Academic Freedom Alliance Letter to the University of Pennsylvania

Glenn Loury hosted Amy Wax, University of Pennsylvania law professor, on his podcast in December 2021. Wax argued for more strict immigration policies and that America should admit fewer people from Asian countries. Wax responded to the listener by writing a detailed response. The university was prompted to discipline Wax. Student petitions called for the reform of Wax’s tenure system, if needed to fire her. Local politicians called for her firing, arguing that tenure and academic freedom did not provide protection against hate speech.

These controversies are not unique to Wax. Her public assertions (also heard on Glenn Loury’s podcast) that Penn students weren’t performing well in first year classes led to her being removed as a teacher. She spoke at the National Conservatism Conference in 2019 arguing for the restriction of immigration to the United States to those who are from the “European and First World”. She was fired, but I countered that she had violated academic freedom principles.

Last weekend, Academic Freedom Alliance addressed a letter to University of Pennsylvania’s leaders urging them not to bend their established rules in order to sanction Wax for speaking out against constitutionally-protected speech. In the letter, I wrote:

The university’s call to Professor Wax to be taken to court is clearly threatening her freedom to speak. This is what the American Association of University Professors refers to as “extramural speech.” Extramural speech, which is protected as a form of freedom to express oneself, can only be done. Professes who speak and write “as citizens” should not face institutional censorship. According to the AAUP, the controlling principle states that a faculty member can express his or her opinion in a manner similar to a citizen. However, it cannot be grounds for dismissal if the statement clearly demonstrates his/her unfitness to hold the position. The University of Pennsylvania explicitly endorses these principles in Article 11 of the Statutes of the Trustees.

The entire article can be found here.

It is sometimes necessary to defend the rights of academic freedom principles speakers from saying things I disagree with. This is definitely the case. However, universities could be forced to discipline faculty members for speaking out against the wishes of political leaders and create exceptions to academic freedom protections that allow speech to be deemed hateful. This would make professors on all political sides more susceptible to being disciplined and terminated. University officials could use this reduced academic freedom protections as leverage to remove controversial professors if necessary, whether it be from activists, students or politicians. This wider context is highlighted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in their statement about the Wax situation.

Wax has been informed by the dean of law school that she will face disciplinary proceedings that may lead to her dismissal. Penn needs to be ready to fight. I believe she will defend herself strongly.