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Architecture professor fired last year blames ‘cancel culture’ as Princeton cites ‘neglect of duty’

<h6><strong>Fiona Galvis / Daily Princetonian&nbsp;</strong></h6>
Fiona Galvis / Daily Princetonian 

On Sept. 11, 2021, Alejandro Zaera-Polo uploaded the first installment of a seven-part video series, titled “A Gonzo Ethnography of Academic Authority.” Over the course of nearly five hours, Zaera-Polo speaks to the camera, navigating viewers through myriad documents, screenshots, and images, all sourced from a 856-page file he authored.

A few minutes into the video, Zaera-Polo, a renowned architect who once served as a professor and dean in the University School of Architecture, reveals a convoluted diagram that he claims includes all the characters at the heart of the story he wants to tell — trustees, administrators, and former colleagues at the School of Architecture. The story, as he tells it in the video series, is as byzantine as the diagram he uses as its illustration. 


On July 19, 2021, an eight-year saga came to a climax when Zaera-Polo was terminated from the Princeton faculty. Over the years leading up to his termination, interviews and University documents show that he faced accusations of failure to perform employment responsibilities, hostile behavior toward colleagues, and plagiarism. But following his departure, the former dean has framed the story of his dismissal as a tale of “identity politics,” “academic authority,” and “codes of silence,” painting himself the victim of persecution at the hands of Princeton administrators and committees.

Zaera-Polo’s allegations of stifled academic freedom primarily revolve around his vehement objections to the School of Architecture’s graduate thesis system. At Princeton, the thesis system is a longstanding and near-sacrosanct academic tradition. His stream of complaints may raise questions about whether challenging — and refusing to engage with — the liberal arts thesis process constitutes an exercise of a professor’s freedom, or whether such actions represent failures to live up to the basic responsibilities of a Princeton professor.

diagram_architecture story.png
Screenshot of a diagram featured in Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s video series.
Screenshot taken by Amy Ciceu / The Daily Princetonian.

In an email to The Daily Princetonian, University Deputy Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote that after “thorough investigation,” Zaera-Polo was dismissed for failing to uphold his duties as a faculty member.

The University investigation “found that Professor Zaera-Polo effectively refused to perform crucial aspects of his job; that he repeatedly failed to comply with policies and requirements applicable to members of the Faculty; that his behavior damaged the educational interests of affected students and disrupted the operations of the School of Architecture; and that he persisted in the misconduct after repeated warnings,” Hotchkiss wrote.


Zaera-Polo, in his video magnum opus, tries to paint a different picture.

“I believe that the processes I will describe here,” he said, “are representative of concerns that affect the activities of using knowledge today in the age of post-truth, populism, identity politics, political correctness, and other contemporary cultural phenomena.”

In 2014, Zaera-Polo became the subject of accusations of plagiarism, and consequently was forced to resign from his role as dean. In the five years that followed, he repeatedly refused to comply with the school’s graduate thesis program, and communicated his grievances about the system in an email to students. His actions seemed to incur the resentment of his colleagues, many of whom felt Zaera-Polo fostered a belligerent atmosphere in the department. Zaera-Polo, in turn, accused his colleagues of hostility and questioned the administrators’ intentions in investigating his behavior.

The Daily Princetonian reviewed a trove of documents associated with Zaera-Polo’s case, including the 856-page file with copies of his email correspondence with faculty and administrators, as well as official records from the Office of the Dean of the Faculty. The ‘Prince’ also reviewed Zaera-Polo’s seven-part video series and various other publications. The bulk of the narrative reconstructed in this story derives from Zaera-Polo’s email correspondences with professors, students, and administrative personnel. These emails were included in Zaera-Polo’s 856-page compilation, titled “A Gonzo Ethnography of Academic Authority.”

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In addition to the three current and former faculty members (including Zaera-Polo himself) and two former students who agreed to comment on-the-record for this story, the ‘Prince’ contacted the 16 other current professors within the School of Architecture and reached out to 26 former students of the school, all of whom declined or did not respond to requests for interviews.

