In Defense of the New York Times: A Response to Rohit Narayanan ’24
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In a recent column, Rohit Narayanan ’24 strongly criticized national media’s attempts to draw a link between Princeton’s recent decision to fire classics professor Joshua Katz and controversial political statements made by Katz at the height of the 2020 racial unrest. According to Narayanan, the idea that the University has reopened its investigation into the past illicit relationship of Katz with a student was tainted with political bias is nothing more than a “conspiracy” that “completely distorts the truth of the matter”. Narayanan makes the 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, had already resulted in his suspension without pay in the 2018 academic year. -2019.
Narayanan paints a picture of a Princeton made up of a “deeply apathetic” college community, including a “tiny fraction” of “completely ineffectual” faculty and student activists, but comprising mostly people who “don’t know or don’t care.” care what happens at their own school.” The staunchly indifferent and non-ideological Narayanan University is governed by administrators who are magnanimously neutral and hostile to militant causes and is headed by a president with a “sincere desire to protect freedom expression on campus”. Apparently, this president did everything he could to protect Katz amid intense pressure to penalize him for his protected speech, but his hand was eventually forced by the resurrection of a years-old sexual misconduct investigation.
We should recognize that Katz’s relationship with a student was inappropriate and deserved an official response from the University. 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 claims, it’s a farce to claim that the decision was free from political bias. Far from playing into a “mistaken narrative,” it’s hard to see how Katz’s firing could be construed as anything other than a cowardly knockout blow in a politically motivated revenge tour against a troublesome professor.
Katz’s polarization comments have been widely contested in the almost two years since, 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 institutionally acted against Katz because of those views.
From the start, Princeton mishandled the situation when spokespersons, his own department, and even the university president suggested that Katz could not remain a member of the faculty in good standing because of his politics. Rather than reprimanding Katz on an individual level and clearly distinguishing their personal views from the University’s institutional stance, the Classics Department issued an official statement castigating Katz’s views as “fundamentally inconsistent with our mission and values in as educators”. The statement was released on behalf of the department by its chair and other department heads and was posted on an official University messaging platform. Additionally, Chairman Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said Katz had “failed” to “exercise [the right to free speech] responsibly” in writing its editorial, and a University spokesperson left the door open for disciplinary action, saying Nassau Hall would “investigate the matter further.” In a later statement, spokespersons eventually said there would be no investigation after all – apparently trying to maintain a certain veneer of neutrality, albeit dishonestly, as it was clear the University had already chosen a side.
Since then, administrators have made Katz the face of efforts to combat the “systemic racism” they say plagues our university. Katz’s name features prominently on a university website intended to educate incoming first years about Princeton’s sordid history of racism (which a faculty committee correctly noted was an official website). Alongside a sneakily edited quote from his Quillette column, the University included statements from prominent professors repudiating Katz on the website, and went so far as to make Katz part of a despicable timeline of racism at Princeton ranging from the Triangle Club’s minstrel shows in the 1980s. 1940 to a 1973 campus tour by an infamous eugenicist who claimed black people were genetically inferior to white people. The University has since denied 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 indeed was himself an example of persistent institutional racism at Princeton. It’s a narrative that the University – entirely of its own free will, for the most part – promoted throughout the entire Katz saga, and one that simply could not have escaped the minds of administrators as they deliberated. to fire Katz as a result of a reopened investigation into a decades-old incident for which he had already been punished. The fact that these facts are so obvious and beyond any serious controversy explains why left-wing 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.
When Narayanan attempts to downplay the strength of student activists at Princeton and dismisses the still-simmering controversy over Katz’s views long “forgotten” by students to argue that Katz’s firing was not politically motivated, he fundamentally misunderstands what which is alleged. The crusade against Katz was in fact not student-led at all, and neither the Wall Street Journal Editorial Committee neither Bari Weiss claimed anything to the contrary. The Times and even Katz’s own wife, Solveig Gold ’17, also did not emphasize the involvement of students 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 administrators and faculty members intensely driven by the agenda and fiercely opposed to his political views; it was facilitated by an anxious university president and administrators to use a revived sexual misconduct scandal to conveniently get rid of a heterodox professor whose public refusal to conform ideologically continued to garner media attention and public scrutiny they didn’t like.
While Narayanan may be right that the students didn’t do this, it’s not because they chose not to. That’s because when the momentum to permanently cancel Katz petered out, Princeton University picked up the torch and finished the job without them.
Matthew Wilson is a rising junior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in politics. He can be reached at [email protected].