Months after she sent campus into an uproar with a fiery opinion piece praising "bourgeois culture," Penn Law School professor Amy Wax has divided students and colleagues alike with a familiar weapon: another op-ed piece.
Her new article, titled "What Can't Be Debated on Campus," was published in The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 15 and explores the "unreasoned speech" she encountered in response to her original Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed.
Wax's piece has raised questions about how Penn Law handled the ensuing furor over her controversial opinions and invited rancorous debate from professors and students over her teaching a mandatory, first-year course.
In the op-ed, which Wax adapted from a speech she delivered in December, she accused Dean of Penn Law Theodore Ruger of asking her to "take a leave of absence next year" and stop teaching her civil procedure class, which is required for first-year students.
"When I suggested that it was his job as a leader to resist such illiberal demands, he explained that he is a 'pluralistic dean' who must listen to and accommodate 'all sides,' " Wax wrote.
Penn Law spokesperson Steven Barnes sharply disputed Wax's claim in a statement sent to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
“Professor Wax is a valued member of our faculty and nothing has changed in her status,” Barnes said. He described the conversation with Wax as a “discussion with the dean about the timing of a regularly-accrued sabbatical, a discussion the dean has with many faculty members each year, as every tenured faculty member enjoys a sabbatical benefit, with full pay.”
Wax also took aim at her colleagues, including the group of 33 professors who criticized her in an open letter published in August in the DP. Their piece contained “no argument, no substance, no reasoning, no explanation whatsoever as to how our op-ed was in error," she wrote.
One of the co-writers of the open letter, Penn Law professor Jonah Gelbach, said Wax's piece in the Journal initially omitted the fact that he and another legal scholar wrote extensive rebuttals to Wax in the fall. Gelbach's essay, titled "Facts v. Wax," was published in September and is over 14,000 words long.
"The version of the op-ed that now appears online contains a sentence acknowledging those posts, but only because I shamed a WSJ editor into adding it," he wrote in an email. At the bottom of Wax's article, an addendum now reads, "The essay has been updated to note that two signers of the open letter condemning Ms. Wax’s op-ed later wrote substantive responses to her arguments."
Gelbach also said he sent an early draft of the Heterodox Academy essay to Wax, but she responded by saying that she did not have time to read it. (Wax did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
In addition to openly questioning Ruger's conduct, Wax has also reopened a debate about her fitness to teach a mandatory course for 1Ls, some of whom advocated for her removal.
“A couple weeks before we even got here, she publishes an op-ed openly denigrating cultural backgrounds of students who are then required to take her class,” said Vivek Kembaiyan, a 1L student who sits on the Council of Student Representatives for Penn Law. "Students who’ve had her [are] apprehensive about going to her office hours, or asking for a recommendation, because they come from one of the specific backgrounds that she calls out in her op-ed.”
In the fall, the Penn Black Law Students Association and the Penn chapter of the National Lawyers Guild called on Wax to be barred from teaching the course. B.J. Courville, a 1L student, said she has separately petitioned faculty members to remove Wax from the first-year curriculum as well.
“At the end of the day I deserve the same education and the same safe learning environment as the person next to me, from a strictly economic standpoint,” Courville said.
But months after that debate receded from the minds of many higher education observers, Penn Law students remain divided over Wax's standing.
“There are a lot of times when I find myself at odds with the opinions of my professors,” 3L student Mia Rendar said. “I don’t think it’s right to punish someone for giving an independent opinion."
Other critics who disagree with her argument about bourgeois cultural values have decried the style of ad hominem attacks that refer to her a "Nazi" and a "racist."
"Every open letter you sign to condemn a colleague for his or her words brings us closer to a world in which academic disagreements are resolved by social force and political power, not by argumentation and persuasion," wrote scholar Jon Haidt in an essay defending Wax.
Gelbach and Wax's many intellectual adversaries are not as persuaded.
“Professor Wax isn't entitled a safe-space bubble in which she can express her opinions however she likes without fear of criticism from those whom she angers,” Gelbach wrote.
“Debate comes with a price."
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