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Joshua Katz allegations: Surprising to no one

<h5>East Pyne Hall</h5>
<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
East Pyne Hall
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

Last week, The Daily Princetonian reported on allegations that classics professor Joshua Katz cultivated inappropriate relationships with some of his female students in the past. While these claims have not been definitively confirmed, there is already more than enough information and context to conclude that, regardless of the bigger picture and consequences for Katz himself, the man certainly manifests an insufferable sense of entitlement and arrogance, I believe. 

But while it may be tempting, given Katz's politics, to ascribe this elitist self-assuredness to some isolated personal pathology, it must instead be understood as the expected outgrowth of Katz's status and power within the University, without which the behavior that alumni have alleged he undertook would lack coercive potential. This is to say, without a restructuring of the very academic world that elevated Katz, dynamics like those recently asserted by some alumni will continue to be perpetuated by a culture that convinces a small group of people that they are above the rest of us.

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Indeed, the rigid hierarchies in place that often determine the viability of one's prospective career path complicates the relationships amongst students and faculty in the best cases, and facilitates trauma and anguish in the worst. 

It is especially helpful here to reflect on Katz's own writing, in which he has arguably framed himself as a gatekeeper in his own field. In other words, he is the guy to see if you want your career in classics to go anywhere. Katz always got away with that off-putting attitude until now without question. Why? Because the University at which he teaches heaped upon him so many honors and accolades that it would have been impossible for him not to conclude, correctly, that he did possess such astounding leverage over most of the people around him. 

Of course, it is not inevitable that any person would leverage this position to take advantage of people and lord his accomplishments and position over them. But a guy who would, under the guise of an oh-so-precise linguist, brand the Black Justice League as a “terrorist organization”? Much more plausible. As early as last summer, we learned what type of person a place like Princeton is willing to have ascend to a position of prominence and influence.

Someone who found reading the recent report especially jarring might wonder what all of this context does for us. First, it suggests that Katz's self-confidence, the social and intellectual basis for his alleged capacity to bully, demonize, and otherwise abuse others, is rooted not primarily in his own baseless self-regard, but rather in what he has been taught about himself by everyone around him. It is easy to imagine that the uncritical adoration by others proved to Katz that he could do and say anything, and far from being cancelled, people would not even speak up for fear of reprisals.

Even now, in the context of the mass revulsion of those who might have been his current students, Katz will in all probability be fine. The issue here, to be clear, is not one of mere job security; it is that up to now, Katz's job — in particular — has consisted in playing a large role in deciding the fates of others. People who have devoted their lives to such a specific domain of knowledge have had their lives and careers made or broken by Katz, and in a society where a career is most often the basis for healthcare and housing, no one should have this power over another.

So as not to be charged with cancelling the professor, it is admittedly possible that the public reaction to him of late has been misguided. After all, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a close relationship between student and professor, and the fact that the story of “Jane,” whose alleged relationship with Katz was the most troubling, is told by third parties, makes it conceivable that much was inadvertently lost in translation. If a student is truly enthusiastic about pursuing a relationship with Katz, it is the place of no one to tell her that she should not.

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But the only way to know for sure that such relationships are not motivated by undue pressure is to remove precarity from the equation: if Katz did not have such overwhelming leverage over the people around him, either people would continue to remain close with him or they wouldn't. If they choose to, of their own volition and enthusiastically, that is their choice. While Katz’s alleged actions make it difficult to fathom this possibility, we must not deny him due process or the protections afforded by job security — the allegations in the report deserve investigation before action is taken.

Indeed, we will judge the facts, should they appear, that follow. And in the meantime, we might strive to make Princeton, and society at large, a place where individuals no longer wield such inordinate amounts of power over others’ fates, not by reducing the security of some, but by expanding it for all.

Braden Flax is a senior from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at bflax@princeton.edu.

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