The University of Pennsylvania Law School is gunning to expel a heterodox professor.
The University of Pennsylvania Law School’s campaign to purge Professor Amy Wax from its ranks for challenging the emerging woke left orthodoxy in higher education is now reaching a fever pitch. Just a couple months ago, Law School Dean Ted Ruger made a formal charge to the faculty senate to bring “major sanctions” against Wax, suggesting they strip her of tenure and remove her from her position. Dean Ruger’s bold assertion is that Wax has failed to adhere to the standards of her profession and, therefore, should potentially be removed from its ranks.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) posted Ruger’s letter sent to the faculty senate chair online. It demonstrates, with stunning clarity, just how low the standard of argument and analysis has sunk at the highest levels of American academia. Wokeism is destroying higher education, and it is nowhere clearer than in the anti-intellectual rhetoric issued by high-level administrators such as Ruger when faced with perspectives with which they disagree and about which they patently know almost nothing.
People outside academia only occasionally have an opportunity to peer inside the walls of the university system to see just what kind of foolishness is now being perpetrated there in the name of the woke revolution sweeping through American culture. Ruger’s letter is a depressing document of this phenomenon. A short tour through its contents gives insight into what higher education is becoming.
Ruger accuses Wax of having failed utterly as an intellectual: “Much of her public persona has become anti-intellectual: she relies on outdated science [and] makes statements grounded in insufficiently supported generalizations.” But somehow, no examples of this outdated science or insufficiently supported generalizations are indicated or argumentatively challenged in his letter.
The letter’s charge against Wax consists of two parts: a list of student complaints against Wax and a collection of brief excerpts from Wax’s public speech that purportedly show how unscholarly and bigoted she is.
The Student Complaints
The claims presented in Ruger’s letter about what she’s said in class are unverified by any objective evidence. For this reason, those knowledgeable about such things must conclude that they cannot alone serve as the basis for any formal action against Wax. Putting these comments into the general context of Wax’s teaching record raises real questions. In 2015, she received a prestigious UPenn Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, which involved a detailed examination of her record in the classroom and a broad solicitation of student comments. So, just a few years ago, UPenn publicly recognized Wax as an exemplar among her peers as a teacher. It seems clear that it is not Wax or her teaching style that has changed in the intervening years. Anyone who teaches in higher education knows that students these days do not infrequently have ideological axes to grind, and they often mishear or misremember what was said in such a way as to be offended by things imagined that were, in fact, never uttered. I have had students make claims to my superiors about things they allege I’ve said in class during Zoom meetings that were recorded. Fortunately, I had objective evidence of what was said. Nevertheless, the difference between the claim and reality was remarkable in every case.
But it turns out that even if you take Wax’s students’ claims on their face, they constitute no case for major sanctions against her. A look at a few examples makes this clear.
A student claims that Wax affirmed that blacks are inferior to whites by responding, “You can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.” This statement reflects the simple fact that individuals respond differently to stimuli, which holds true for both members of the plant and animal kingdoms owing to a host of factors. It is not a general statement about human racial groups. Far from indicating a belief in white racial superiority, Wax’s observation speaks to the basic equality of people, who all start from zero and then rise to the limits of their constraints due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Wax allegedly told a black student she was “double Ivy” (meaning she had attended two Ivy League institutions) because of affirmative action. Here Wax raised an open empirical question. If the student’s overall academic pedigree (GPA, high school rank, and standardized test scores) is below those of other non-black double Ivy students, then it was quite likely a true statement. Wax presumably knew something more than we do of the student’s qualifications in making the statement.
But how can the assertion that a black student with two Ivy League schools on her resume is likely to have benefited from affirmative action be taken as an insult in a culture that openly defends the positive good and undeniable need for affirmative action to achieve desired levels of minority representation? It is widely known that black students, on average, have lower GPAs and standardized test scores than whites and Asians and that their performance relative to their peers remains comparatively low throughout college. How is it an unmentionable transgression for Wax to allude to a set of facts no one who knows the data disputes?
Wax also allegedly told a student that black students do worse academically than whites because they are less well prepared because of affirmative action. This point is certainly arguable from the facts, as illustrated in the previous paragraph. On average, black students come to college with lower academic qualifications than students from other racial groups. And it is equally arguable that one of the things that contribute to their relatively lower preparation might be that, thanks to affirmative action, they do not need to achieve at the level of other students to be rewarded disproportionately for their accomplishments. This point has been argued by a number of black critics of affirmative action, including the economist Glenn Loury who has noted that affirmative action does not further the agenda of real equality but only allows institutions to “cover their asses” and pretend they are pursuing that goal. We do not know with certainty that affirmative action is acting as a mechanism for curbing black effort. Nor is it yet a settled matter whether affirmative action handicaps at least some black students by putting them into academic situations for which they are comparatively poorly prepared and in which they are comparatively more likely to struggle. Still, these are plausible hypotheses that are being legitimately explored in research.