An incident of alleged plagiarism

Born and raised in Madrid, Alejandro Zaera-Polo earned his bachelor’s from Spain’s Higher Technical Institute of Architecture in 1989 and his masters from the Harvard Graduate School of Design two years later. For more than two decades, Zaera-Polo worked as an architect in the Netherlands and London.

In 2008, Zaera-Polo bid farewell to the hubbub of London and moved to the comparatively subdued Princeton, where he began working at the School of Architecture as a visiting researcher. He quickly ascended the ranks, and was appointed the school’s dean in 2012 — even as graduate students in the school signed letters protesting his appointment.

In one such letter, sent to former Princeton President Shirley Tilghman, a group of architecture graduate students argued that Zaera-Polo’s appointment as dean was a poor choice in light of his “previously stated objections to the core of Princeton’s pedagogical tradition of the thesis, as well as his poor course evaluations as a professor.” (Zaera-Polo told the ‘Prince’ in an email that these complaints were misguided.) The complaints notwithstanding, Zaera-Polo officially assumed his responsibilities as the dean of the school on July 1, 2012.

In “The Princeton Experiment,” a manuscript of a chapter of a book that Zaera-Polo said he plans to publish in Spanish, the architect claimed he approached the deanship with an eye geared toward change, arguing that the School of Architecture is disproportionately influenced by the humanities rather than the science and engineering elements he regards as more vital to the field. 

“My idea was very simple and consisted fundamentally of ‘scientizing’ a department that had historically been dominated by the humanities,” Zaera-Polo wrote. 

But almost immediately, controversy struck, proving his deanship to be short-lived. 

In 2014, Zaera-Polo contributed a text on facades to an exhibition that was featured at the Venice Biennale of Architecture — a famed international architecture exhibition that takes place in Venice, Italy, every two years.

After the event, a student dismissed from the group of graduate students assisting with the facade exhibition relayed concerns to the University that Zaera-Polo plagiarized parts of his text from Wikipedia. Zaera-Polo alleges the student was retaliating against the dean for being dismissed from the project. (Zaera-Polo does not name the student and therefore the ‘Prince’ was unable to contact them.)

A faculty ad hoc committee conducted an investigation into the allegations and found that Zaera-Polo “had misappropriated and plagiarized the writing and ideas of a SoA doctoral student in a total of five different publications and conference talks,” with a plethora of text derived from Wikipedia, verbatim, according to former Dean of the Faculty Sanjeev Kulkarni’s Jan. 6, 2021 recommendation for Zaera-Polo’s dismissal from the faculty. Ultimately, the University formally accused him of violating Princeton’s academic code of conduct. In response, Zaera-Polo conceded that sections of Wikipedia text were plagiarized, but blamed the team of graduate students working under him for the misconduct.

“I didn’t personally do it,” Zaera-Polo said in an interview with the ‘Prince,’ in reference to the alleged plagiarism. “[They] incurred a minor plagiarism of the description of the material in Wikipedia.” In retrospect, he said, he would have vetted the details more thoroughly, but argued that the non-academic nature of the publication lessened the gravity of the offense.

The controversy finally came to a boil when President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 requested that Zaera-Polo resign from his position as dean for failing to adhere to the standards of academic integrity in the University’s “Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities.” Despite disagreeing with the allegations, Zaera-Polo ultimately resigned from the deanship on Oct. 1, 2014.

Fiona Galvis / Daily Princetonian 

Controversy around the School’s thesis system

Following his resignation as dean, Zaera-Polo continued to work as a professor at the School of Architecture, teaching courses about contemporary architecture and overseeing building studios that focused on the convergence of ecology and technology. 

As a professor, his duties also included serving as an advisor to graduate students as part of the School of Architecture’s thesis program — required for all masters students and defined broadly as a challenge to “make an architectural response to a general thematic question.” 

As part of this independent research program, students must devise architectural products in alignment with an overarching theme, chosen by the thesis program’s coordinator.

