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Editorial: the debate over Amy Wax’s visit

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Controversy swirled this week around a pending visit to the University from Amy Wax, a professor at Penn Law school. At the time of this writing, Wax had not delivered her lecture yet, which was scheduled for April 26. Yet before she even set foot on campus, conflict did not escape the controversial professor, as several faculty members voiced concerns about her recent visit. The main concern was that Wax’s perspective would create or contribute to a hostile environment on campus, due to her beliefs that supporting a “bourgeois culture” is beneficial to society’s growth and, additionally, that it is rare for African-American students at Penn Law school to graduate in the top percentages of their classes.

However, one of the main issues with this talk is not her anticipated presence on campus, but rather the sponsorship of her talk by several groups and departments on campus. Originally, several academic departments in addition to student organizations were set to sponsor the event. Though one department withdrew their sponsorship, we find it problematic for any educational department that claims to educate students on a basis of equality for all identities to sponsor her talk. Sponsorship is a separate level of ideological solidarity than the mere belief that free speech is a valuable liberty to which all Americans have the right to ascribe. Sponsorship implies endorsement. Even if a departments claims not to share or support Wax’s beliefs (which some have), they cannot escape the implication. A student of color in one of the departments that co-sponsored the event, for example, may now fear that his or her professors do not believe he or she can succeed as a top member of the class. How is bringing someone who could possibly instill this fear into students here worthy of paid endorsement?

We agree that there is a disparity of political beliefs on campus: much of the University’s faculty and student body are left-leaning, which creates an environment that primarily fosters liberal political values. We understand that the Bucknell Conservatives Club, in inviting Wax to speak, is attempting to offer a variant viewpoint on issues of social justice, and recognize their right to do so. However, we find that in inviting past speakers who espouse divisive and highly controversial views, such as Milo Yiannopoulous and Christina Hoff-Sommers, and now Amy Wax, they seem to have dulled their original intention. The speakers the Conservatives Club tends to invite are individuals who represent the most extreme and alienating faction of the conservative philosophy. It does not matter whether these individuals actually represent extreme views or not, the perception is still there. We see their point, we respect their efforts to prove their point, but we believe they could go about it in a much more productive and effective manner. 

At the end of the day, the point of college is to expose ourselves to a diversity of perspectives, including ones with which we disagree. We cannot stop the University from bringing someone like Amy Wax to campus, but we can attend her talk and ask questions that at best, may expose some of the issues with her rhetoric and at worst, allow us to grow as scholars and individuals.

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4 Responses to “Editorial: the debate over Amy Wax’s visit”

  1. Man with the Axe on April 27th, 2018 10:20 am

    I find it hard to believe that university students cannot see the difference between wanting to hear someone else’s views and agreeing with those views.

    A person with an inquisitive mind should want to hear opposing views even more than views that he already holds. In an admittedly left-wing environment, it is conservative views that give you something to chew on, something to challenge the views you already held when you arrived on campus.

    Amy Wax is not a Nazi. She is not Milo. She is a serious academic who clearly wants black students to do better than they currently do. The first step in improving the performance of black law students is to acknowledge that they don’t do very well at present, and trying to figure out why. If you think she has the wrong diagnosis or remedy, argue with her. But denying her a platform is close-minded and goes against the purpose of the university.

    If some black students are going to feel “threatened” by hearing what she has to say, all the ore evidence that they really need to hear it.

  2. ATR on April 29th, 2018 3:17 pm

    Now that I’ve seen this article, I regret having responded to the request for a quote and thereby lending this treatment of the Wax visit (which, as it was written before she spoke here, isn’t even about that visit) an undeserved veneer of objectivity.

    This article is full of factual inaccuracies and absurd quotations from sources that give the reader no reason whatsoever to believe they have read anything Wax has written.

    I gave the writers of this article many sources in response to their request for information about the Wax visit and controversy. It would seem they did not so much as glance at that material.

