Latest on UPenn Law's effort to purge Amy Wax
This was just posted yesterday at The American Mind. Slightly longer version, with a lengthier attack on the dubious moral integrity of the Southern Poverty Law Center, below.
The Anti-Intellectual Attempt to Fire Professor Amy Wax: Evidence of the Fraudulence and Professional Incompetence of UPenn Law Administration
The UPenn Law School campaign to purge Professor Amy Wax from their ranks for making public statements that challenge the emerging woke left orthodoxy in higher education is now reaching a fever pitch. Just last month, that School’s Dean Ted Ruger made a formal charge to the faculty senate to bring “major sanctions” which could include stripping of tenure and removal from her position. His bold assertion is that Wax has failed to adhere to the standards of her profession and therefore should potentially be removed from its ranks.
FIRE managed to obtain the letter Ruger sent to the faculty senate chair and posted it online. It demonstrates, with stunning and depressing clarity, just how low the level of argument and analysis is at present at the highest levels of American academia. Wokeism is destroying higher education, and it is nowhere clearer than in the astoundingly anti-intellectual rhetoric being emitted from high-level administrators such as Ruger when they are 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 to see at the nuts and bolts level 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’s language is denunciatory at the most elevated level, accusing 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of having failed utterly as an intellectual: “Much of her public persona has become anti-intellectual: she relies on outdated science [and] makes statements grounded in insufficiently supported generalizations.” But somehow, no examples of this outdated science or insufficiently supported generalizations are indicated in his letter.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.
Let’s look a bit at this substance, to see precisely how little substance there is to be found there.
The Student/Classroom 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-wide 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 that Wax was not only not an incompetent teacher; she was an exemplar among her peers of excellent teaching. What’s different now? It seems clear that it is not Wax or her teaching style that have changed in the intervening years.
Anyone who teaches in higher education knows that students these days not infrequently have ideological axes to grind (which they have not uncommonly been provided by DEI institutions on their campuses), and they often mishear or misremember what was said in such a way as to be offended by things imagined that were in fact not 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, so fortunately I had objective evidence of what was said. The difference between the claim and the reality was in every case remarkable. I shudder occasionally thinking what might happen in such situations when there is no objective record to which to compare the interpretive efforts of students with hostile motives or careless attitudes to accuracy.
But it turns out that even if you take Wax’s students’ highly doubtful claims on their face, they still constitute no case for major sanctions against her. A look at just the first three claims illustrates this.
The first example given by Ruger is a student claiming that in response to a question about whether Wax agreed that blacks are inherently inferior to whites, Wax responded: “You can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.” How this statement could be seen by any rational person as something objectively psychologically damaging to this or any other student is a mystery for the ages. This is obviously not an affirmation of inherent racial inferiority in humans, as it is not even a statement about humans. It is also a true statement.
The second example alleges that Wax told a black student she was “double Ivy” (meaning she had attended two Ivy League institutions) because of affirmative action. Without knowledge of the student’s qualifications, this is an open empirical question. If her overall pedigree (GPA, rank of high school, and standardized test scores) is below those of other non-black double Ivy students, then it is quite likely a true statement. Wax presumably knew something more than we do of the student’s qualifications in making the statement. But even if she didn’t, how can her 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 other groups remains comparatively low through the college years. How is it an unmentionable transgression for Wax to allude to a set of facts no one who knows the data disputes?
The third student claim is that Wax told a student that black students do worse academically than whites because they are less well prepared, and they are less well-prepared because of affirmative action. The first 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 numerous other racial groups. And it is equally arguable that one of the things that contributes to their relatively lower preparation might be the fact that, thanks to affirmative action, they do not need to achieve at the level of other groups in order to be rewarded disproportionately to 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, and it is not yet a settled matter that 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, but these are plausible hypotheses that are being legitimately explored in research.
Ruger complains mightily 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 cultural nationalist politician Enoch Powell constitute monstrous offenses against legitimate academic discourse and a deliberate attack on minority students. In one of the interviews to which he links, Wax makes clear that the course at issue is on conservative political and legal thought and the ideas of both Taylor and Powell were introduced, without any hint of Wax’s 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 is in this scenario wholly educational in purpose. These ideas exist in some political circles on the right, and in a course with the topic that organizes Wax’s, it is not unreasonable to have a look at them, whether one finds them convincing or not, since the purpose of the course is to inform students of the length and breadth of the content of conservative thought, not to convert them to anything. The same is true in a course on revolutionary Marxian 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. A good case can be made on educational grounds that going to original sources is a superior pedagogical strategy to the alternative of giving students only secondary sources that may or may not effectively control their own biases in the interest of undistorted depiction of the ideas.