During the years leading up to his dismissal, the role of the thesis coordinator stood at the center of Zaera-Polo’s recurring complaints. Created in 2007, the architecture school’s thesis coordinator role involves overseeing various aspects of the graduate thesis program. In 2010, Elizabeth Diller, the current Associate Dean of the School of Architecture, became the thesis coordinator. 

In a public letter sent to the 2020 class of graduate students, Zaera-Polo claimed that thesis coordinators exercise disproportionate privilege — with access to external paid assistants, minimal attendance requirements, and a lack of competition — and unjustly profit from others’ work. He further protested their control over the thesis process, and claimed that they deliberately assigned particular students to particular faculty. 

But the bulk of his complaints focused on how Diller ran the program. He argued that an intense focus on “relativist postmodernism” – a term that Zaera-Polo told the ‘Prince’ he borrows from the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who defines it as a school of thought that asserts that “there are no truths, only interpretations” — diluted the quality of students’ projects by stifling what he deemed as the scientific aspects of architecture.

“I have seen projects that sought to solve the problem of six billion migrants by building six lopsided, red-painted boutique villas over a marketplace in Athens,” argued Zaera-Polo about what he saw as the ramifications of Diller’s supposedly “relativistic” approach to coordinating the thesis program.

Diller did not respond to multiple email inquiries from the ‘Prince’ for comment on specific claims in this story.

As dean, Zaera-Polo eliminated the coordinator role in 2013, after convening several days of discussion with faculty members and holding a formal vote on the matter.

“Immediately after that, I was asked to step down from the deanship by President Eisgruber,” said Zaera-Polo, alluding to the plagiarism dispute of 2014 and the ensuing fallout. “Magically, and without the vote of the faculty, Elizabeth Diller was reinstated in the position of coordinator.” (The University did not respond to a specific request for comment on this allegation, beyond its general statement.)

During the 2015–16 academic year, Zaera-Polo agreed to advise four students on their thesis projects. However, he alleges that Diller and her assistants persistently interfered with his guidance to student advisees. He says he ultimately stopped advising two of the students due to what he claimed was “ideological friction” between him and Diller. 

“I said that I was not prepared to have to adjust my teaching and advising protocols to fit Elizabeth Diller’s position and that therefore I was not willing to be a part of the system,” Zaera-Polo told the ‘Prince.’

Upon returning from a sabbatical, Zaera-Polo was assigned two students for thesis advising during the 2018-2019 academic year. But Zaera-Polo refused to accept responsibility for advising the students because of his objections to the thesis assignment system as a whole. Zaera-Polo says he met with then-Dean of the Faculty Sanjeev Kulkarni and Deputy Dean of the Faculty Toni Turano about these objections but that Kulkarni told him that he needed to comply with the thesis protocols.

A month later, Dean of the School of Architecture Monica Ponce de Leon convened a faculty-wide meeting where she passed a motion with a majority vote to introduce certain modifications to the thesis assignment process. Zaera-Polo said that he was the sole dissenting vote. 

At the undergraduate level, students in the School of Architecture consult with professors they are interested in working with and self-select their thesis advisors at the discretion of the department, a process that Zaera-Polo preferred. According to him, the modification introduced by Ponce de Leon — which removed the student-professor association process in favor of the coordinator allocating an approximately equal number of students to each faculty member — was a misguided move by the dean that imposed their “ideology” on other professors. 

Having grown increasingly disgruntled with the structure of the thesis system more generally, Zaera-Polo repeatedly emailed Ponce de Leon with objections. 

After the back-and-forth didn’t yield the result he wanted, Zaera-Polo once again consulted with Kulkarni, asking the Dean of the Faculty to appraise the program’s protocols. In December 2018, Kulkarni stood by the protocols and his prior decision that Zaera-Polo would have to observe them to remain a faculty member. Dissatisfied, Zaera-Polo again objected, and Kulkarni again rebuffed his request.

The situation came to a head when Zaera-Polo sent Kulkarni a 54-page complaint in February 2019, detailing his grievances with the thesis system protocols. According to Zaera-Polo, this complaint wound up in the hands of the University’s Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal (CCFA) — a body charged with investigating complaints “of unfair treatment in relation to the appointment, reappointment, or academic duties or privileges” of faculty members. 

