Five days after its publication, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 joined a growing chorus of faculty, students, and alumni in publicly condemning professor Joshua Katz for a column in which he characterized the Black Justice League (BJL), a student activist group, as a “terrorist organization.”
“While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly,” Eisgruber said in a statement to The Daily Princetonian. “Joshua Katz has failed to do so, and I object personally and strongly to his false description of a Princeton student group as a ‘local terrorist organization.’”
“By ignoring the critical distinction between lawful protest and unlawful violence, Dr. Katz has unfairly disparaged members of the Black Justice League, students who protested and spoke about controversial topics but neither threatened nor committed any violent acts,” Eisgruber added.
University Spokesperson Ben Chang said in a separate statement that the administration “will be looking into the matter further.”
In his column, Katz denounced an open letter, signed by over 350 faculty members and staff, which calls on Eisgruber and other senior administrators to enact 48 anti-racist demands.
The signatories urged the University to “acknowledge and give priority” to a wide range of measures, including formally divesting from prisons and hiring more Black faculty. The letter garnered signatures from professors in 34 of the University’s 36 academic departments, including nine faculty members in the Classics department, where Katz teaches as the Cotsen Professor in the Humanities.
In his column, Katz decried “dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.” As examples, Katz pointed to the signatories’ demand that the University “reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary” and that “faculty of color hired at the junior level should be guaranteed one additional semester of sabbatical.”
Katz’s description of the BJL as a “terrorist organization” followed signatories’ demand that the University “acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism,” specifically “beginning with a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies.”
“The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands,” Katz wrote.
He then compared a recent Instagram live video hosted by a former BJL member to a Maoist “Struggle Session,” writing that the video was “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed.”
According to a source familiar with the video, it featured an informal group of BJL alumni discussing an allegation that a former classmate had made a racist comment. The live video’s host — who Katz misgendered in his column — confirmed Katz was referring to their video but declined to comment further. The ‘Prince’ has not identified the alum out of respect for their privacy.
Katz’s column was published in the online magazine Quillette, which describes itself as a forum for “free thought” and “ideas, even dangerous ones.” Critics have characterized the site as a voice for the “intellectual dark web” and faulted it for publishing “racist pseudoscience purporting to show that people of color are intellectually and morally inferior to whites.”
In response to multiple requests for comment, Katz submitted an 800-word statement, in which he defended his letter, prior to the publication of this piece. The full text of Katz’s statement is available online, as of July 14 at 2:04 pm EDT. Katz is a former faculty columnist and former trustee of the paper.
The BJL, founded in 2014 by a group of Black students, demanded that the University take anti-racist action, including by removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from campus buildings and institutions, instituting cultural competency training for faculty, and creating a cultural space on campus for Black students. In 2015, the group led a 32-hour sit-in of Eisgruber’s office in Nassau Hall, drawing national attention.
Despite the BJL’s activism, one of the group’s central demands — regarding Wilson’s legacy on campus — remained unmet until last month, when the University announced its decision to remove Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs and a residential college, now called First College.
Katz’s column has drawn fire from his peers, at least one of whom had called on Eisgruber to publicly condemn him.
“Katz is taking his lead from Donald Trump,” Tracy K. Smith, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts and one of the faculty letter’s authors, wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince.’
In an email obtained by the ‘Prince,’ Smith urged Eisgruber to use his “power as President of this institution to condemn Katz’s act of reckless endangerment.” Eisgruber’s statement to the ‘Prince’ came in response to being asked about Smith’s email.
“Members of the BJL have already begun to see an uptick in death threats,” Smith wrote to Eisgruber. “We have seen all too clearly how such race-baiting, disguised as free speech, can be deadly.”
In an interview on Sunday, Smith explained that her knowledge of the increased death threats came from a faculty member who has spoken with BJL members. The ‘Prince’ was unable to independently verify Smith’s claim.
Fellow Classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, who helped spearhead the faculty open letter, said Katz’s “flagrant racism makes our case for us.”
“My fury at the op-ed quickly took a backseat to the realization that it is a racist distraction, intended to divert and disorient those of us who have found common cause and strength in collaborating for a better future,” Padilla Peralta wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “And so, in the words of the great American lyricist Method Man, we keep it movin’.”
Eddie S. Glaude GS ’97, chair of the African American Studies Department, said that Katz’s column, particularly his statement about the BJL, betrayed that this “wasn’t about a simple disagreement,” but rather a difference in fundamental values.
“Professor Katz, at times in this letter, seems to not regard people like me as essential features, or persons, of Princeton,” Glaude said in an interview. “That’s the feeling I got from reading the letter.”
“When the Black Justice League engaged in its student action, they experienced violent threats,” Glaude added. “So what that description minimally does is trigger all of those experiences.”
Glaude signed the faculty open letter.
Nadirah Farah Foley ’11, a Black alumna of the Classics department, questioned how Katz’s column would make students in the department feel, saying she believes the piece “merits a formal inquiry.”