What Ruger is attempting here is as dangerous a thing as a college administrator can do. “I don’t like an idea or the person who expresses that idea, and so no student ever, in any course, should be exposed to that idea or person,” this is what he is communicating. Ruger tellingly 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 post-’65, 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 too is equally blackened because she invited the convener 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. This man who Ruger insinuates cannot reasonably be invited to a college class, with no insinuation even that Wax defended or supported whatever ideas he expressed about which Ruger could not be troubled to tell us anything at all, has been on many other college campuses. He has also appeared frequently on numerous mainstream media programs and widely-viewed podcasts. Phil Donahue had him on his former program a few times in the early 2000s, and he and Taylor cordially went back and forth in debate. 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 that is 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.
I say nothing whatever here about the content of Taylor’s ideas, in echoing Ruger’s complete silence about that substance, though, unlike Ruger, I will refrain from calling the man names in the absence of any presentation of what he has said or written. If you want to hear what he thinks and have a bit more intellectual seriousness about you than Dean Ruger does, you can simply listen to any of those linked appearances on other college campuses and at mainstream media sites. But doesn’t it say something remarkable that a man who has been invited to present his views at many mainstream institutions, and who therefore is likely considered by at least some of those who invited him as within the reasonable range of intellectual debate, 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 evidently beyond the pale, endeavoring in doing so to paint a professor at his university who invited him to class as likewise morally monstrous?
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.
The only “evidence” Ruger gives that Taylor is beyond the pale is that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers him an “extremist.” And since the content of ideas can be determined, in Ruger’s view, without any reference to the ideas but merely by referencing the SPLC’s disdain for them, we might justifiably inquire about the evidence of the moral character of that institution doing the evaluation.
SPLC was co-founded by attorney Morris Dees, whom the organization fired in 2019 after multiple allegations over many years that he had sexually harassed young women in the organization and generally and systematically mistreated women and non-whites working there. Former employees of the SPLC have noted how racially segregated its staff was for the entire life of the organization, with almost all professional staff white and blacks in the organization relegated to the administrative staff. The organization had an endowment in excess of $120 million, and Dees and other top executives lived lavishly, with numerous expensive homes in many states. Some employees referred to the SPLC as a “highly profitable scam.” Many claimed Dees’ firing was insufficient, as the racial and gender discrimination in the organization was spread throughout leadership.
As Ruger blackens the reputations of Taylor for associating with unnamed “racists” and Wax for inviting Taylor to her course, we might well wonder about the legitimacy of the SPLC as an organization founded by such an individual and operating according to such practices, and about the moral standing of someone who claims that very imperfect organization as a legitimate moral arbiter of others.
Ruger makes it clear that the determining factor as to who can and who cannot be given to students to read, who can and who cannot be invited to give a guest lecture or talk to students over dinner, is not the objective content of their ideas, about which he shows no real interest, preferring invective and insinuation. The real determining factor for him as to whether students can be given ideas to consider is whether reading or listening to those who present the ideas “le[a]d minority students to report feeling “marginalized, isolated, unsupported, and unprioritized.”” No other evidence is necessary, and no evidence is required of such students to demonstrate that their feelings about this work are justified. This is, to say the least, a complete shift away from the university as a truth-seeking institution to one centered on making sure that no one ever—at least, no one in an officially recognized marginalized group--feels at all challenged in any way by anything they encounter on campus.
Wax’s Public Remarks
The second substantive—one hesitates to use the term in such a flimsily constructed brief—bit to which Ruger alludes in his charge against Wax is a collection of tidbits from videos and transcripts of interviews and conversations Wax has had in the public sphere. The first thing that must be said here is that Ruger presents this section of his letter with many footnote links to online sources, but they are not cued to the precise point at which she allegedly makes the statement/s he reports. Nearly all of these are lengthy interviews of an hour or more. That is, Ruger has made it impossible, short of listening through the entirety of each interview, to verify his claim 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.