The CCFA responded to the complaint with a 10-line statement that affirmed Kulkarni’s decision; the body found “no evidence of procedural unfairness” and “no inappropriateness of the criteria used by [the Dean of Faculty] in reaching his decision.” The five-sentence response provided no explanation as to how the verdict was reached, a fact that Zaera-Polo has decried.

To him, the short response was evidence of bureaucratic “codes of silence” that promote “groupthink,” all of which amounted to making Princeton a “small communist country” of committees.

By the fall semester, he seemed to have reached his limit with the seeming lack of progress that had been made to address his grievances with the thesis system. He sent a class-wide email to the School of Architecture’s 2020 graduate students in November 2019, urging them not to choose him as a thesis advisor during the upcoming selection process, writing that he believes the system to be “deeply corrupt and in contempt of the most basic standards of academic work.”

Zaera-Polo argued that the distribution of advisees is unfair and lamented that primary thesis advisors were only allotted mention in the footnotes of graduate students’ thesis transcripts. He noted that although this was an improvement over complete omission from transcriptions, it arguably still fell short of granting advisors the credit they deserve. 

“I refused to participate in a system that I believe breaches my academic freedoms and fails to properly credit me for my teaching, among other things,” he wrote.

When asked to comment about the thesis system, Ponce de Leon argued that Zaera-Polo’s claims were without merit. “Zaera-Polo brought it up to the attention of the faculty two years ago, I do not know why he did not take care of it when he was dean,” she wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

Ponce de Leon argued that the thesis system is designed to allow students to engage with a diversity of perspectives throughout their creative process, as opposed to singularly following one “master.”

“The discipline of architecture has been plagued with the patriarchal model of the Master Architect, which has its roots in the 17th century Ecole de Beaux Arts model of the ‘Master’ teacher. These teachers were, of course, of a certain gender, class and socioeconomic status,” wrote Ponce de Leon. 

“I believe that in the 21st century, students should be empowered to pursue their own interests and ideas, not follow a ‘master,’” she continued. “We want to ensure that students are being exposed to multiple points of view and I do not see how exposing them to a myriad of ideas impinges on any faculty member’s academic freedom.”

Zaera-Polo’s classwide email exacerbated the growing rift between him and Ponce de Leon.

Six days after the email, Ponce de Leon issued a class-wide missive of her own, in which she claimed to set the record straight. The thesis system she had helped to build, she wrote, promoted transparency and equity. 

“Because of student feedback, we made several significant changes to the way advisors were assigned to students with the goals of making the system transparent and equitable, as well as eliminating cronyism,” she wrote.

Shortly after sending the class-wide letter, Zaera-Polo was assigned to advise a student on their thesis project. But after just a few exchanged emails, the student requested to be reassigned to a different advisor. In an email, Ponce de Leon warned the professor of the implications of persisting in his neglect of required thesis advisor duties.

“Despite our best efforts, you continue to refuse to fulfill the responsibilities as faculty at the school; and your statements publicly disparaging other faculty are offensive, extremely inappropriate, and will not be tolerated,” wrote Ponce de Leon in her email to Zaera-Polo. He, in turn, fired back, saying he stood by his previous emails.

At around the same time, Ponce de Leon told Zaera-Polo that his scheduled faculty leave had been postponed from Spring 2021 to Fall 2021. In the email about this change, she said that the delay was made in light of guidelines from the Dean of the Faculty that curtailed the number of faculty members who could take a leave of absence during the academic year. 

(The University did not respond to explicit requests for comment on the particulars of this policy.)

In his video series, Zaera-Polo said he perceived the leave change in a different light: the decision, he said, felt to him as retribution for his outspoken opposition to the thesis program.

After attempts to dispute the leave directly with Ponce de Leon, Zaera-Polo brought the matter to Toni Turano, the deputy dean of the faculty, in December 2019. When three weeks passed with no response, Zaera-Polo wrote another email, relaying his suspicions that the leave postponement was related to his opposition.

Turano replied, standing by Ponce de Leon and asserting she had abided by the appropriate protocols. 

