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To protect students in cases of faculty misconduct, campus culture must change

<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

On Feb. 4, The Daily Princetonian published an investigative report detailing claims of inappropriate conduct by professor Joshua Katz. Katz is alleged to have crossed professional boundaries on multiple occasions with three undergraduate women, referred to in the report as Jane, Clara, and Bella. The University declined to comment on the claims, citing a policy of “not comment[ing] on personnel matters,” which we find unacceptable. In the wake of this investigation, we must all address the campus culture that allows for boundary violations like those which allegedly occurred.

Thus, while questions surrounding the fate of Katz himself are certainly warranted, the Board wants to highlight the flaws within our campus culture and University structure that would have allowed Katz to take these alleged actions.

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If these instances indeed occurred, we must reckon with the following items of concern that would have also held true within Princeton’s gates over at least the past two decades:

One: when distressed by the alleged behavior of a professor, students in proximity to the situation claimed they were unsure of whom they could go to and what could be done.

Eight friends of Jane said that Katz engaged in a romantic relationship with Jane, his advisee. Four friends of Jane described the alleged relationship between Jane and Katz as “unequal in terms of power” and “emotionally abusive.” Three friends of Jane said she told them Katz had sex with her. Only one friend claimed to have reported the situation to an administrator, his residential college dean. This alumnus did so after being “unsure” of whether to report the situation.

As students, Clara and her confidants who were included in the report did not disclose her situation — which allegedly involved Katz buying her gifts, commenting on her appearance, and paying for expensive dinners — to any administrator. One confidant said, “I didn’t think we [knew] where to go for help” in situations involving “boundary violations or harassment” but not sexual assault. It was only until after graduation that, with a professor’s encouragement, Clara said she confided in an administrator.

Bella — who asserted that she was taken out for dinner and wine by Katz as an undergraduate, a situation she interpreted as a date — did not report the situation to the administration.

Two: after reporting that a professor’s conduct appeared to cross a line, those who reported the behavior were not thoroughly followed up with.

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The alumnus who reported concern about Jane’s situation said he did not recall whether he ever received a follow up from the administration. Jane’s relationship with Katz allegedly continued through the time Katz wrote graduate school recommendation letters for her.

According to the report, in the nine months following interviews wherein Clara disclosed her claims about Katz’s behavior to the administration, no one followed up with her. When she reached out to the administration, she said that she was told the case was “closed” but was not informed of any verdict reached from the case.

Three: other professors were aware of the alleged behavior at the time it occurred and stayed publicly silent.

The reporters on the ‘Prince’ investigation reviewed evidence that Clara’s claims about Katz’s behavior towards her were shared among three professors. Though a friend of Jane only speculated that other personnel in Katz’s department were explicitly aware of their alleged relationship, they said that Jane was seen in public with Katz frequently. At least one friend of Jane reported that she often visited his office on campus at odd hours, including “late at night,” where other professors may have seen them.

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Four: students are not aware of University policy for when a professor is found guilty of sexual or professional misconduct involving a student.

This holds true regardless of the veracity of the allegations.

Together these four items of concern have one thing in common: they are unacceptable. Regardless of whether the allegations against Katz are true, Princeton must put into place practices designed to address each area of concern to reduce the likelihood that any situations like those described in the ‘Prince’ report on Katz occur. The University must work to create a campus where students are safe from sexual and other misconduct by professors and feel empowered to seek support if misconduct occurs. The following are four proposed ways Princeton can work towards this necessity:

One: Train students to recognize and report grooming behaviors.

First-years coming into Princeton are trained to recognize sexual misbehavior of other students through meetings with RCAs and the (less than ideal) online training program “Not Anymore!” Princetonians are also trained to recognize what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like with other students, including emotionally abusive relationships and stalking. And despite the numerous flaws found with the current Title IX reporting system at Princeton in the past five years, we are at least told where to go when we recognize this type of misconduct. However, we are not told what unhealthy relationships look like when they come from people in positions of power over us.

No undersigned member of the Editorial Board can recall being trained as to what grooming behaviors look like on the behalf of a professor. The line between innocent and grooming behaviors can appear thin. Indeed, grooming behaviors often appear natural. For example, an invitation to have a meal with a friendly professor can appear fun and part of a healthy campus environment when taken alone, but the surrounding context can reveal a more sinister purpose. Students should be trained to recognize when this kind of behavior can be dangerous.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that faculty at Princeton — many of whom are among the top in their fields — can play influential roles in their students’ academic careers, not only as instructors and graders, but also in their careers after graduation. This reality creates an enormous imbalance in power between faculty and students. Students should have support in reporting concerning behavior by professors without fear of jeopardizing their futures at Princeton or in academia at large. Princeton can ensure this is possible by establishing and publicizing clear and transparent protocols to report professors’ misconduct that unequivocally protect the anonymity of those who choose to report.

Two: Ensure that those who report sexual or other misconduct from a professor are informed of what happens after they make their report and if/when they can expect to be followed up with.

In order for students to feel empowered to report professorial misconduct and comfortable in doing so, students must be aware of what the next steps are in the process after a professional or sexual misconduct allegation is disclosed. For instance, what would happen to the student’s academic trajectory if the student is currently taking a class under the accused faculty member or has contact with the faculty member in an advising relationship? It is clear that, in the absence of transparent and public protocol, a student’s uncertainties and anxieties in this realm could reasonably dissuade them from reporting a dangerous situation. Choosing to report misconduct should always be an informed choice, where students are aware of any risks and resources designed to protect them.

Three: Encourage professors to speak up when they witness sexual or other misconduct involving a student on behalf of a colleague.

The University should do everything in its power to make it as easy as possible for faculty to uphold their moral obligation to report misconduct from other professors. While students are subject to the inherent power dynamic of reporting a professor, other professors may also fear retribution for speaking up and calling out a publicly distinguished and respected colleague. There should be systems in place that minimize this fear, such as ensuring professor anonymity when reaching out to administration about misconduct concerning faculty.

Four: Make clear and transparent what happens to professors who are found guilty of sexual or other misconduct towards students.

It is of utmost importance that students are informed about people who potentially pose a threat to their safety and wellbeing. When professors face disciplinary action for sexual or professional misconduct, students must be made aware of both the cause and punishment. For the University to do so would not be unprecedented. Harvard’s disclosure of the results of their investigation against Jorge Dominguez — a former Harvard professor accused of sexual misconduct while in positions of power at the institution — is one example of universities prioritizing student safety over the privacy of an abuser.

The University “declined to comment on specific claims” within the ‘Prince’ report, although University Spokesperson Ben Chang stated that “we take very seriously any situation that could cause harm to a student, and the University has rigorous policies in place regarding inappropriate relationships between students and faculty members.” These two statements represent an obvious tension in the University’s response. Knowledge of specific claims about a person or situation could help students avoid the harm the University says they want to protect students against. The University’s silence on Katz therefore contradicts their stated concern for students.

Princeton owes it to their students to create an environment where they feel exceedingly safe from predatory practices. This means that the reputation of a professor ought not be regarded as more important than the level of transparency necessary to create such an environment.

Princeton, we call upon you to speak about the Katz accusations and ensure that behavior like what was alleged in the ‘Prince’ report never finds a place on this campus in the future.

145th Editorial Board

Chair

Mollika Jai Singh ’24

Members

Shannon Chaffers ’22

Won-Jae Chang ’24

Kristal Grant ’24

Harsimran Makkad ’22

Anna McGee ’22

Collin Riggins ’24

Zachary Shevin ’22 recused himself from this editorial because of his leadership role within the News section of the ‘Prince’ during portions of the investigative reporting.

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