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March 14, 2018

Tenured Penn Law professor's duties pared after belittling remarks about black students

Amy Wax gets to keep her full salary

Controversy Penn Law
University of Pennsylvania campus Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice Staff

The Quadrangle at the University of Pennsylvania.

A professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School has been relieved of some teaching duties after making disparaging public statements about the school’s black students, according to a report.

Amy Wax, who is a tenured Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at Penn, participated in a video interview with economist and Brown University professor Glenn Loury published in September 2017, which has recently resurfaced. In the video, around the 49-minute mark, Wax discusses affirmative action policies at Penn Law, saying:

“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 first half of my required first-year Civil Procedure course.

“Well, what are we supposed to do about that? You’re putting in front of this person a real uphill battle. And if they were better matched, it might be a better environment for them. That’s the mismatch hypothesis, of course. We’re not saying they shouldn’t go to college – we’re not saying that. Some of them shouldn’t.”

She goes on to say that the Penn Law Review has a diversity mandate, which would seem to imply that black students who receive the distinction of Law Review are actually at the bottom of their classes.

The comments gave way to a petition calling for Wax’s removal from, in the least, teaching first-year students and from the Penn Clerkship Committee.

On Tuesday afternoon, Penn Law Dean Theodore Ruger addressed the controversy in an email to students and faculty, emphasizing that Wax’s statements are inaccurate. The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at Penn, first reported the news.

“Black students have graduated in the top of the class at Penn Law, and the Law Review does not have a diversity mandate,” Ruger wrote. “Rather, its editors are selected based on a competitive process.”

As for Wax’s role at Penn Law, she has been outed from teaching any mandatory first-year curriculum, the DP reported. She will be relegated only to teach classes in her areas of expertise.

“In light of Professor Wax’s statements, black students assigned to her class in their first week at Penn Law may reasonably wonder whether their professor has already come to a conclusion about their presence, performance, and potential for success in law school and thereafter,” Ruger wrote.

“More broadly, this dynamic may negatively affect the classroom experience for all students regardless of race or background.”

He goes on to say, “This curricular decision entails no sanction or diminution of Professor Wax’s status on the faculty, which remains secure.” Her tenured status means her salary and seniority, NBC10 notes, are unchanged.

Wax’s video with Loury is not the first time her comments have caused outrage and controversy. 

In August, Philly.com published an opinion piece co-written by Wax titled, “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture,” which argued, in part, that the opioid epidemic, unemployment, children born out of wedlock, and homicidal violence are all related to the deterioriation of the 1940s and '50s way of life. The editorial sparked criticism for its suggestion of returning to conventions of a time period wherein the rights of minorities and women were severely limited.

In the editorial, different cultures in America are also addressed, including single-parent working-class white families, rap culture of “inner-city blacks,” and “anti-assimilation ideas” among Hispanic immigrants.

“These cultural orientations ... are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all,” the article states.

Last month, Wax wrote another opinion piece, this time for the Wall Street Journal, saying Penn asked her to go on sabbatical when her Philly.com article was published.

Wax has not yet made any public statement regarding Penn’s decision.

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