Ruger complains that Wax’s invitation of the “race realist” conservative Jared Taylor to her class, and her assignment in the same class of an interview with British politician Enoch Powell, who died 25 years ago, constitute monstrous offenses against legitimate academic discourse and a deliberate attack on minority students. In one of the interviews to which Ruger links, Wax makes clear that the course at issue is on conservative political and legal thought. To this end, Wax introduced the ideas of both Taylor and Powell, without any hint of her own agreement or disagreement with them, to students as aspects of that body of thought. She made it clear that this was an elective course that no student was required to take. What is going on here then is scarcely debatable. As Wax notes in one of the interviews, Ruger is essentially telling her that she has broken with the basic professorial code by introducing students to varieties of conservative thought…in a course on conservative thought.
This point merits more exploration. In a course on Nazism or fascism, for example, students might well and reasonably be asked to read material written by Nazis or fascists to be exposed to the ideas of the philosophies and movements as expressed by those inside them. This needn’t imply any justification of the views; presenting them in this scenario is entirely educational in purpose. The same is true in a course on revolutionary communism, in which students might be legitimately asked to read Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, and other unsavory characters in the murderous history of global communism.
What Ruger is attempting here is as dangerous a thing as a college administrator can do. Ruger gives no specifics of what in Powell’s or Taylor’s expression of political ideas cannot be presented to law school students. To attack Taylor, he cites only the Southern Poverty Law Center, the contemporary go-to source for impugning anyone on the Right who says anything about human population genetics, mass immigration policies, or a number of other increasingly taboo topics in the woke vision. But the SPLC citation offers no substantive bits of Taylor’s speech or thought, nor any refutation of those ideas. It simply calls him names. We are told that he hosts the American Renaissance conference, where “racist intellectuals…Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists” meet. Who are we talking about here, specifically, and what have they argued in detail? Nothing is provided. Taylor is impugned simply because some “racists” have come to his conference, and Wax is equally blackened because she invited the convenor of the conference that gave a platform to “racists” to appear in her class as a representative of a variety of conservative thought.
A little investigation of specifics proves of interest. Jared Taylor has been invited to speak on many other college campuses. He has also appeared frequently on numerous mainstream media programs and popular podcasts. Phil Donahue invited him on his former program a few times in the early 2000s. The leftist Huffington Post Live, hosted by black scholar Marc Lamont Hill, much more recently had him on to debate antiracist activists Tim Wise and Michael Eric Dyson. Taylor has been invited to public stages to debate and discuss with black interlocutors on both the right and the left on many occasions. Here he is telling a nearly all black audience that he identifies as a kind of “Marcus Garvey-ite” who wants blacks to be free and independent in their own state within the American nation, a position taken up by many black nationalists. Here is another civil discussion with a black interlocutor. And here he is as the invitee and debate opponent of black scholar Wilfred Reilly at the campus of Kentucky State University, a Historically Black University.
It is remarkable that a man who has been invited to present his views at many mainstream institutions and who has a record of doing so cordially and respectfully is presented by Ruger—again, without any evidence of the content of his views—as self-evidently beyond the limits of acceptable academic discourse. If university administrators can so frivolously and anti-intellectually restrict the range of presentable ideas and the freedom of their faculty to expose their students to such controversial ideas, we have reason to fear what will become of modern higher education. Indeed, it is already happening.
Wax’s Public Remarks
Ruger also gives as evidence against her a collection of tidbits from videos and transcripts of interviews and conversations Wax has had in the public sphere. He presents this section of his letter with many footnoted links to online sources, but they are not cued to the precise point at which she allegedly makes the statements he reports. Nearly all of these are lengthy interviews of an hour or more; Ruger has made it impossible, short of listening through the entirety of each interview, to verify his claims about what she’s said and to place it in its appropriate context. This is intellectually sloppy at the failing undergraduate level, and it is the dean of a prestigious law school reporting to the faculty senate on a matter of ultimate professional import for the person involved who is giving us this F-level performance.
A review of the substance of what Wax is alleged to have said in just a few examples reveals the weakness of Ruger’s case. The first excerpt centers on claims Wax purportedly made about differences between the sexes regarding their interest in and proclivity for different kinds of work and their different psychological predispositions as groups. There is a vast literature on this topic. I wrote a book a year ago that contains a chapter summarizing a good deal of this material. The British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference is an excellent book-length summary of the basic empirical case, though much data has been added to the argument in the years since it was first published in the first decade of the 2000s. Ruger gives no indication that he has even the slightest familiarity with this literature. He accuses Wax of “misleading citation of…sources,” while providing no details of the sources or how Wax is being misleading in presenting them. Among other sources to which she refers in the several linked interviews, Wax mentions the work of David Lubinski at Vanderbilt. Lubinski studied groups of academically high-achieving boys and girls and discovered that even among such intellectually exceptional groups, there were clear sex differences in life values, especially those having to do with relative interest in work and family life. Wax’s summary of this and other such research is completely consistent with what we know about these sex differences. Ruger assumes that anyone reading his letter will know as little as he does about this literature, as they would have to be so ignorant to accept his claims at face value.
