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In defense of The New York Times: A response to Rohit Narayanan ’24

<h5>Nassau Hall.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Nassau Hall. 
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit to the Opinion Section, click here. 

In a recent column, Rohit Narayanan ’24 sharply criticized attempts by national media outlets to draw a connection between Princeton’s recent decision to fire classics professor Joshua Katz and controversial political statements made by Katz at the height of 2020’s racial unrest. According to Narayanan, the notion that the University’s reopened investigation into Katz’s past illicit relationship with a student was tainted by political bias is nothing more than a “conspiracy” that “completely misrepresents the truth of the matter.” Narayanan makes this bold claim despite the fact that a previous 2018 investigation into the same incident, conducted before Katz became a lightning rod for left-wing opprobrium, already resulted in his unpaid suspension during the 2018–19 academic year. 

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Narayanan paints a picture of a Princeton made up of a “profoundly apathetic” campus community, including a “tiny fraction” of “completely ineffective” faculty and student activists but mostly comprising people who “don’t know or care what’s going on at their own school.” Narayanan’s determinedly indifferent and unideological university is governed by magnanimously neutral administrators hostile to activist causes and is headed by a president with a “sincere desire to protect free speech on campus.” Apparently, this president did everything he could to protect Katz amidst intense pressure to penalize him for his protected speech, but his hand was ultimately forced by the resurrection of a years-old sexual misconduct investigation. 

We should recognize that Katz’s relationship with a student was inappropriate and deserving of an official University response. But that response came in 2018. And while it’s true that student activists had little to do with Princeton’s recent decision to fire Katz, as Narayanan alleges, it’s a farce to pretend that the decision was free of political bias. Far from playing into a “faulty narrative,” it’s difficult to see how Katz’s firing could be interpreted as anything other than a cowardly coup de grâce in a politically motivated revenge tour against a troublesome professor. 

Katz’s polarizing comments have been widely disputed in the almost two years that have since elapsed, so I won’t devote much time to them here. But whatever one might think of his political views, it’s impossible to deny that Princeton has institutionally acted against Katz on account of those views. 

From the start, Princeton mishandled the situation when spokespeople, his own department, and even the University president hinted that Katz could not remain a member of the faculty in good standing as a result of his politics. Rather than rebuking Katz on an individual level and clearly distinguishing their personal views from the University’s institutional stance, the Classics Department issued an official statement lambasting Katz’s views as “fundamentally incompatible with our mission and values as educators.” The statement was issued on behalf of the department by its chair and other department leaders and was posted on an official University messaging platform. Additionally, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said that Katz had “failed” to “exercise [the right to free speech] responsibly” in writing his op-ed, and a spokesman for the University left the door open to disciplinary action, stating that Nassau Hall would be “looking into the matter further.” In a subsequent statement, spokespeople eventually stated that there would be no investigation after all ― apparently trying to keep up some veneer of neutrality, however disingenuously, as it was clear the University had already picked a side.

Since then, administrators have made Katz the face of efforts to combat the “systemic racism” they say infests our university. Katz’s name features prominently on a University website meant to educate incoming first-years on Princeton’s sordid history of racism (which a faculty committee correctly noted was an official website). Alongside a slyly edited quote from his Quillette column, the University included on the website statements from prominent professors repudiating Katz, and went so far as to make Katz part of a contemptible timeline of racism at Princeton ranging from Triangle Club minstrel shows in the 1940s to a 1973 campus visit by an infamous eugenicist who claimed that Black people were genetically inferior to white people. The University has since rejected requests to remove Katz from the website.

Implicit in all of this, of course, is the notion that Katz is a living relic of Princeton’s racist past, and was indeed himself an example of persisting institutional racism at Princeton. This is a narrative that the University — entirely of its own volition, for the most part — has promoted over the course of the entire Katz saga, and one that couldn’t have simply slipped administrators' minds as they deliberated whether to fire Katz as a result of a reopened investigation into a decades-old incident for which he had already been punished. That these facts are so obvious and beyond serious contention explains why left-leaning media outlets like The New York Times, not exactly known for pandering to “right-wing conspiracy theories,” have been unable to omit them from their reporting on Katz’s firing.

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When Narayanan attempts to play down the strength of student activists at Princeton and dismisses still-simmering controversy over Katz’s views as long “forgotten” by students to argue that Katz’s firing was not politically motivated, he fundamentally misunderstands what is being alleged. The crusade against Katz was actually not a student-led one at all, and neither The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board nor Bari Weiss have asserted anything to the contrary. The Times and even Katz’s own wife, Solveig Gold ’17, similarly did not emphasize student involvement in their accounts. Rather, they all correctly point out or allude to the undeniable fact that the successful campaign against Katz was orchestrated by a select group of intensely agenda-driven administrators and faculty members vehemently opposed to his political views; it was facilitated by a University president and trustees anxious to use a revived sexual misconduct scandal to conveniently rid themselves of a heterodox professor whose public refusal to ideologically conform continued to generate media attention and public scrutiny that they didn’t like. 

While Narayanan may be right to say that students didn’t do this, it's not because they chose not to. It’s because when the momentum to permanently cancel Katz fizzled out, Princeton University took up the mantle and finished the job without them. 

Matthew Wilson is a rising junior from Ashburn, Va. concentrating in politics. He can be reached at mxwilson@princeton.edu.

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