Penn Law School is considering sanctions against Amy Wax — whose anti-Asian comments sparked national scrutiny — after a letter from the Philadelphia City Council urged Penn to review her role within the University.
The bipartisan letter, signed by 16 out of 17 City Council members, was sent on Jan. 10 to Penn President Amy Gutmann, Penn Law School Dean Theodore Ruger, Board of Trustees Chair Scott Bok, Vice Chair Lee Spelman Doty, as well as Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. The letter criticizes Wax, who is a tenured University professor, for making generalizations that are “a betrayal of the prestigious platform granted to faculty of an Ivy-League university.”
Reforming tenure policy has become a focus in efforts to hold Wax accountable. Wax's status as a tenured faculty member at Penn Law provides her the academic freedom to voice her views, according to a statement by Ruger on Jan. 3.
“Tenured academics are rightfully granted significant latitude and independence in their work,” the letter reads. “These protections, however, are not without limitations.”
A spokesperson for Penn Law said Ruger was weighing sanctions against Wax.
“University rules require that any sanction on a faculty member, whether major or minor, must go through a process that involves Faculty Senate authority, and cannot be made by a dean or other administrator unilaterally,” a Penn Law spokesperson wrote in a statement to the Daily Pennsylvanian. “Dean Ruger is carefully considering all aspects of that process and our community will be the first to know of more specific action.”
In an emailed comment to the DP, Penn Law School Associate Dean for Equity & Justice Arlene Rivera Finkelstein wrote that it is important for institutions to “continuously examine long-standing policies to ensure they do not codify implicit bias or systemic inequity.”
City Councilmember At-Large and 1993 College graduate Helen Gym, who signed the council letter, wrote to the DP that the University would already be taking disciplinary action against Wax if its commitment to equity was genuine. She wrote that Penn’s lack of public action demonstrates “tolerance and complicity.”
Gym went on to write that she has had frequent discussions with her daughter, a first-year at Penn, about the University’s “disappointing” response and how the issue goes beyond Wax’s comments.
“[Asian American and Pacific Islander] students and faculty have had to fight the administration for recognition of basic things like Asian American studies to greater investments in support and mentorship of AAPI students — especially recent immigrant and first-generation AAPIs,” Gym wrote.
If Penn does not respond, City Councilmember At-Large David Oh, who organized the Council’s letter, And District Two City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who signed the letter, said the City Council will continue to pressure the University to do so.
“As a graduate of Penn but most importantly as a human being, as an African American man and citizen here in the city of Philadelphia, I believe that the University should do all they can within their power to make sure that [Wax] clearly understands that hate speech is not academic freedom,” Johnson, who holds a master’s degree from Penn’s Fels Institute of Government, told the DP.
Oh said on Jan. 11 that he had received approximately 1,600 favorable responses since he shared the letter on Instagram.
“What we're calling into question is the University of Pennsylvania and how it sees its role in providing Professor Wax this prestigious platform, which seems to be the only reason why she is being encouraged and allowed to make statements far outside of her area of expertise,” Oh said.
Oh added that Penn’s lack of response to Wax’s continued controversial remarks demonstrates what the University deems important. He said that Wax’s history of generalizations about different races and ethnicities promotes hate “that is often manifested in physical violence.”
Wax’s most recent comments come amid a 73% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020, according to FBI data.
Pennsylvania State Senator and 1999 Penn Law Graduate Sharif Street, who is running for the U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary, joined several other state senators and Philadelphia NAACP President Catherine Hicks at a press conference outside Penn Law School on Jan. 13, where they called on the University to remove Wax’s tenure protection.
As pressure grows on Penn to hold Wax accountable, faculty members and students have joined the city in condemning her remarks.
School of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty denounced Wax in a statement emailed Friday to SAS and College students and faculty.
“The School emphatically condemns these remarks, as it does all racism and xenophobia,” Fluharty wrote.
In a Jan. 12 statement condemning Wax, Penn’s Task Force on Support to Asian and Asian-American Students and Scholars also called for greater AAPI investment and encouraged community members to share their perspectives on how to improve AAPI experiences on campus. The University established TAASS in April 2020 due to an increase in anti-Asian discrimination resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Asian Pacific Student Coalition, an alliance of AAPI student groups at Penn, also called on the University to launch an investigation into Wax’s employment.
A representative for the Penn Law South Asian Law Students Association wrote to the DP that the organization supports the council’s letter. SALSA previously urged the University to hold Wax accountable in a joint statement with the Penn Law Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and several co-signing Penn Law organizations.
Additionally, over 2,000 people have signed a student-created petition calling on Penn to suspend Wax and reform the University's tenure policy.
In a comment emailed to the DP, Penn Law professor Anita Allen also criticized Wax’s comments. She said that she felt Wax’s sentiments were insulting and unethical.
“I am saddened and appalled by Prof. Wax’s comments — sad for the students of Penn Law, who deserve the best teachers, not the ones capable of getting the most attention for the worst insults, and appalled by the lack of ethical care, compassion and concern repeatedly exhibited by someone paid to be a role model and colleague.”
Perelman Research Assistant professor Kushol Gupta, the son of immigrants from India, said that the evolving national dialogue about diversity, equity, and inclusion should push Penn to take more action than it has after previous controversies generated by Wax’s statements.
“It's important, more so now, that the University community's values are front and center, not just in terms of statements and so forth, but also concrete actions,” Gupta said.