Ruger indicts Wax’s presentation of what she calls “cultural distance nationalism,” a political position that argues that the cultural proximity or distance of new immigrants with respect to the dominant culture of the country they are entering will very strongly influence how well or poorly they will assimilate to that culture. In this context, she notes that a culture such as the United States that has historically always been centered on what the political theorist Samuel Huntington and others have described as “Anglo-Protestant cultural values” will likely be most compatible with immigrants who are closer rather than more distant from that dominant culture. Further, she argues that citizens of such a country might well see it as a defensible national policy on immigration that this question of cultural distance is considered in making immigration decisions. Does Ruger think that such cultural differences between groups do not exist or that they do not have the effects Wax suggests they might? He gives no evidence to support those beliefs. He simply assumes that he knows what Wax has said to be false without argument and without acknowledging the academic literature that affirms her position.
Wax purportedly notes group differences in human populations along racial lines. One of the claims is that black and white mean IQs are not the same. This is well-established in the IQ literature. Wax does not make any claims about the causes of that difference, the specific balance of which remains unknown. However, no one knowledgeable about the relevant fields of research doubts that group differences in IQ exist. Once again, Ruger insinuates that a position held by virtually every single serious researcher on this question cannot be presented in a public setting.
Another claim Ruger finds offensive has to do with the different range of political beliefs and behavioral predilections that can be seen along racial lines. Asians, whites, and blacks have different profiles here, and there is much empirical evidence of that. Does Ruger doubt that it’s true? If he takes issue with these facts, he should familiarize himself with the relevant literature then argue against their empirical findings. Does Ruger believe Wax’s claims that such differences might potentially have meaningful social and political consequences are false and morally unutterable? On what grounds?
Ruger occasionally stoops to outright dishonesty about the contour of Wax’s statements on how policy might be applied in light of these group differences. He claims that she’s said publicly that black UPenn law students should not be in institutions of higher education. She’s said no such thing. In conversation with Glenn Loury, she discussed the well-known mismatch theory of affirmative action, which states that this policy frequently brings relatively high achieving black students to the most elite campuses where their qualifications, however comparatively good they are within their group, are poorly suited for academic success. If those students were directed instead to somewhat less demanding schools, they would do better academically and professionally. After summarizing the position, Wax says explicitly, “we’re not saying they shouldn’t go to college.” Then she adds, as Loury starts to talk, “Well, some shouldn’t.” The general thrust of her remark in this context is clearly sympathetic to mismatch theory, which does not insinuate that black students should not be in higher education but rather that, in at least some cases, they would do better in institutions other than the ones they are in.
As to her qualifier about “some,” no honest academic with more than a decade of experience in that line of work can feasibly say that she’s never met a student about whom that couldn’t reasonably be said. Some young people of all races clearly lack the work ethic and the desire to finish a degree, and Wax is obviously referring to that small minority of students here. The evidence of the truth of this claim is in the significant number of students who leave colleges every year for non-economic reasons without completing their degree program. Somehow, Wax’s observation of this unremarkable fact is yet another example of her professional negligence in Ruger’s eyes.
In the interest of space and the reader’s patience, I have considered only the first three claims made in the two bodies of complaints Ruger presents. I could easily continue the exercise through both sets of claims because none of Ruger’s case holds up to careful scrutiny.
The truth lurking behind Ruger’s rhetoric is evident. He—a dean speaking in an administrative capacity with punitive intent against a faculty member under his professional power—doesn’t know the relevant literature on which Wax is relying on to make wholly defensible statements to which he objects in his ignorance. His lack of familiarity whatsoever with established scholarly domains such as sociobiology and evolutionary biology is transparent. His simplistic way of framing the claims Wax makes—any statement about individual or group differences is “stereotyping,” which is always illegitimate, no matter how much empirical evidence exists to support it—shows his ignorance of the relevant fields. He is relying on the faculty senate members being equally free of any knowledge of these academic fields, which is, unfortunately, a safe bet in today’s university.
Let us be clear about what is happening in Amy Wax’s case. This is not just an attack on her, though it is also that. She is being attacked as the representative of a whole set of heterodox intellectual frameworks and bodies of research. It is that set of ideas that Ruger and his ilk—indeed, all the academic purveyors of woke morality—want to destroy. They will do it one individual at a time, as this is the most feasible and practical way to advance their agenda. However, the goal is not just to remove the individuals. It’s to make it impossible even to think those ideas in the contemporary university.
This is an effort to shape the basic contours of intellectual life in America in a way hostile to intellectual freedom and subservient to moral totalitarianism and childish emotionalism.
Amy Wax’s case is not just about Amy Wax. It is about all of us in higher education and everyone else with an interest in free intellectual inquiry and expression. We had better all be paying close attention.
Read more at: AmericanMind.org