Princeton president recommends Joshua Katz firing

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A controversial professor at Princeton University, Joshua T. Katz, is facing dismissal after a campus report said he failed to fully cooperate with a sexual-misconduct investigation. But his supporters say the charge is a ruse to push Katz out for criticizing liberal faculty and students.

The case touches on thorny issues of sexual relationships between professors and students, and free speech protections. It also highlights the tensions that can erupt as universities seek to dismantle the legacy of racism on campus.

Katz, a tenured professor in the classics department, drew scrutiny in 2020 for an essay denouncing faculty proposals to combat racism at the university following the murder of George Floyd. While some faculty dismissed Katz’s view as flagrant racism, others defended his right to disagree with his colleagues.

But in the wake of the contentious debate, allegations of Katz, 52, having an improper relationship with a female student resurfaced, leading to a university investigation that may upend his future at Princeton.

In a letter dated May 10 and obtained by The Washington Post, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber recommends the board of trustees fire Katz based on findings in a 10-page report on the investigation. The report, written in November by faculty dean Gene A. Jarrett, said Katz was not completely forthcoming in a 2018 investigation about a consensual relationship he had with an undergraduate student a decade earlier.

That investigation resulted in Katz being suspended without pay for a year for violating school policy banning sexual relationships between faculty and students. At the time, the former student refused to participate in the investigation.

Things changed after the student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, wrote about the relationship in February 2021 as part of a lengthy investigation of sexual harassment accusations against Katz. Soon thereafter, the former student filed a complaint with the university.

Her complaint led to the latest university probe, which concluded that Katz misled investigators and dissuaded the student from seeking counseling at the university health services to allegedly prevent the university from learning about his conduct, according to the report from Jarrett obtained by The Post.

Princeton spokesman Michael Hotchkiss said the university does not comment on personnel matters.

Katz did not respond to requests for comment. His attorney, Samantha Harris, said Katz was already reprimanded for the relationship and is being punished for what he wrote in the 2020 essay published in Quillette, an online magazine.

“There is a straight line from his Quillette article to this recommendation,” Harris said. “We’re living in a climate where if you express an unpopular view, it has become an open invitation to turn your personal life inside out looking for damaging information.”

Katz wrote this week in First Things, a conservative religious magazine, about additional scrutiny professors can now face engaging with students. He wrote, “every action and every word, every smile and every joke, every against-the-grain remark and every allusion to the founding fathers is liable to cause offense.”

Katz wrote that he understands that there are lines no one should cross, but that some kinds of social activity enrich academic life and enable a freer exchange of ideas.

University leadership has pushed back against the charge that the latest investigation of Katz is the result of the Quillette article. Jarrett, the faculty dean, addressed the issue in the November report.

“I have considered professor Katz’s claim and have determined that the current political climate of the university, whether perceived or real, is not germane to the case, nor does it play a role in my recommendation,” Jarrett wrote.

After Jarrett recommended Katz be dismissed, the professor asked a university panel to review the case. The panel affirmed Jarrett’s position, according to Eisgruber’s letter.

Tensions have been high between Katz and some of his colleagues since the summer of 2020.

A group of faculty, students and alumni signed an open letter in July 2020 demanding Princeton atone for the legacy of racism on campus by addressing bias in hiring and admissions. Katz penned an essay days later saying the letter was an embarrassment to the faculty who signed it and arguing their demands “would lead to civil war on campus.”

He also criticized a now-defunct student group, the Black Justice League, that advocated for the removal of former president Woodrow Wilson’s name from a campus building. Katz called the group “a small local terrorist organization.”

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Eisgruber criticized Katz’s characterization of the student organization as “irresponsible and offensive,” but asserted the professor’s views “can be answered but not censored or sanctioned.”

The Black Student Union at Princeton, and the alumni group Princetonians for Free Speech, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

While faculty with tenure enjoy a great amount of job security, they can still be terminated. Princeton parted ways with a tenured electrical engineering professor in 2018 for having a relationship with a student.

Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.