In February, Turano emailed Zaera-Polo asking him to attend a disciplinary meeting about his behavior within the School of Architecture. Although initially declining to do so, he eventually agreed. 

The meeting took place at the Dean of the Faculty’s office and lasted upwards of three hours. Zaera-Polo said in the video series that during the meeting, he firmly maintained his earlier allegations about the unfairness of the thesis system and Ponce de Leon’s decision to delay his leave.

Nearly two months later, in April 2020, Zaera-Polo received official notes with a summary of the meeting, which he would later allege were inaccurate and incomplete. (The ‘Prince’ could not independently verify the veracity of the official notes.)

That July, he submitted a complaint directly to Eisgruber, alleging a “hostile environment” in the architecture school against him and that the new thesis system threatened his and others’ “academic independence.” The dean’s actions amounted to “systemic deceitful behavior,” Zaera-Polo alleged.

Asked about Zaera-Polo’s allegations, Ponce de Leon told the ‘Prince’ that she is not able to comment on personnel matters as they are not under her purview.

At one point during this process, Kulkarni had created a “non-communication order” against Zaera-Polo, which barred the professor from contacting Ponce de Leon.

“I should note that this no-communication order was not a disciplinary action, but was put in place to enable Dean Ponce de Leon to function effectively in her role as dean,” wrote Kulkarni in an email disclosed through Zaera-Polo’s documents. (The University did not respond to an explicit request for comment on the non-communication order.)

Zaera-Polo’s July complaint to Eisgruber additionally centered on the University’s administrative apparatus: He alleged that the Office of the Dean of Faculty had “failed to ensure compliance with academic standards,” “failed to follow the established procedures to deal with complaints to the University,” “covered Dean Ponce de Leon’s retaliatory actions,” and “initiated an inappropriate disciplinary process against me.”

Nearly a month later, on Aug. 4, 2020, Kulkarni emailed Zaera-Polo acknowledging that the office of the Dean of the Faculty would conduct an investigation into the claims made in his complaint — an investigation that would end in findings that the architect had violated University rules and shown a “substantial and manifest neglect of duty.” 

Fiona Galvis / Daily Princetonian 

The road to dismissal

In November 2020, around a year after sending out his class-wide email disparaging the thesis system, Zaera-Polo received a notice of administrative leave from Kulkarni, as the Office of the Dean of the Faculty continued to investigate both his complaints against Ponce de Leon and new complaints by her against him. Three days before receiving this notice, Zaera-Polo had sent a second letter “of advice” to students in which he reiterated his disparagement of the School of Architecture thesis system. 

In the official notice to Zaera-Polo, Kulkarni outlined several restrictions on his conduct within the School of Architecture for the duration of the leave, including prohibitions on his ability to attend meetings, participate in activities hosted by the school, and communicate with students without advanced written permission from Kulkarni.

On Jan. 6, 2021, Kulkarni addressed a letter to Eisgruber recommending that Zaera-Polo be dismissed from the faculty for repeatedly violating University policy and requirements.

“Specifically, over the course of the last few years, Professor Zaera-Polo has engaged in repeated conduct that (i) demonstrated a substantial and manifest neglect of duty; (ii) violated University rules and procedures applicable to the Faculty; and (iii) substantially impaired his performance of the full range of responsibilities,” wrote Kulkarni.

Eisgruber accepted Kulkarni’s recommendation for dismissal, and by late February, he had issued the recommendation to the University’s Board of Trustees executive committee.

“Professor Zaera-Polo refuses to comply with policies with which he disagrees; he does so in a way that damages student well-being and educational interests; and he persists in this behavior even after multiple explicit warnings and disciplinary actions,” wrote Eisgruber to the Trustees.

In the letter, Eisgruber also addressed Zaera-Polo’s claims that his dismissal was a breach of his academic freedom.

“Academic freedom provides faculty members with rights that are breathtakingly expansive by comparison to the norms of almost any other profession. Those rights nevertheless have their limits,” Eisgruber wrote. “Professor Zaera-Polo has exceeded them here by seeking to impose his views on his colleagues through disregard of his instructional obligations, harmful communications to students, and interference with the School of Architecture’s operations and processes.”

