Tenured Princeton professor fired following repeat sexual misconduct investigation, political motivations for the action alleged

Princeton University | source: Ken Lund

A tenured professor was fired by Princeton University, supposedly for not cooperating fully with a sexual misconduct investigation, according to the university. But many asserted that he was actually being punished for publicly criticizing a set of faculty proposals that aimed to address racism at the highly regarded Ivy League institution. 

Key Player

Joshua Katz, formerly the Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Classics at Princeton University, taught courses on ancient Greek and linguistics from 1998 to 2021. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, a master’s from Oxford University, and a doctorate from Harvard University. His honors include a Marshall Scholarship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and many teaching awards. 

Further Details

Between 2006 and 2007, Katz engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with a then-undergraduate advisee, a violation of faculty policy, both then and in 2022. 

The former undergraduate, whom The Daily Princetonian refers to only as Jane, did not report the incident at the time, but came forward more than a decade later, in a 2018 complaint, spurring a disciplinary investigation of Katz. After admitting to the relationship, he was suspended without pay for the 2018-19 academic year, and was placed on probation for three years upon his return. 

In February 2021, having interviewed 18 graduates and faculty members who agreed to comment, The Princetonian reported on new details supplied by Jane that were unknown in 2018, drawing renewed scrutiny of Katz with a second university investigation. 

According to The Washington Post, witnesses alleged that Katz dissuaded Jane from participating in the initial 2018 investigation. He was also accused of discouraging Jane from seeking counseling through the university health services, in an effort to prevent Princeton from learning more about his behavior. 

As the new developments emerged, Katz issued a public apology posted by Princetonians for Free Speech, an organization founded by alumni “with the mission of promoting free speech and academic freedom at Princeton.” 

“When I was a young professor, I had a relationship with a student that violated the University’s rules. It was a consensual relationship. It did not involve — nor has anyone ever suggested that it involved — any coercion, harassment, or quid pro quo. Nonetheless, it was wrong, and I am ashamed of my past conduct,” Katz wrote, adding that he had been “held accountable by the University.”

For the second inquiry, more letters were supplied as evidence, and Jane was more involved. The Princetonian reported eight graduates corroborated that “Katz engaged in a romantic relationship with their friend” and three of the eight said Jane “told them Katz had sex with her.” Two other unnamed female students asserted that Katz had behaved inappropriately with them. 

Separate from these allegations, Katz was also the subject of contemporary criticism. 

On July 8, 2020, Katz wrote an article for Quillette, an Australia-based online magazine that “focuses on long-form analysis and cultural commentary. The publication describes itself as “politically non-partisan,” but guided by “reason, science, and humanism.” Entitled “A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor,” Katz’s article critiqued a faculty letter released four days prior, about six weeks after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. 

The faculty letter proposed various measures to address allegations of racism at Princeton, which included hiring more faculty of color; elevating faculty of color to prominent leadership roles; use admissions as a tool of anti-racism; establish a core distribution requirement on the history and legacy of racism; and “reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary,” among other suggestions.

Katz voiced support for many of the proposals, including financial benefits for new assistant professors, expanded application fee waivers, and increased transparency on hiring, promotion, tenure, and retention.  His responses to other suggestions, such as the idea of anti-racist campus iconography and a core distribution requirement on slavery were more negative; he complained they “would lead to civil war on campus and erode further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.” 

Many later condemned Katz’s characterization of the Black Justice League, a campus group active from 2014 to 2016, as “a small local terrorist organization.”   

In response, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), a federation of 79 scholarly organizations that provides support to scholars in the humanities and social sciences at all stages of their careers, revoked a delegate invitation to Katz, The Princetonian reported. Delegate invitations are extended by each of the 79 societies that appoint a scholar to represent them at various ACLS meetings.

On March 5, 2021, Katz filed a federal lawsuit against the ACLS, alleging that its “viewpoint discrimination” led to “substantial damage, lessened his reputation, and reduced his potential for future advancement.” Seven months later, the suit was dismissed, as U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson, who had been nominated by former President Jimmy Carter, found it did not meet the necessary standards for jurisdiction in federal court in New Jersey. 

Thompson wrote that a federal court in New Jersey had “jurisdiction over parties to the extent provided under New Jersey state law.” But since ACLS was headquartered in New York, Thompson noted that non-resident defendants had to have “certain minimum contacts” with New Jersey. According to Thompson, Katz failed to establish “continuing relationships and obligations with citizens of another state” to meet that standard. 


Katz fired in light of second investigation

On May 10, 2022, Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton, recommended Katz be removed from his tenured position, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

On May 23, the university stated, “Effective immediately … the Board voted to dismiss Dr. Katz on the recommendation of the University President and Dean of Faculty, after a review of the extensive record by an ad hoc committee of the Board appointed.” 