That said, let’s look at the first few of these claims as we did with the student claims, without any effort to verify whether Wax said what is claimed and what meaningful context might inform our understanding of it, taking them for granted as things Wax said. Doing so further demonstrates the weakness of Ruger’s case that what Wax has said and written is outside the intellectual and moral norms binding on a college professor.
The first excerpt centers on claims Wax allegedly 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. I just published a book a year ago that contains a chapter (the fifth) 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,” but, as per his custom in the letter, he provides no details of the sources or how Wax is being misleading in presenting them. Among a number of 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 over the lifespan 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.
The second claim has to do with 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 have some predictable contribution to 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 be 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, when there is an academic literature that affirms her position.
Finally, in the third example, Wax purportedly notes a number of 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 something well-established in the IQ literature. Wax does not make any claims about the causes of that difference, which are still under investigation. 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 to 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, blacks have different profiles here, and there is much empirical evidence of that. Does Ruger doubt that it’s true? He should familiarize himself with the relevant literatures, then, and argue against the empirical findings in that literature that back up Wax’s remarks. My recent book, mentioned just above, has a chapter (the seventh) on some of this material as well. 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 stoops occasionally even to outright dishonesty about the contour of Wax’s statements about 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 comparatively poorly suited for academic success. If those students were directed instead to somewhat less demanding schools, they would do better academically and professionally, the argument goes. 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 with 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 this is in the total number of students who leave colleges every year without completing their degree program. Somehow, Wax’s observation about this unremarkable fact is yet another example of her professional negligence in Ruger’s eyes.
I note that I have only looked at the first three claims made in the two bodies of complaints Ruger presents. I stop myself here only in the interest of space and the reader’s patience. I could easily continue the exercise through both sets of claims. None of it holds up to scrutiny. Ruger has done an embarrassingly poor job as an administrator and as a scholar here.
The real test for the intellectual content of every one of these examples from Wax’s public speech is to refuse altogether what Ruger has done—taking a few bits and pieces of a huge mountain of public speech and misleadingly and pejoratively labelling them in ignorance of the overall framework into which they fit—and instead to listen to them in the full context, in their entirety. When one does that, one is inevitably impressed with the elevated level of Wax’s opinionating, even if one does not always agree with her. The level of erudition, the range of material with which she is comfortable are remarkable.
It might be interesting to hear Dean Ruger talk about anything for an hour in order to try to find a few things to decontextualize and spin in some negative way according to preconceived ideological druthers, as he’s done with Professor Wax, but that is almost impossible to do because the evidence online is that just about no one is interested in having him talk about anything in a public interview for a news program or a podcast and so little such material exists online. The very fact that Wax has so many opportunities to express her views in the public sphere is an indication of how many people are interested in hearing her do just that.
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 literatures on which Wax is relying in making the wholly defensible statements to which he objects in his ignorance. He’s transparently without any familiarity whatever with established scholarly domains such as sociobiology and evolutionary biology. His simplistic way of framing the claims Wax makes—any statement about individual or group differences is “stereotyping,” which is of course 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, but 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, and in a way hostile to intellectual freedom and curiosity 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.
Thanks for reading All Things Rhapsodical! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I leave aside Ruger’s complaint about Wax discussing in very general terms the demographics of grade achievement among UPenn Law students and his list of utterances she is alleged to have made to UPenn Law faculty colleagues and other campus staff. In the first case, no individual students were named, and so no harm could conceivably have come to them, and in the second, this material is wholly unverified. It is already well established that there are people at UPenn Law who do not like Professor Wax and might be prepared to invent offenses in order to contribute to a mob effort to remove her from their midst, and in any event such charges have little or nothing to do with her professional responsibilities as a professor.
Perhaps a small recording device in every teaching circumstance is necessary these wonderful days?
I recruited for the Marines from 1990 to 93, for "Officer candidates", with a primary focus on Blacks, because there were no shortages of applicants in every other category. Every aspect of this essay presented itself to myself, a Staff Sergeant, and my boss, Lieutenant, and then Captain, working as a team, accepting applications from anyone, and focused on Blacks and Women, as "under-represented" in a war-fighting organization. I have no complaints, however it always seemed "racist" to only focus on one group, to call them out as singular, special, when an even-handed, egalitarian effort could be made, and those interested, simply accepted. I grew up in Chicago, graduating high school in 75, at a time when every effort to be fair, equal, across the board, was made and goals met, publicly, openly, no excuses. When does it stop? What is "egalitarian"?