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A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor

In Congress, on July 4th, 1776, came the “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Signed by 56 men, many of whom were considered national heroes just a few minutes ago, it opens with a long and elegant sentence whose first words every American child knows, or used to: “When in the Course of human events…” In Princeton, New Jersey, on July 4th, 2020, just two hours after my family and I sat around the festive table and read the Declaration aloud in celebration, a group of signatories now in the hundreds published a “Faculty Letter” to the president and other senior administrators at Princeton University.

This letter begins with the following blunt sentence: “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.” One important difference between the two documents might wrongly be dismissed as merely cosmetic. In 1776 there were “united States” but there was not yet the “United States”; in these past two months, by contrast, at a time when we are increasingly un-united, “black” has become “Black” while “white” remains “white.”

I am friends with many people who signed the Princeton letter, which requests and in some places demands a dizzying array of changes, and I support their right to speak as they see fit. But I am embarrassed for them. To judge from conversations with friends and all too much online scouting, there are two camps: those cheering them on and those who wouldn’t dream of being associated with such a document. No one is in the middle. If you haven’t yet read it, do so now. Be warned: it is long.

There are four reasons why colleagues might have signed the letter.

(1) They believe in every word. I suppose this is true for a few, including, presumably, those members of the faculty who were the initial drafters.

(2) They signed without reading it. I would not ordinarily believe this, but I am aware of a similar petition, not at Princeton, that people were asked to sign—and did so!—before knowing what they were putting their name to.

(3) They felt peer pressure to sign. This is entirely believable.

(4) They agree with some of the demands and felt it was good to act as “allies” and bring up the numbers even though they do not assent to everything themselves.

I imagine that the majority fall into this last category. Indeed, plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support. It is reasonable to “[g]ive new assistant professors summer move-in allowances on July 1” and to “make [admissions] fee waivers transparent, easy to use, and well-advertised.” “Accord[ing] greater importance to service as part of annual salary reviews” and “[i]mplement[ing] transparent annual reporting of demographic data on hiring, promotion, tenuring, and retention” seem unobjectionable. And I will cheerfully join the push for a “substantial expansion” of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which encourages underrepresented minorities to enter PhD programs and strive to join the professoriate.

But then there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate. Some examples: “Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary” and “Faculty of color hired at the junior level should be guaranteed one additional semester of sabbatical” and “Provide additional human resources for the support of junior faculty of color.” Let’s leave aside who qualifies as “of color,” though this is not a trivial point. It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people—extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors—extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation.

“Establish a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.” There would be wisdom in this time of disunity in suggesting (not, in my view, requiring) that students take courses in American history and constitutionalism, both of which almost inevitably consider slavery and race, but that is not the same thing. Not incidentally, if you believe anti-blackness to be foundational, it is not a stretch to imagine that you will teach the 1619 Project as dogma.

“Commit fully to anti-racist campus iconography, beginning with the removal of the John Witherspoon statue.” Since I don’t care for this statue or its placement in front of the building in which I have my office, I would not be sad if it were moved away—but emphatically not because of Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was a major figure in Princeton and American history with a complex relationship to slavery. There is no reason for me to say more: Innumerable sensible people have commented on the impossibility that anyone can pass the Purity Test. Someone who passes today will not pass tomorrow.

“Acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism. Such acknowledgment should, at a minimum, take the form of reparative action, beginning with a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies.” The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands. Recently I watched an “Instagram Live” of one of its alumni leaders, who—emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood—presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.

“Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty… Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the [usual] set of rules and procedures.” This scares me more than anything else: For colleagues to police one another’s research and publications in this way would be outrageous. Let me be clear: Racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process. But is there anyone who doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?

A couple of weeks before the Faculty Letter, other missives to the Princeton administration were promulgated, most significantly two intemperately worded lists of demands signed by hundreds of present and former undergraduates and graduate students. The immediate consequence was the widely publicized removal of the name Woodrow Wilson from the School of Public and International Affairs and the first of the university’s six residential colleges (now blandly renamed “First College”). I mention these letters because the Faculty Letter states twice—first in connection with graduate-level requests and then again with reference to undergraduates—“We offer these recommendations in full support of theirs.” One of the demands of Princeton Graduate Students United is that public safety be defunded since (to quote the “X-Campus Statement against State Terror and Call for Termination of University-Police Ties” that was started at the University of Minnesota) “[p]olice, and their proxies, private security companies, have no place on university campuses.” I defy any of my colleagues to argue persuasively that defunding campus police is a good idea, even at idyllic Princeton. I defy anyone who signed that letter, directly or indirectly, to send his or her children to a college or university without campus security. Fantasizing that you can do without the police is the height of arrogant privilege.

Independence of thought is considered the hallmark of academia, but everyone deserves it. In the United States, thank heavens, freedom to think for oneself is still a right, not a privilege. To my colleagues who signed the Faculty Letter: If you signed it independently and thoughtfully, good for you. I hereby solemnly publish and declare my own declaration.

 

Joshua T. Katz is a professor of classics at Princeton.

Cast bronze statue of John Witherspoon, Princeton’s sixth president.

Comments

  1. This is what is needed. More brave men and women to stand up.

  2. I don’t know what to label this movement. It’s a mob for sure but that is not sufficiently descriptive. Anti-racist is its ostensible cause but this is giving it undeserved legitimacy. I don’t believe there are racists at Princeton. Whatever they really want they are meeting no resistance whatsoever and are pushing on open doors, it appears. What is to stop them from taking over, at least, America’s colleges and universities and perhaps even our major cities like New York? De Blasio is bowing and scraping before this rabble. I think this blows a hole in all theories of a “cognitive elite”. The spineless cowards bowing to this rabble are clearly not deserving of any claims to cognitive superiority.