The statement cited the second university investigation, following “a detailed written complaint from an alumna who had a consensual relationship with Dr. Katz while she was an undergraduate under his academic supervision.” It called attention to “new issues that came to light because of new information provided by the former student.” 

The statement further said Katz “misrepresented facts or failed to be straightforward during the 2018 proceeding, including a successful effort to discourage the alumna from participating.”  

Katz speaks with National Review, lashes out in article for The Wall Street Journal

On May 23, 2022, after speaking with Katz, National Review reported that he had learned of his firing “only after the New York Times called his wife,” because his termination notice was sent to the wrong email. 

The next day, Katz responded to the controversies with an article  in The Journal titled “Princeton Fed Me to the Cancel Culture Mob,” arguing that his firing was politically motivated and citing his past critiques of the “state of America,” where “certain opinions (that) would have been considered normal only a few months earlier suddenly became anathema.” 

Katz also shared grievances about The Princetonian’s reporting about him and accused the graduate at the center of the allegations against him of providing the university with “decontextualized emails.” 

Katz’s wife speaks out in support of her husband 

Solveig Gold responded to the incident with an article published in support of her husband. Their relationship and significant age gap has been of interest to some critics of Katz. 

Gold, Princeton ’17 and also a former student of Katz’s, said she had sat in on his courses in April of 2012, prior to her time as a student at the university. She stated her early admiration stemmed from his ability to “bring out the best in me as a student and scholar.”

After graduating, Gold attended graduate school abroad and dated others at Cambridge University. She said that, in the midst of these relationships, she sent an article to Katz. His letter in response sparked a relationship, and the two met in Paris. They purchased a home together in March 2019, were engaged in December 2019, and wed in July of 2021. 

On the 2020 article and later firing, Gold described the popularity of Katz with anecdotes of his positive influence on past students and she emphasized his character. The renewed investigation meant “Joshua was now a pariah” to the Princeton community, and she contended that the “university disingenuously used a handful of cherry-picked email exchanges to find ‘new’ grounds to punish Joshua.”

“I am proud to be married to a man who owned up to his one big mistake and repented for it,” she said, ending on the note that the decision tells others, “step out of line politically, and we will find a way to bring you down.”

Numerous newspapers, interest groups, and others voice solidarity with Katz 

After Katz’s firing, many expressed support for him in the form of letters and columns, including The New York Times, The Journal, Newsweek, PEN America, The New York Post, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), and the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). Objections to Princeton’s actions, while varied, centered around concerns over academic freedom and ideological homogeneity. 

The NAS stated, “Princeton fired Katz pretextually,” attributing motive to “the timing of the public campaign against Katz, and Princeton’s decision to fire the sole open critic of Princeton’s radical dogma” for arguing against “ideological conformity.” 

Similarly, the WSWS said the firing was “an anti-democratic action and an attack on academic freedom and free speech,” arguing, “whatever his own political views, there is no question but that Katz had the right to his opinion about the faculty letter.”

“I am both angry and heartbroken,” Katz told The Times

The Princetonian criticizes The Times and The Journal

Amidst a  flurry of responses, The Princetonian condemned The Times and The Journal for giving “credence to Katz’s narrative of a conspiracy to fire him” because of his Quillette article, accusing both outlets of misrepresenting the truth. 

“The real (and far more interesting) story is of a University president whose sincere desire to protect free speech on campus was stymied by a professor who had a relationship with an undergraduate advisee,” The Princetonian wrote, making reference to Eisgruber’s past and vocal commitments to Free Speech. “Instead of telling those stories, the Times and the Journal resort to the stereotype of the left-wing cancel culture mob.” 

The Princetonian also accused The Times and The Journal of not doing enough due diligence. “This mistake could have been avoided if the media giants had bothered to show evidence of talking to a single student in the process of writing their articles,” and, “If you care about free speech, this faulty narrative must be rejected,” the student newspaper said.

Prospect of legal action unclear

As of June 28, 2022, it was unclear if Katz will seek a legal remedy. 

Katz’s lawyer, Samantha Harris, a 1999 Princeton graduate, a former student of his, and a former staff member of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has reportedly represented him since July 2020. Several outlets have quoted her stating that all options for further legal action were being considered. 

Speaking in defense of Katz, Harris said, “The message to other people who might want to speak out is the price is having your personal life turned inside-out looking for information to destroy you … from the moment he published that article onward he became a relentless target until he was fired.”

Andrew Napolitano, a columnist and former New Jersey Superior Court Judge, told Newsweek that Katz had a strong legal case. 

“The law in New Jersey requires private schools disciplining faculty members to follow basic due process. Punishing Prof. Katz again for a matter for which he has already been punished is an egregious violation of the law,” Napolitano said.