What Katz Said at the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference

By Abigail Anthony

November 11, 2022

PFS original content

The Stanford Graduate School of Business hosted a two-day, invite-only conference on academic freedom. Additional sponsors included the Classical Liberalism Initiative and various alumni free speech organizations.

Former Princeton University Classics Professor Joshua Katz spoke on the November 5 panel “The Cost of Academic Dissent,” which also featured Amy Wax, Elizabeth Weiss, and Frances Widdowson. Katz and Widdwson were both terminated from their former institutions, whereas Wax and Weiss have faced institutional punishment.

The panel was moderated by Harald Uhlig, a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. Uhlig opened by acknowledging the empty chair on the stage symbolizing the death of Mike Adams, a former criminology professor at the University of North Carolina—Wilmington, who committed suicide after effectively being forced into an early retirement due to a controversial tweet which compared Covid-19 restrictions to slavery.

Joshua Katz, who is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, addressed the “awfulness” of his experience at Princeton University, the “good” that eventually resulted, and suggestions for restoring “sanity to a world gone mad.” He stressed the “goal” should be to “fix what is broken, rather than rehearse grievances.” Katz emphasized he has a “special standing” as “the one person on stage who actually did do something wrong.”

Katz recounted that, in July 2020, several hundred Princeton faculty members endorsed a statement with “illegal” and debatably “immoral” demands “in the name of anti-racism,” which should be understood as a “new term for racism.” Katz authored a “mild" response, which he still defends in full. The particularly controversial statement referred to the Black Justice League, which went defunct in 2017, as “a small local terrorist organization.” Many media organizations had mistakenly characterized Katz as attacking students, but the members of the Black Justice League had all graduated when Katz published his letter. 

After public criticism from the University President Christopher Eisgruber, Katz was “a condemned man, reviled by nearly everyone” in the classics “academic orbit,” he recalled.

In Katz’s words, after a seven-month-long investigation that began immediately after Katz published his dissent, two student journalists published “a revolting piece of yellow journalism filled with untruths and malicious innuendoes,” which disclosed his teacher-student affair that occurred over a decade earlier, a relationship which Katz had already been punished for with a one-year suspension without pay. The administration reopened the case and conducted a fourteen-month-long investigation in “kangaroo proceedings.” The administration doctored a quote of Katz’s and presented him to the freshman class as “the prime example of Princeton evil.” In May, Katz’s tenure was revoked and he was fired. Katz argued that his “sin” was “only against Princeton’s rules,” not the law nor Title IX, and that he was subjected to an “obvious double jeopardy.”

He stressed his “culpability” because “no one should wish to live in a world in which only the putatively pure are free to speak their mind.” Katz affirmed he “lost no friends” when the affair was made public because “every last person who stopped speaking to me” had already done so after the “dissent.” However, Katz emphasized he does not regret publishing his letter, and he only “regret[s] not speaking up sooner.” Katz urged that “If I could be vocal, despite being a flawed and unusually conflict-averse person, so can pretty much everyone, so can you.”

Katz shifted to talk about the resulting “good,” including his “great new job” at the American Enterprise Institute where he can “bring about change in ways [he] could not have done” while in the “Ivory Tower.” Katz is “thankful on a daily basis” that he is “no longer a member of what can no longer be called a functional community” replete with “intolerant students, professors who think education is activism, and hordes of minor but powerful administrators who have no business being anywhere near an education institution.” Katz expressed gratitude for his “terrific” wife, Solveig Gold ’17, who recently announced that she is pregnant, and now he has “true friends.”

Katz addressed solutions for reforming academia. He applauded the organizations dedicated to improving free speech on campuses, as well as development of “alternative outlets for expression,” such as “Substacks and podcasts.” Katz encouraged attendees to “choose the group or groups you like and get to work,” either by “throw[ing] yourself whole-heartedly” into one or “giv[ing] as much as you can” to many.

When offering advice to those facing cancellation, Katz suggested “if you make a mistake, apologize,” but “if your so-called mistake is nothing more than speaking your mind, do not apologize… never, ever apologize.”

Katz stated “many” of his former colleagues are “truly horrible people” and if he was “as horrible as they are, I could dish up serious dirt on dozens of them.” Katz was astounded by “the willingness of deeply flawed people to be mendaciously merciless towards others while acting as though they themselves were invincible, honest actors.” Katz concluded by saying “this is war, and our job is to vanquish them.”