Darkness at Penn

Last year I wrote about the academic tempest aroused by Professors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander in “That which must not be said.” They aroused the tempest with this Philadelphia Inquirer column recapitulating a few home truths.

Professor Wax is the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She earned an M.D. degree from Harvard in addition to her J.D. degree from Columbia Law School. She holds an endowed chair at the law school. She must be one of the most prominent members of the faculty. I’m thinking she doesn’t need much in the way of instruction from her students or from her colleagues, for that matter.

Yet they have freely offered it, though the instruction was limited almost entirely to instruction to confess her thoughtcrime. Heather Mac Donald reviewed the unedifying response to Professor Wax’s column at the time in detail for National Review.

Professor Wax herself looked back on the response to her column in the Imprimis essay adapted from a speech she gave at Hillsdale College. Professor Wax’s Imprimis essay is “Are we free to discuss America’s real problems?” Hillsdale, it should be noted, is one campus on which home truths can still be thought, uttered, and even advocated in the spirit of free inquiry. That’s why Hillsdale invited Professor Wax to speak about her experience.

The Wall Street Journal picked up Professor Wax’s Imprimis essay last month. The Journal published it under the heading “What can’t be debated on campus” (behind the Journal’s subscription paywall, but, unlike the Imprimis version, including the relevant links). Among other things, the Journal’s version of Professor Wax’s essay added this paragraph with an update that was missing from Imprimis:

As for Penn, the calls to action against me continue. My law school dean recently asked me to take a leave of absence next year and to cease teaching a mandatory first-year course. He explained that he was getting “pressure” to banish me for my unpopular views and hoped that my departure would quell the controversy. 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.”

Penn disputed that Professor Wax had been asked to take a leave next year. The linked article reflected no dispute with Professor Wax’s account of the quoted explanation offered Professor Wax by the “pluralistic dean.”

Heather Mac Donald has returned to consider the Wax affair in the City Journal column “Deep freezing the truth at Penn” (“A distinguished law professor is publicly shamed for pointing out truths about race preferences”). Mark Bauerlein addresses the Wax affair in the Weekly Standard column “Saying the unsayable.” These columns offer valuable reflections on what is to be learned from the ongoing scandal. Paul Mirengoff updated the story in “Amy Wax barred from teaching mandatory first-year class at Penn Law.”

Professor Wax herself reflected further on the meaning of her experience in the Wall Street Journal column “The university of denial” (behind the Journal’s paywall). Here is the conclusion of Professor Wax’s column:

The mindset that values openness understands that the truth can be inconvenient and uncomfortable, doesn’t always respect our wishes, and sometimes hurts. Good feelings and reality don’t always mix. But there is a price to be paid for putting the quest for psychological comfort over openness on matters central to how our society is organized. While some people benefit from the favored view, others lose out. People accused of bigotry and discrimination—claims that are more pervasive than ever—are understandably unhappy about being deprived of the ability to defend themselves by pointing to alternative reasons for group differences. Hoarding and hiding information relevant to such differences, which amounts to predetermining a verdict of “guilty as charged,” violates basic principles of fair play and gives rise to justified resentment.

Universities, like other institutions, scheme relentlessly to keep such facts from view. Yet although the culture war is now tilted against those accused of discrimination, politics persists, and frustration tells at the ballot box. The deeper price is that people come to believe that truth yields to power, and that political pressure should be brought to bear to avoid inconvenient realities.

Some in this camp claim benign motives. They seek to safeguard the feelings of those who might be distressed by public knowledge. One can argue about when, how and in what form the disclosure will best balance personal privacy and our society’s need to know. But when facts are concealed, they do not change. They have consequences whether or not we are prepared to face them.

That belief that political force determines objective reality has characterized totalitarian regimes world-wide and throughout history—regimes that are responsible for untold amounts of human misery. That mindset is dangerously inconsistent with the kind of free society Americans have painstakingly built and defended over many centuries, at the cost of blood and treasure. Perhaps we no longer want such a society. But we relinquish it at our peril.

Professor Wax’s column could aptly be titled Darkness at Penn, but the darkness has descended on campuses and other outposts where liberals hold sway all over the United States.

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