On August 9, 2017, Amy Wax, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, co-wrote and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer an opinion piece titled “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeoisie culture.” The article, which calls the culture of “some working-class whites,” “inner-city blacks,” and “some Hispanic immigrants” unsuitable for a First World country, brought attention to Wax’s history of allegedly racist and classist opinions. After a video resurfaced in which she claimed African American students rarely graduate in the top half of their class, Penn Law announced Wax would no longer teach any required courses for first-year students.
Amy Wax is the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She has tenure at the university, and has been affiliated with Penn Law since 2001. She received a bachelor’s degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale in 1975, was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, and earned a medical degree from Harvard in 1981 and a law degree from Columbia in 1987. She was a law professor at the University of Virginia before moving to Penn, and has argued 15 cases before the US Supreme Court.
Ted Ruger is dean of Penn Law, where he is also the Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law. His expertise includes health law, legislation, constitutional law, and food and drug regulation.
Paul Levy is a 1972 Penn Law graduate. He chaired the law school’s Board of Overseers from 2001 to 2007, and later resigned from that board and the university’s Board of Trustees after Wax was removed from teaching first-year classes.
Wax’s opinions have sparked debate on multiple occasions. In 2005, she wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) called “Some Truths About Black Disadvantage,” in which she employs laws of reverse causation to argue that black people are responsible for overcoming the disadvantages that have resulted from centuries of racism. According to The Daily Pennsylvanian (DP), the op-ed received criticism from the Black Law Students Association when it was published.
The next year, Wax was criticized by colleagues for publicly supporting a study titled, “Ten Principles on Marriage and the Public Good.” The report itself was sponsored by an independent research center called the Witherspoon Institute. According to the DP, “The report links the decline of marriage to widening socioeconomic gaps.” The report also states “that marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman—and that any other family structures only function to weaken traditional marriage.” While Wax claimed she did not support all of the ideas set forth in the document, she supported it as a valid and important opposition to the widely accepted view in academia.
In 2009, she published a book called Race, Wrongs and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century. Throughout it, according to the Amazon synopsis, “She argues that effectively addressing today’s persistent racial disparities requires dispelling the confusion surrounding blacks’ own role in achieving equality.”
Wax was met with protest in 2013 when she gave a lecture at Middlebury College, called “Diverging Family Structure by Class and Race: Economic Hardship, Moral Deregulation or Something Else?” The lecture hall in which she spoke was filled beyond capacity, without even standing room remaining. She spoke for 40 minutes before engaging in a heated question-and-answer session. According to a Middlebury Campus article, “Wax presented aggregate data on diverging family values focusing on differences in birth rates of children born out of wedlock and overall marriage rates between whites and non-whites that she argues is caused by ‘differences in decision making style by class and race’ and post 1960s ‘moral deregulation.’”
Following publication of the Inquirer article in August 2017, Wax gave an interview to the DP in which she defended her sentiments. Wax espoused the view that “not all cultures are created equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy,” and lamented the disintegration of the bourgeois culture that reigned in the mid-twentieth century. Wax told the DP, “I don’t shrink from the word, ‘superior’” when describing the value of what she calls Anglo-Protestant ideals. However, according to the DP, she insisted she was not suggesting the superiority of white people specifically, claiming, “Bourgeois values aren’t just for white people.”
After the publication of “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeoisie culture,” Penn Law spokesperson Steven Barnes released a statement saying, “The views expressed in the article are those of the individual authors. They are not a statement of Penn Law’s values or institutional policies.” Thirty-three Penn Law professors also protested Wax’s views, publishing a guest column in the DP. Addressing their letter to the University of Pennsylvania community, they “categorically reject[ed] Wax’s claims.”
Amid the controversy over Wax’s op-ed on bourgeois culture, a video from September 2017 resurfaced and exacerbated the situation. In an interview with Brown University Professor Glenn Loury, Wax said, “Here’s a very inconvenient fact, Glenn: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely, in the top half. I can think of one or two students who scored in the top half of my required first-year course,” reported The Washington Post. The interview was titled “The Downside to Social Uplift.”
Dean Ted Ruger contradicted Wax’s claims in an email to the DP, confirming that, in fact, “Black students have graduated in the top of the class at Penn Law.” He also affirmed her right to speak her mind, while criticizing her decision to speak openly about her students’ performance in the classroom: “As a scholar she is free to advocate her views, no matter how dramatically those views diverge from our institutional ethos and our considered practices. As a teacher, however, she is not free to transgress the policy that student grades are confidential, or to use her access to those Penn Law students who are required to be in her class to further her scholarly ends without students’ permission.”
After receiving backlash from her op-ed about bourgeois culture, Wax penned another for the Wall Street Journal, titled “What Can’t Be Debated on Campus.” In it she expressed disappointment with what she perceives as a dearth of “civil discourse” and Free Speech on college campuses.
Wax will no longer teach required first year courses
Despite Wax’s claim in a WSJ op-ed that Ruger had asked her to take a leave of absence, spokesperson Barnes confirmed that her tenured position at the university is secure. He said she would be teaching again in the fall semester of 2018. However, Wax will no longer teach in the first-year curriculum, reported the DP. Instead she will teach a full course load of electives, while retaining her tenure and salary.
Penn trustee emeritus and law school overseer resigns
On April 6, Emeritus Trustee Paul Levy sent his three-page resignation letter to Penn President Amy Gutmann, with a copy to the DP. It says, in part, “Preventing Wax from teaching first-year students doesn’t right academic or social wrongs. Rather, you are suppressing what is crucial to the liberal educational project: open, robust and critical debate over differing views of important social issues.” By April 9, Levy was no longer listed as a member of Penn’s Board of Trustees or a member of the Penn Law Board of Overseers, the DP reported.
Wax awarded for academic courage
On April 12 in New York City, Wax was presented with the Peter Shaw Memorial Award for her academic courage and “remarkable service” by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative advocacy group that fights what it regards as liberal bias in academia. The award is typically given to a person who has demonstrated academic freedom through “exemplary writing on issues pertaining to higher education and American intellectual culture,” according to the NAS website. Peter Wood, president of NAS, told the DP that the criteria for the award were marginally changed to include academic courage. After being presented with the award, Wax gave a speech to about 100 listeners, who, the DP reported, were overwhelmingly positive in their reaction.
Prepared by Bridget McElroy ‘18
Uploaded May 15, 2018