off on the penalties just weeks before she defended the right of Penn faculty to host the controversial Palestine Writes literary festival featuring prominent anti-Semites, some of whom have likened Israel to the Nazis, claimed "most Jews" are "evil," and blamed Jews for destroying Europe’s economy. In doing so, Magill cited the paramount importance of free expression on campus. "We … fiercely support the free exchange of ideas as central to our educational mission," Magill said in a September statement. "This includes the expression of views that are controversial and even those that are incompatible with our institutional values."

The school has doubled down on that supposed free speech absolutism in the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. Asked at a congressional hearing in December whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s code of conduct, Magill said it was a "context-dependent decision," a remark that led to her resignation. Magill’s successor, interim president Larry Jameson, took a similar line when he refused to sanction a Penn lecturer, Dwayne Booth, for publishing anti-Semitic cartoons that trafficked in blood libel, citing the school’s "bedrock commitment to open expression."

The hearing board recommendations, which Wax is now appealing, illustrate the selectivity of that commitment and offer the clearest evidence to date that Penn is willing to police speech that attracts negative press and offends minority groups—provided the minorities aren’t Jews.

"Without being tied down by consistent and transparent rules," Wax told the Free Beacon, "Penn can do whatever it wants: favor and protect the people who are on the ‘right side’ (pro-Palestinians and anti-Semites) and prosecute and penalize people who are on the ‘wrong side’ (conservative professors who might expose students to facts, concepts, and ideas that contradict the woke narrative)."

It is not clear whether Jameson, the interim president, has the power to reverse Magill’s decision. The University of Pennsylvania did not respond to a request for comment.

Wax’s case has been framed as a kind of Alamo for academic freedom. Professors and free speech watchdogs from across the political spectrum have urged Penn not to sanction Wax, arguing that such an unprecedented step would have a chilling effect throughout academia and render tenure protections dead letter.

The hearing board memo, which has not been previously reported, suggests that those fears are well-founded. It outlines an astonishingly restrictive standard for what professors can say in the classroom or their public writings, going so far as to claim that tenured faculty members can be sanctioned for making "shoddy" arguments.

Wax’s "consistent reliance on misleading and partial information, which often leads her to make unsubstantiated statements and to draw sweeping and unreliable conclusions, violates the University of Pennsylvania’s Faculty Handbook as well as broader professional standards, expectations, and norms," the memo reads.

Led by Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education who studies "colleges as democratic institutions," the board concluded that Wax had "harmed" students with her "uncritical use of data" and "unfounded declarative claims"—including her claim that black students underperform white students "because of affirmative action," a mainstream view among economists that has been cited by Supreme Court justices.

The hearing board also chided her for stating that savings rates differ by race, describing DEI bureaucracy as a "hideous monstrosity," and suggesting that black Americans are hurt more by family breakdown than by racism.

"We stress that the impact of the positions Professor Wax has taken as a professor who holds a named Chair at Penn, has been extraordinarily detrimental to her students and to the student body as a whole," the hearing board said. "Not only has she modeled shoddy ‘science’ in her teaching practice, but in so doing she has polarized the student body and alienated many students."

Though some of Wax’s statements, including about the link between race and IQ, were more controversial, the memo did not address the most explosive allegation initially levied against her: that Wax told a black student she was only admitted due to affirmative action. It is not clear whether the hearing board deemed that allegation credible or how it determined which statements counted as "inequitably targeted disrespect," a term that does not appear in Penn’s faculty handbook.

"This is a grievous procedural defect," Wax’s lawyers wrote in a September appeal to the university’s Committee on Academic Freedom & Responsibility, which handles faculty grievances related to academic freedom. "Sanctioning [Wax] under a novel and vague rule, which the Board invented but never defined, is fundamentally unfair."

The hearing board also recommended that Penn record Wax’s classes to "better facilitate resolution of any future disputes." Other sanctions include a permanent loss of summer pay, a public reprimand by the university, and required "professional development" training.

If Wax’s appeal fails and the penalties are upheld, it would mark the first time in two decades that Penn has sanctioned a tenured faculty member.

"In early December Liz Magill told a congressional committee under oath that Penn adheres to Constitutional First Amendment protections on speech at the university," Wax said. "That is a false statement. Magill's representation to Congress is wholly inconsistent with Penn's action against me."