  3. For those who would like to learn a little more about the author:

    https://classics.princeton.edu/people/faculty/core/joshua-katz

    An accomplished fellow.

    But I fear that some of his extracurricular activities may be in jeopardy now.

    Current positions in the wider world include Director-at-Large of the American Oriental Society, member of the Membership Committee of the Society for Classical Studies, and member of the Educational Advisory Board of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

    How long, I wonder, will the American Oriental Society tolerate the presence of a White man as a director who is not a fully committed anti-racist? And I should think the Princeton Faculty Collective will soon have something to say to the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation about his seat on the advisory board.

  4. I think I will cease my annual giving. I was considering it before. As an alumnus I am deeply disappointed at my alma mater.

  5. You don’t have to develop any real character if you’re able to skate by on your IQ all the time

    Well, IQ is about successfully using knowledge to solve problems. But that doesn’t mean that all problems are equally worthy; if the problem to be solved is how to bullshit your way to powerful positions, then you can be very good at that, meaning have a high IQ, yet still be a nasty person.

  6. These so called anti-racists are very good at talking the talk but not so good at walking the walk. Many college professors and other ivory towered elites are concerned about income inequality and reparations. Why not swap salaries with the janitorial staff?

  7. Katz undoubtedly has tenure, so while he may lose some position at Princeton, he won’t lose the bulk of his income. He’s been at the game, and has published enough, that he is probably not going to suffer (much) financially for having taken this stand.

    He can afford not to grovel, take the knee and apologize for the arrogance of his White privilege, as he surely would have had to do were he 20 years younger.

    It’s the younger generation of university academics where we really need to see this sort of spine. The ones who still have something to lose.

  8. " Anti-racist is its ostensible cause" … " I don’t believe there are racists at Princeton. "

    The mob is both racist and sexist. It has designated men and paticualrily white men as the group responsible for most if not all the ills of the world and relentlessly targest and demonises them.

    If you want to see sexism and sexist speech look at feminists. Feminism has almost completely been consumed by a partisan, sexist bigotry which demonises men and concentrates on further priviliging the most priviliged women who are already very advanataged.

    My perception, but I am from Britain where race and racism is not the obsession it is in the US, is that anti-racism campaigners have not yet and may never reach the hypocrisy level of feminists in that they do campaign for the less priviliged as well as the priviliged and there are real isssues to be addressed but there is still a huge amount of overt racism on display.

  9. the expression “person of color” or its variants is an attempt to resolve race to a binary, i.e., white and not-white, and to thereby make it easier to assign collective blame?

    Sounds about right.

  10. The fact that this article needed to call attention to the PRINCETON part is key. I never gave a damn about Princeton before now… I still don’t. Not sure why, but I tend not to care about the inner workings of exclusive clubs like Princeton that work incredibly hard at keeping the commoners from off the lawn.

    This may be a contrarian viewpoint, and I am certainly oversimplifying things however… I am not particularly concerned with the barbarians tearing apart Ivy League institutions. While I agree 100% with the author’s sentiments, these elite universities have pioneered levels of stupidity and cupidity within their various “disciplines” for so long that part of me is secretly glad for the “comeuppance”.

    These cultural gatekeepers have invited this rot into their system and now they cry foul as they are consumed by their own progeny.

    I am increasingly short on sympathy and instead hope that the less “elite” schools and institutions will have such a lowly status that they may be able to avoid becoming so much collateral damage.

    As for courage. That has likely been in short supply in the Ivy League for a long, long time. The time for courage has long passed. Courageous people would have noted that giving someone a coveted tenured professorship in something as ridiculous as “Gender studies” was stupid to begin with and would have launched a campaign to keep this gibberish out of the institutions in the 90s.

    Their awful ideas are now fully grown. Congratulations Princeton (Harvard, et al)… your new child is a craven monster with an insatiable appetite for attention, violent intolerance towards others, disdain for reason and lacking in any basic human decency. In other words, your new idiot-manchild is a “social construct”… You should be proud of your progeny. Huzzah for you…

  11. I don’t know. Will it implode? There seems to be something going on quite different here. We have a political organization (BLM) who has taken a truism and turned it into a powerful, national force. We have a mass brainwashing of young people who are getting all their “news” from Twitter and other social media. There seem to be very few voices willing to speak up against what is happening (this author, Larry Elder, Thomas Sowell, et al) but they’re not being published or heard by the masses. Every day we hear of one more incident that seems to erode the fabric of society and the respect for law, debate and civil discourse. I fear this far more than a pandemic.

  12. And it begins…I just did a quick Google Search of his name and “Princeton” and it brought me to the ratemyprofessors.com for Professor Katz 9 ratings of 5.0, one 4.5 and then two days after this article was published:

  13. It’s been many decades since academics represented the best and brightest in US society (if they ever did), and people need to stop holding them up as intellectual elites. Without massive government subsidy of the US university system most academics would be doing things like managing at starbucks. Nothing wrong with that, but these are not a bunch of Einsteins, Thoreaus, and Edisons.

  14. Obviously, this doesn’t have anything to do with racism at Princeton, because there isn’t any.
    And even if there is, Princeton in 2020 is surely one of the least racist places in the history of the world.
    So, why are these pampered, uber-privileged little shit-stains tilting at windmills?

    What if the answer is as simple as because we let them get away with it?

    I’ve written this elsewhere on Quillette; young people will always have bone-headed ideas and it’s the duty of adults to exercise their authority when they get out of line.
    It’s not the kids that we need to focus on and try to label correctly, it’s the adults behavior that needs explaining.

    The problem with academia is that the fish rots from the head.

    VV

  15. H.L.Mencken, that glorious old sourpuss said it most succinctly: “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-front for the urge to rule it.”

    VV

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