Why Is Princeton Silent?

One particularly despicable element of the Joshua Katz saga at Princeton is the reaction of his colleagues. I don’t mean the identity politicians on the faculty such as the endlessly self-dramatizing classics professor Dan-El Padilla Peralta, whose willingness to cancel a politically incorrect correct character such as Katz is avid. 

Instead, we have many professors at Princeton who are certainly liberal Democrats but a bit uncomfortable with the expulsion of anyone because of a disagreeable opinion he holds. They don’t like cancellations; their liberalism (in principle) is against it. Some of them, in fact, were friends of Katz before the case blew up. And yet, those friends disappeared as soon as the odor of pariah stuck to him. (See the testimonies of Katz’s mother-in-law and wife.) They avoided him, cut him off, acting with all the collective shunning of a Puritan community in the 17th century. A bare handful of Princeton professors took up his cause as a blatant infringement of academic freedom

As for the rest of our proudly liberal scholars who pledge ever to “speak truth to power” and protect the underdog and the dissident, they stayed silent as church mice. It hurt Katz, who’d been at Princeton for a long time. He had shared experiences and duties and dinners with a lot of them. But that didn’t factor, not after he’d written the Quillette piece. Everything had to change. He’d pushed back too hard, and one doesn’t do that in the 21st century. 

It is, indeed, a national issue. The question applies more widely than the Katz case. It rises up every time we see college leaders cooperate with woke activists in their push for wholly illiberal practices such as segregated graduation ceremonies. It is rare to go a week these days without seeing one more curtailment of the range of permissible belief, and intimidation of those who stray. Why do campus liberals ride so briskly the identity politics waves beating against the individual freedoms academics have long enjoyed? 

It’s a puzzling question—but only to people who haven’t undergone the long, long training by which elite professors landed in the enviable posts that they occupy. When we look at the 45-year-old scholar-teacher with two books and eight articles on his curriculum vitae, a teaching award and two grants, we focus on the achievement, the distinction. The individual comes off as a mighty impressive thinker and researcher. But we overlook something else, something that de-individualizes him but is nonetheless central to his character. 

It has to do with what happened to our professors many years earlier and has been repeated off and on ever since. The reality is this: at every crucial stage of his career from his time as an undergraduate forward, our professor has moved ahead, prospered and shined, because of what others have said of him. The high grades he got as a junior and senior, admission to a top graduate program, acceptance of his thesis, a job offer, publication of his manuscript as a book, tenure review, and onward . . . they depended on the judgment of others. 

In the tenure review, for instance, his existing scholarship and research were sent out to six experts in the subfield who read the work and composed letters of evaluation that made for success or failure. It was the opinion of senior figures that determined just how good he was. What he actually accomplished on his own was only one step in his advancement.

I have attended those meetings and given my own opinion. I’ve read manuscripts for a dozen scholarly presses and a dozen more quarterlies and advised the editors on acceptance or rejection (always waiving confidentiality—I didn’t care if my name was released). That’s how peer review works. We judge the materials and the candidate by objective yardsticks: the quality of the research, the validity of the argumentation, the clarity of the prose, etc. We try to keep the personal and the political out of it, or at least many of us do, including the moderate liberals in the room (it is the hard leftists who make everything political). 

Even when we succeed in being disinterested, however, the candidate can’t keep from realizing that his fate lies in the hands of colleagues. His very value equals what others say about him. It occurs throughout his career, again and again, often enough for him to internalize that external opinion into an inner sense of self. 

Remember, his future is sometimes up in the air. The stakes are high, at tenure time a matter of permanent employment versus no job and no prospects. A little paranoia is natural. To worry about what others will conclude becomes a reflex, an instinct of self-preservation. After a while, academics don’t even think about it. The concern is always there. It pops into their heads every time they have to make a judgment in front of their peers. Be careful—be very careful. 

The Katz situation was a no-brainer. How his peers would react came down to a simple formula: him or me. 

In this hot little enclave of the super-elite, highly-competitive campus, to lose the favorable feelings of one’s fellows was to lose one’s self. I have worked in government and media as well as academia. In school, I worked part time in offices and in child care. None of those workplaces came close to the level of conformity and collective surveillance I found in the ranks of the professoriate. The smartest ones in our society are some of the most frightened, too. 

Outsiders might scoff at the timidity. “What’s the danger?” they ask the senior professors. “Someone might not like you any more? You won’t get invited to a faculty dinner? Your annual salary increase won’t be as high as it should be? Big deal—you’ve got tenure!” 

This charge, however, fails to acknowledge the years of acculturation into other-directed thinking. Academics have done well by playing that game skillfully, keeping within approved lines and reinforcing dogmas and consensus. Doing so has made them successful professors. It’s made them who they are. This isn’t politics—it’s institutional psychology. 

Here is the final irony: Katz’s termination won’t lead them to reconsider their conformity. On the contrary, it will solidify it. To them, Katz isn’t a martyr or a victim, and he’s not a villain or a racist, either. He’s just gone, he’s out, he doesn’t exist anymore. He’s been disappeared. They don’t want to disappear, too. All that matters to his ex-colleagues is whether Katz and every other campus denizen has a valid academic identity, because that’s the only identity that counts. 

Katz was that rare creature able to step outside this crimping formation. Something in his ego recoiled from the dynamic. As the woke tyranny spread throughout academe from 2015 forward, it was probably inevitable that he would hit a saturation point and shout, “Stop!” And the moment he did, it was equally inevitable that friends and colleagues who treated him as a worthy equal for so many years would change their minds. And when those respectable, wary souls retire and reflect back upon their careers, I doubt that they will give a single, brief, wondering second thought to their betrayal. 

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