“It is a shame that Professor Zaera-Polo, by his tactics of disruption and disobedience, has escalated an otherwise mundane dispute about thesis supervisions to the point where we must contemplate his dismissal,” Eisgruber continued.

In his videos and articles, Zaera-Polo argues that the dismissal was corrupt and unfair. He says Kulkarni should have recused himself from adjudicating the complaint that involved accusations against him and other administrators.

The University did not comment specifically on these allegations, beyond the general statement that Zaera-Polo repeatedly failed to “comply with policies,” “effectively refused to perform crucial aspects of his job,” “his behavior damaged educational interests of affected students,” and he “persisted in the misconduct after repeated warnings,” according to Hotchkiss. 

In March 2021, Zaera-Polo filed an appeal to the CCFA, and in May of that year, the CCFA sent Zaera-Polo their unanimous verdict: their investigation yielded no evidence of wrongdoing by administrators. The committee dismissed the appeal and upheld Zaera-Polo’s dismissal from the faculty. 

Following that decision, Eisgruber issued another recommendation to the Board of Trustees in June, reaffirming the dismissal and saying that Zaera-Polo exhibited a “pattern of mistreatment of students.”

In the wake of the termination, Zaera-Polo emailed his former School of Architecture graduate students and solicited “reverse letters of recommendation,” asking them whether they had ever felt that he mistreated them. The result of that request was a 34-page document of student letters of recommendation, with names redacted by Zaera-Polo.

The ‘Prince’ reached out to all of the architecture graduate students in the Class of 2020, the same set of students that received Zaera-Polo’s class-wide email. One student expressed their support for Zaera-Polo as their former teacher. But a different student, speaking anonymously to the ‘Prince,’ pushed back on Zaera-Polo’s characterization of events. All of the other students in the class declined or did not respond to requests for comment. 

The first student, Mauricio Loyola Vergara, a class of 2020 PhD student of the School of Architecture who currently works as a professor at the University of Chile, offered a positive appraisal of Zaera-Polo’s pedagogy.

“I never witnessed any act of disrespect, harmful communication, or mistreatment to his students,” Loyola Vergara wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “Alejandro's teaching style pushed students beyond their intellectual comfort zone — but as his student I never felt threatened by this, nor did I hear or see any other student feel that way.”

Still, another student said they felt some of Zaera-Polo’s descriptions of events to not be in line with their own experiences. (The ‘Prince’ granted this student anonymity due to fears of professional reprisal.)

“I certainly was not ‘coerced’ by Monica Ponce de Leon,” the student wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

On July 19, 2021, the saga of Zaera-Polo’s tumultuous tenure came to a close: the Board of Trustees approved his dismissal, and he was informed that his employment with the University would end that same day. In the fall, following his departure from the University, Zaera-Polo released his video-series. 

The series’s overarching thesis argues that Zaera-Polo’s case represents just one instance of many underscoring the insidious ways in which “identity politics” allegedly pervade Princeton’s campus and the American university system at large. 

Allegations of ‘cancel culture’  

In the months since his dismissal, Zaera-Polo’s many public documents, videos, and articles have attempted to portray his termination from the University as a linchpin in a storm of “post-truth” “fascism” festering within academia. But at least one current School of Architecture professor interviewed by the ‘Prince’ argued that Zaera-Polo’s ongoing complaints are an immature, absurd, and problematic insistence on gatekeeping the field, especially for those identity groups that it has historically empowered.

In one document, Zaera-Polo claims that the Board of Trustees constitutes an “almost perfect representation of the financial-informational-media-educational complex that today constitutes the center of American power” and that the University represents “the academic epicenter of the culture of cancellation and ‘woke’ thinking.” 

In structuring this argument, Zaera-Polo refers to a variety of headline-drawing recent incidents on campus, including the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s namesake from University buildings and Eisgruber’s condemnation of former classics professor Joshua Katz’s summer 2020 op-ed, in which Katz labeled the Black Justice League, a former student group, as a “local terrorist organization.” In Zaera-Polo’s mind, both instances are a part of a toxic “cancel culture,” bolstered by Nassau Hall.

