There are two schools of thought on why Princeton fired tenured classics professor Joshua Katz in May.
One, from the University’s statement, says that new information emerged about a consensual relationship Katz had with one of his students about 15 years ago. The other headlines articles like one Katz penned in The Wall Street Journal the evening he was let go: “Princeton Fed Me to the Cancel Culture Mob.”
“Whoever you are and whatever your beliefs,” he wrote, “this should terrify you.”
The University says Katz’s firing wasn’t about free speech. Rather, its statement says that the woman Katz was involved with came forward in 2021, after declining to participate in a 2018 investigation that led to Katz’s yearlong suspension. Her decision to speak in 2021 prompted a new investigation that showed Katz “misrepresented facts or failed to be straightforward” in the initial investigation and had discouraged the woman from speaking and from “seeking mental health care although he knew her to be in distress, all in an effort to conceal a relationship he knew was prohibited by University rules,” according to the statement.
But Katz’s supporters trace his firing to 2020, when he wrote an opinion piece on the website Quillette arguing that Princeton faculty members were going too far in their push for anti-racism changes on campus. He was particularly criticized — including by President Eisgruber ’83 — for calling the student-run Black Justice League “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.” Katz says that because he dared to cross the “mob,” The Daily Princetonian began its own investigation. In February 2021, the newspaper published a story citing alumni who accused Katz of inappropriate conduct with female students.
Katz has rejected the assertions that he had discouraged the woman from seeking care and coming forward, writing that she refused “of her own volition.”
“The University’s decision will have a powerful chilling effect on free speech,” Katz’s attorney, Samantha Harris ’99, told The New York Times, “because anyone who might wish to express a controversial opinion knows that they must first ask themselves if their personal life can stand up to the kind of relentless scrutiny that Dr. Katz’s life was subjected to.” Neither Katz nor Harris responded to PAW’s requests for comment.
In an essay published online after Katz’s firing, his wife, Solveig Gold ’17, a senior research assistant in Princeton’s James Madison Program and a classics doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, said the University has subjected him to double jeopardy, punishing him twice for one relationship with a student. She said many have turned on him, but “I am proud to be married to a man who owned up to his one big mistake and repented for it.”
Katz was hired by Princeton in 1998. He was a faculty representative to PAW’s advisory board, with a term set to expire in June 2022.
Eisgruber brought up Katz’s case during his Reunions forum May 21, two days before Katz’s dismissal, saying he couldn’t comment on pending personnel matters but defending Princeton’s approach to free speech. He noted that Princeton has adopted the Chicago Principles, a commitment to free expression, and said he has enforced them “in a number of circumstances involving very uncomfortable speech,” including in a case where a faculty member used the N-word and in conversations about the rights of transgender people.
Eisgruber added that the University has rules for faculty that place restrictions on sexual misconduct. “We take those rules very seriously here, and we believe that a faculty member is bound by those obligations, regardless of how distinguished they may be, and regardless of what their political views may be,” he said.