Amy Wax stirs up controversy


Max Haase and Elizabeth Worthington

Professor Amy Wax from the University of Pennsylvania Law School visited the University on April 26 to deliver a lecture to students and faculty. (By the time this article went to print, she had not spoken yet. Our article online will have full coverage of her talk.) Her talk, titled “The Perils of the Push for Equal Results,” focused on social welfare law, as well as workplace dynamics, labor markets and matrimonial and familial relations. Several of Wax’s current works in progress include articles on same-sex marriage, disparate impact theory and group demographics, rational choice, and family structure.

In the weeks leading up to Wax’s talk, members of the University community asked the school to rethink welcoming Wax on campus, citing controversial statements she has made that have drawn national attention. Not only has Wax been quoted by the Daily Pennsylvanian for saying that “traditional marriage values” are key in ensuring a child’s success, she has also been criticized for promoting the nation’s return to “bourgeois culture,” fostering social injustice and lack of mobility, and has been ostracized for implying that black students cannot excel in law school through her comment, “… there are no African-American law students who graduate in the top percentages of their classes.”

One Philadelphia news outlet, PhillyVoice, quoted Gwendolyn Williams, a writer and visiting assistant professor of biology at the University. She criticized the University’s decision on social media, writing on Twitter, “White supremacist Amy Wax will be speaking at the University under the pretense of ‘viewpoint diversity.’”

In the University’s official announcement for the event, which was organized by the University Conservatives Club and the Bucknell College Republicans, members write, “Through her courageous efforts and challenging contributions to public debates, Professor Wax has effectively illustrated the dangers of a lack of viewpoint diversity in the American academic world.”

Kevin Chabrier ’20, president of the Conservatives Club, said, “We wanted to bring Professor Wax to Bucknell because she’s been a recent target of campus ideologues who have consistently strived to redefine what constitutes acceptable academic discourse, so as to exclude conservative ideas. The very fact that Professor Wax is now regarded as “extreme” is illustrative of precisely the problem at hand. The dominance of a particular perspective on college campuses leads dissenting viewpoints to be mischaracterized and dismissed as hateful or extreme, and many students don’t seem to view this as a problem. We’re confident that Professor Wax can impress upon Bucknell students the value in critically engaging with different viewpoints, especially those with which they disagree.  In fact, we believe that students on the left will get the most out of Professor Wax’s lecture. Professor Wax, who is now frequently impugned as a vile bigot, will set the record straight, and students will be able to decide for themselves if her arguments are truly as bigoted and extreme as they’ve been led to believe.”

Faculty advisor to the Conservatives Club and professor of sociology, Alexander Riley, added, “People who are calling Amy Wax “extreme” should give some evidence that they’ve actually read her if they’d like to be taken seriously.  That’ll require more than a scare quote gathered from some source with an ideological ax to grind.  It requires time and intellectual good faith and a commitment to actually understanding what people are saying instead of caricaturing them in the interests of some political agenda.  If the people you are hearing say she’s “extreme” cannot clearly and effectively demonstrate that they’ve put in this work, you should give what they say no credence and spend your time instead reading Wax.”

In reaction to the announcement of Wax’s visit and the University’s departmental sponsorship of the Wax talk, professor of English Michael J. Drexler said, “I would not call upon Bucknell to prevent Wax from speaking. But Departments certainly send a message about their collective values when they co-sponsor such visitors. Calling out those choices was at the heart of my complaint. BUCC has consistently shown itself happy to provide a platform for opinion artists who generate heat without light. That’s their prerogative. And I, among many others, judge them accordingly.”

“Although student groups may bring speakers of their choice, the University’s academic institutes and departments have an ethical responsibility through their co-sponsorships to uphold the university’s mission to ‘educate our students to serve the common good and to promote justice in ways sensitive to the moral and ethical dimensions of life.’ Co-sponsoring speakers whose musings are white-supremacist violates that mission,” associate professor of economics Nina Banks said.

Professor of English Saundra Morris said she is “disgusted” that any group would invite Wax to campus. “I respect political conservatism; I do not respect toleration of racism and hate speech, and I think that any genuine politically conservative organization (not a grandstand seeking, mindless, and unpatriotic publicity-mongering group) would agree,” Morris said. She also lamented the fact that the event is being sponsored by University departments and chairs.

“I am ashamed of Bucknell that any group, especially academic ones, would enable her appearance here. Wax has the right to voice her hateful, racist opinions. Bucknell has the responsibility, given our mission statement, not to give her a podium from which to do so,” Morris said.

The comparative humanities program is one of the departments co-sponsoring the talk, a decision the department made after much internal debate and research. Program director and professor of comparative humanities James Shields, on behalf of the program, affirms that the opinions espoused by Wax are not supported by the comparative humanities program. The department is sponsoring the talk, however, because, as Shields said, “protecting our students from such voices does them no great service, particularly given that Wax gives voice to opinions that are increasingly widespread here at Bucknell and beyond. We believe that what is needed is the development of the intellectual skills to combat such arguments everywhere. We believe that our mission is to teach our students to call out the fallacious arguments posed by such figures and argue with them.”

When asked if Wax’s visit creates or contributes to a hostile environment on campus, Shields said, “A hostile environment already exists on this campus. Our students of color are faced with ideas like those promoted by Amy Wax every day, in their classrooms, in their study groups, in social life here, from both students and professors.”

The Bucknell Institute of Public Policy (BIPP) was another co-sponsor of the talk. Director of BIPP Amy Wolaver claims that the faculty steering committee considered the talk, based on the topic of “the complex question of how dispute and disagreement on controversial topics should work in a university, and what’s hindering an embrace of fuller viewpoint diversity at present.”

“We are a nonpartisan institute; our sponsoring or co-sponsoring an event does not imply that we endorse any of the views of the speakers,” Wolaver said.

The department of education rescinded support for the talk, because, according to department chair Lori Smalleck, “It would be inappropriate for us to assume that students can determine if Professor Wax’s statements are based on evidence or opinions due to the nature in which she presents them. Specifically, she presents her statements as factual when indeed they are not evidence based and rather opinions.”

Smolleck also stated that she believes “that inaccurate and or deceitful information was presented to me as dept. chair regarding the purpose of her talk in an effort to garner support.”

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