Guilt by Association and the Shunning of Amy Wax

Amy Wax, a tenured law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a nationally renowned thorn in the side of the academic establishment.  She is well known on the public speaking circuit and regularly appears on conservative media outlets, where her unvarnished criticism of American higher education plays well to its detractors.  After years of controversy, Theodore Ruger, dean of the law school at Penn, has apparently had enough and has called upon Vivian Gadsden, chair of the faculty senate, to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Wax.

I will leave it to others to weigh the veracity of the claims raised in the dean’s complaint, as well as what sanctions if any should be imposed on Wax.  Even so, one of the accusations against her stands out as troubling on its face, not because of what she is alleged to have done, but because of its focus on guilt by association.  Allegedly, Wax invited a white supremacist to speak to one of her classes, though details of the event are limited.  Absent further context, this particular charge should send a chill down the spine of every academic who cares about unfettered inquiry.

Across every nook and cranny of the social and biological sciences, scholars concern themselves with the study of deviancy, and it is often of paramount importance to the advancement of their disciplines.  Law schools, in particular, train graduates for careers in dealing with social deviancy, including through legal defense of the deviant.  Are we to believe that their moral sensitivities will never be offended by those with whom they interact in the practice of law?  Further, on what basis is the faculty host accountable for anything that comes out of a guest speaker’s mouth, especially outside the context of the speaking engagement?  What next?  Will medical educators be held accountable for the prior misdeeds of the cadavers?

Even as an undergraduate student, I understood the distinction between interrogation of ideas and endorsement of them, as well as the distinction between character and intellect.  In my sociology courses, I recall listening to accounts of the lived experiences of guest speakers whose values, beliefs, and behaviors placed them decidedly at the margins of society.  These were, in fact, some of the most interesting class sessions I had ever experienced, as evidenced by the fact that I still remember them 40 years later.  Even if I had been deeply upset by the content of those discussions, which I was not, it would have never occurred to me to infer that my course instructors endorsed anything that the guest speakers said, much less that the presenters spoke for our small, conservative, church-affiliated, Midwestern college.

If faculty are to be held accountable for the utterances of the guest speakers that they invite to campus, possibly at the expense of their livelihood, why would any of them take that risk?  On the other hand, maybe that is the point.  In presenting the various allegations against Wax, Ruger did not limit himself to Wax’s activities at Penn, but instead cited offensive speech in the course of her appearances in other forums as well.  In combination with the complaint about her own guest speaker, might references to Wax’s comments in other academic settings have actually been intended as a dog whistle to would-be hosts and to the leaders of their respective institutions, subtly alerting them to the perils of falling in with the wrong company?

This is where the issue becomes more personal for me.  About four years ago, Wax came to speak on our campus, at the invitation of a now defunct student organization.  Even before she arrived, the event became a source of controversy on campus, as some faculty were concerned that her endorsement of “bourgeois culture” would be perceived as hostile toward some of the students enrolled at our humble institution.  It is my understanding that my academic department initially committed to co-sponsoring the event, but subsequently withdrew its support, amidst pressure from opposing activists, though I have no recollection of any discussion of the matter.

All this is to say that I had nothing to do with the event.  In fact, I did not even attend it.  Nevertheless, after I subsequently became affiliated with a completely different on-campus organization, whose mission is distinct from that of the aforementioned student group, other faculty affiliates and I were wrongfully smeared as racist, with our alleged endorsement of Wax’s lecture held up as supporting evidence.

If my posture seems overly defensive, even in offering the measured support for Wax that I have presented here, rest assured that I am not alone in my reticence.  Ruger’s allusions to guilt by association will likely inhibit support for Wax, even at the farthest periphery of the controversy.  As for the reaction on her own campus, my ducking and covering has nothing on that of Jonathan Zimmerman, a faculty colleague of Wax’s, whom she has described as “a free expression advocate, and against cancellation.”  In response to a plea from Wax for support, he recently posted a commentary on Inside Higher Ed, in which he eventually got around to saying all the right things about freedom of expression and academic freedom, but only after stating that “for the record, [he had] met Wax exactly once and [had] emailed with her a handful of times.”  For good measure, he also offered a strongly worded preemptive condemnation of her alleged actions, mercifully conditioned on their verification.

Zimmerman and I do not speak for the entire professoriate, but our cautious responses to the accusations against Wax are characteristic of how organizational shunning discourages bystander opposition to academic mobbing, and none of this bodes well for Wax’s future at Penn.  Whereas neither Zimmerman nor I face the intensity of social pressure that will likely befall participants in the on-campus committee proceedings against Wax, what are the chances that a majority of her colleagues will stand firm in defense of both her freedom and ultimately their own?  Will even those with quivering voices raise them in her defense or is she destined to walk alone?

Image: Universityof Pennsylvania

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