In the same document, Zaera-Polo alleges that in 2016, Ponce de Leon abused the University’s affirmative action policies in hiring Black candidates. 

Ponce de Leon and the University did not respond to an explicit request for comment on this matter.

V. Mitch McEwen, an assistant professor at the School of Architecture who was listed by Zaera-Polo as one of the professors hired during this time, rebuked his claims, arguing that Zaera-Polo’s logic was rooted in bigotry.

“There’s a preposterous sense that simply in there being Black faculty that that indicates some kind of preference, which is itself kind of trafficking in default white supremacist presumptions, that the most talented people would be the white faculty displaced by the Black faculty who joined in the past few years,” McEwen said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’

In McEwen’s eyes, Zaera-Polo’s argument is “playing a reverse racism card” and “doubling down on the role of the white male as the default authority” in the field.

“It’s so adolescent and bizarre,” McEwen said, “and I think that we do need to unpack some of these claims and look at the ways in which the common language and posture of this victimization, as if there’s some kind of scandal around this figure, rather than him just simply being incompetent and unhinged.”

Zaera-Polo insisted in an interview with the ‘Prince’ that he does not oppose affirmative action inherently, but only “when it is misused.”

Zaera-Polo’s dismissal, and his subsequent outspokenness about it, is one incident in a series that have fueled discussion of faculty rights at private universities, both at Princeton and across the nation.

A group of University alumni recently formed Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), a self-described academic freedom and free speech group. In March 2021, a number of Princeton professors, along with colleagues at other colleges, co-founded the Academic Freedom Alliance, a group similarly devoted to promoting academic freedom. And the Princeton Open Campus Coalition co-sponsored a panel this spring on “mob rule” and “the illiberal left’s threat to campus discourse” at Princeton.

Most recently, Princeton made national headlines when Eisgruber recommended Katz’s dismissal to the University Board of Trustees on May 10 and the Board voted to terminate Katz “effective immediately” on May 23. The PFS and some conservative commentators attributed the decision to administrative retribution against Katz for his controversial op-ed in the summer of 2020, but the University released a statement saying that an internal investigation had determined that Katz had repeatedly violated faculty rules. Specifically, a University statement said that Katz “misrepresented the facts” and failed to be fully “forthcoming” in a previous investigation about a sexual relationship he maintained with an undergraduate student in the mid-2000s. The University also said that Katz “exposed the alumna to harm” by “discouraging her from seeking mental health” in an effort to conceal the prohibited relationship. (Katz denied these characterizations in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and has described his dismissal as a “cultural double jeopardy” that amounts to retaliation for his political speech.)

Beyond the Orange Bubble, concerns about dwindling academic freedom continue to ignite heated discourse. Some conservative students and professors have spoken out about feeling forced to “self-censor” across college campuses. Others, meanwhile, have argued that concerns of a “free speech crisis” pervading universities are exaggerated at best or disingenuous at worst.

In Zaera-Polo’s eyes, his case is intimately tied to this national landscape of jeopardized freedom of speech. In the final minutes of his video series, he transitions to a screen with a collage of headlines announcing James Comey’s firing by former President Trump.

“The ultimate conclusion to my dismissal is something we have seen before,” he narrates. “We have seen what authoritarian regimes or autocrats do with those who dare expose inconvenient evidence or defy illegitimate orders and eventually speak truth to power.”

The University sees the situation differently: The dismissal, according to administrators, is a matter of simple failure to meet contractual obligations to perform faculty duties. The University, Hotchkiss said, followed appropriate protocols in adjudicating the matter.

“Professor Zaera-Polo exercised his right of appeal to the Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal, a committee composed of faculty members elected by their peers,” he wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “After reviewing the matter, that independent committee found no basis to question the legitimacy and reasonableness of the dismissal recommendation.”

Amy Ciceu is a senior writer who often covers research and COVID-19-related developments. She also serves as a Newsletter Editor. She can be reached at