“I am concerned about how his prominence in the Classics department might be off-putting to prospective and current concentrators who are Black or students of color, and I think assessing and addressing their needs is of paramount importance,” Foley, now a doctoral student at Harvard, wrote in an email.
Foley added she would be concerned if Katz were to teach any introductory or required classes that function as “gateways to concentrating.” She stressed, however, that she was not calling for Katz to lose his tenured appointment.
Avner Goldstein ’21, a rising senior in the Classics department, said that Katz’s thinking mirrors broader sentiments in the field.
“This is just a reminder of a lot of the way that Classics as a discipline is,” Goldstein said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “His opinions are reflective of a wider historical way of thinking in the discipline.”
In recent years, Katz has taught LIN220: Language at Princeton, a number of first-year seminars, CLG101 and 102: Beginner’s Greek, and graduate level courses in the Classics.
According to his biography, Katz currently serves as a trustee of Princeton University Press, founded the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, and was formerly the President of the University’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. He served as the faculty chair of the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships endorsement committee, among other positions.
Katz received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2003.
Katz also serves as the head of the Barry Scholarship, a graduate fellowship at Oxford, a role he recently lauded in an opinion piece in the National Review.
Nominees for the scholarship must describe an instance when their “belief or opinion was unpopular or differed from the mainstream.”
Nicolette D’Angelo ’19, a Classics concentrator and now a Rhodes scholar, argued that in light of his position at the Barry Scholarship, Katz’s opinion was hypocritical.
“Interestingly, the BJL was unpopular among many populations at Princeton during its activism, as Katz admits, threatened with expulsion and lambasted on major news networks,” D’Angelo said.
“But when the BJL, Black students and alumni speak unpopular truths, they are deemed ‘terrorists.’ When the Barry award winners do so, they become ‘scholars,’” she added.
D’Angelo is now circulating a petition among students and alumni of the University Classics department denouncing the column.
Foley, the Classics department alumna now at Harvard, also questioned why Katz had watched a recent alum’s Instagram feed.
She told the ‘Prince’ she “found it profoundly surprising that a tenured professor would even watch a recent alum's Instagram Live, let alone then describe it in such strident terms in a public essay.”
In the days following Katz’s column, a number of recent alumni and students took to Twitter to call for the University to take action against Katz.
Katz’s column comes as debate over academic freedom, racial justice, and the limits of open expression roils the University and the nation.
In addition to the faculty open letter, several prominent faculty members and alumni signed a controversial “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published in Harper’s Magazine last week. A small group of students recently reinstated the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), first formed in opposition to the BJL in 2015. In a letter to Eisgruber, POCC members argued that recent demands for anti-racist training and curriculum changes were “erasing opposing viewpoints and policing the acceptable range of thought and speech.”
Katz framed his arguments in the same vein.
“Independence of thought is considered the hallmark of academia, but everyone deserves it,” Katz wrote. “To my colleagues who signed the Faculty Letter: If you signed it independently and thoughtfully, good for you. I hereby solemnly publish and declare my own declaration.”
Katz’s column has received public support from conservative commentators, including Roger Kimball and Ed Whelan, but little public support among University faculty.
Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, tweeted a link to Katz’s column.
“In the climate of fear and intolerance that has descended on academia, it takes extraordinary courage for someone publicly to state a dissenting opinion, knowing that he or she will be vilified and perhaps ‘made an example of’ lest the dissent spread,” George wrote in his tweet.
In his column, Katz identified the faculty open letter’s demand that the University convene a committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty” as the thing that “scares me more than anything else.”
“For colleagues to police one another’s research and publications in this way would be outrageous,” Katz wrote. “Let me be clear: Racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process. But is there anyone who doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?”
Those concerns resonated with at least one other University community member.
Samantha Harris ’99, a senior fellow at FIRE, a group that advocates for campus free speech, wrote an op-ed on July 8 that the committee proposal was “chillingly illiberal.”
“The threat of discipline for speech, research, and publication that is subjectively deemed ‘racist’ by a committee of ideologically motivated Princeton faculty is an anti-intellectual, frontal assault on free speech and academic freedom at Princeton that would shut down entire avenues of inquiry, research, and discussion,” Harris wrote.
But Glaude dismissed concerns about the proposed committee as “a red herring.”
“There’s always this question of whether liberty trumps justice,” Glaude said, “and so there’s this feeling that somehow there’s going to be a committee in some dark room policing the thoughts of Princeton faculty. As if that’s what we’re talking about. He’s more interested in that than in having a more just Princeton.”
“If I called Professor Katz a racist because he wrote this piece in the way he did, he would be offended and cry foul,” Glaude added. “But Professor Katz wants to defend his freedom to call students members of a terrorist organization. I want you to know that the difference in those two responses speaks volumes about what and who he cares about.”
Smith similarly questioned Katz’s intentions.
“It can’t simply be brushed off as ‘friendly debate,’ because it’s not,” Smith said. “It’s not coming from a place of good faith.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to link to the full statement Katz submitted to The Daily Princetonian and to note the time at which it was published. Additionally, a sentence that subjectively characterized the University’s response to the BJL’s demands has been modified.