How Do You Solve A Problem Like Amy Wax?

It would be impressive enough that Amy Wax is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. But her background is even more impressive.

Raised in an observant, conservative Jewish family, she received a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a medical degree from Harvard.

On a podcast, she said she realized medicine was not for her, and in 1987, received a law degree from Columbia University. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, she argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court. And after seven years at the University of Virginia, she joined Penn with tenure in 2001.

That’s quite extraordinary, and checks a lot more boxes of being very smart, if not brilliant, than most of us. So what’s the problem?

[In 2017], she co-wrote an opinion article in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She argued that many of the country’s social problems could be traced to veering from 1950s norms, like getting married before having children, respecting authority and avoiding coarse language.

The article said “all cultures are not equal” and lamented “the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.”

Controversial, for sure, but her “bourgeois values” op-ed raised issues that many considered legitimate and worthy of consideration. After all, “American values” got us to where we are and many, such as stable two-parent families, have long been considered crucial in the success of young people. But then she went off the rails in 2018.

“Here’s a very inconvenient fact, Glenn,” Wax said in the discussion titled ‘The Downside to Social Uplift,’ which was part of a series hosted by Brown professor Glenn Loury. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the [Penn Law School] class and rarely, rarely in the top half,” Wax said of her belief in the downside of affirmative action in universities. “I can think of one or two students who’ve graduated in the top half of my required first-year course.”

The uproar was loud, and Wax was removed from teaching first year students. But she wasn’t done.

She has described some non-Western countries as “shitholes” and stated that “women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men.”

Speaking with Mr. Carlson last year, she said “American Blacks” and people from non-Western countries feel shame for the “outsized achievements and contributions” of Western people.

On a recent podcast, she said, “I often chuckle at the ads on TV which show a Black man married to a white woman in an upper-class picket-fence house,” she said, adding, “They never show Blacks the way they really are: a bunch of single moms with a bunch of guys who float in and out. Kids by different men.”

That pushed Dean Theodore Ruger, who had supported Wax’s academic freedom right to express controversial opinions to that point, over the line.

After long resisting the call of students, the dean of the law school, Theodore W. Ruger, has taken a rare step: He has filed a complaint and requested a faculty hearing to consider imposing a “major sanction” on the professor.

For years, Mr. Ruger wrote in his 12-page complaint, Professor Wax has shown “callous and flagrant disregard” for students, faculty and staff, subjecting them to “intentional and incessant racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic actions and statements.”

The complaint said she has violated the university’s nondiscrimination policies and “standards of professional competence.”

Free speech and academic freedom groups have challenged any action against Wax for her speech, much as student groups demand her firing.

Her statements, the complaint added, “have led students and faculty to reasonably believe they will be subjected to discriminatory animus if they come into contact with her.”

Students have asked: Aren’t these statements relevant to her performance in the classroom? Don’t they show the potential for bias? And does this professor, and this speech, deserve the protection of tenure?

Granted, there have been quite a few academics who have made outrageous, offensive, and even violent assertions about white people which suggest that they have issues that don’t belong in a classroom, not to mention not be intellectually up to snuff. And they, too, have received the support of organizations like FIRE despite expressing a desired to emasculate white men with a sharpened blade that could give rise to a concern on campus. Then again, under the reimagination of improper discriminatory speech, the oppressed can’t be mean to the oppressors. And Amy Wax, gender notwithstanding, is an oppressor.

Many free-speech advocates say that Dean Ruger’s complaint overstepped by including the professor’s public statements.

Jonathan Friedman, an official at PEN America, said the idea that off-campus comments can lead to an investigation “is concerning.”

Those who want heavy sanctions, he said, “have to think about how the same powers can be wielded in other ways, against other professors whose comments can be deemed offensive or hostile.”

And some professors say her interactions with students are enough to warrant punishment.

Is there a line that can’t be crossed? The complaint alleges that Wax made statements that were directed at particular students that went too far.

“There’s a bright line between ‘I don’t like affirmative action’ and ‘You, African American student, only got in because of affirmative action,’” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a Penn history professor who had previously defended Professor Wax against calls for punishment.

The latter comment, if true, he said, is “singling out a student for abuse.” But students question the professor’s free-speech protections. Andrew Bookbinder, of the university’s Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, said Professor Wax was using tenure to be intentionally offensive in ways that do not further academic speech.

Wax denies the statements were made, and challenges the lack of detail proffered against her. A hearing will be held to determine whether Wax made the comments, though the capacity of a law school or university to conduct a meaningful hearing providing basic due process and reaching an impartial outcome is certainly in doubt. Still, what the hell is Amy Wax thinking? Isn’t she smarter than to court this flagrant outrage no matter what her personal opinions may be?

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