    It is claimed that Wax 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.” But that quotation is an utter fabrication, not even close to the very specific and much more qualified statement she actually made about her anecdotal take on black students at Penn Law.

    So the writers evidently did not even bother to listen to the podcast in which Wax made her remarks on this topic.

    As bad as this is, the opinion piece in the paper is, somehow, even worse. (See my long comment there at: ).

    Very disappointing. Much more is expected of Bucknell students.

  3. ATR on April 29th, 2018 3:25 pm

    The Bucknellian has fallen down on the job here and on their other piece in this issue on the Amy Wax visit to our campus.

    Judging though from the anti-Wax faculty voices they have sampled in the other article, which offer nothing more than name-calling, the student writers may have gotten the impression that having strong opinions on matters that you have spent little time or energy researching is just how things are done around here.

    I am co-adviser of the Bucknell Conservatives Club, and I worked with them to organize this past week’s club event, which was the invitation of Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

    Professor Wax was here Thursday to discuss how a number of debates about social policy have been skewed in the academic context in ways that severely limit our ability to find solutions to social problems. She argued that we are now in a situation where perfectly scholarly perspectives on, for example, inequality that lie outside of a relatively narrow range of ideological consensus are typically reacted to with great hostility and moral outrage in contemporary American higher education.

    The indignant, unreasoning reaction by a few of my faculty colleagues (and by the students who wrote the Bucknellian editorial as well) to her invitation furnishes substantial evidence for her thesis.

    The Bucknellian calls Wax “divisive,” “extreme,” and “alienating.” On what basis? The editorial writers refer only to “her beliefs that supporting a ‘bourgeois culture’ is beneficial to society’s growth and, additionally, that it is rare for African-American students at Penn Law school to graduate in the top percentages of their classes.”

    What is “bourgeois culture”? We haven’t the slightest idea after reading this editorial, because the writers say nothing about it, other than to note that someone who believes it could possibly be “beneficial to society’s growth” is “extreme” and “divisive.”

    The op-ed in which Wax discussed this matter is here:

    In that op-ed, Wax provides a list of precepts that define “bourgeois culture”: “Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”

    The reader is invited to look at that list and ask whether s/he thinks a society that adhered to those practices would prosper, and then to ask whether it is so obvious that the answer is ‘no’ that anyone who believed the contrary would have to be “extreme,” “divisive,” and “alienating.”

    Put the bourgeois virtues to the empirical test yourself and see what you find. Try working hard and avoiding idleness for a while, then doing the reverse and shirking work and sitting around playing video games, and compare your outcomes. Try being uncharitable, disrespectful, and coarse and see how things go for you. Then try the opposite and see how that works out. We’ll wait for you to report back on the results.

    The second piece of evidence the Bucknellian gives to show how “extreme” Professor Wax is has to do with her claim about how frequently black students graduate in the top of the class at Penn Law.

    Professor Wax admitted, in the podcast appearance in which she made this claim, that she did not have access to the data that would enable her to fully substantiate her claim, as those data are “a closely guarded secret,” and that she was therefore working from the limited information on student performance in her own classes (“I haven’t done a systematic study”).

    It would not have been too hard for the Bucknellian to just listen to the discussion to verify this. The whole podcast interview can be found online. Here’s a link to the relevant part of the hour long discussion (start here and go to about 50:35):

    Very clearly, Wax is making a statement there that she realizes is limited by her access to the data that would be needed to be certain that her anecdotal account was accurate. The Bucknellian thinks this statement qualifies her as “extreme.” But what evidence do her critics have that she is not correct? None, or at least that’s what they’ve provided to date. Why are they so sure then that she is wrong?

    Does the Bucknellian imagine there must be a case for labeling Wax as “extreme” simply because “several faculty members voiced concerns”? But what if those faculty members who “voiced concerns” haven’t done their homework?

    It is of some note that Glenn Loury, a professor of economics at Brown University who was the person with whom Wax was conversing in the podcast, has expressed his position on Wax’s comments and the reactions to them by those, like the Bucknellian, who found them “extreme”: Isn’t it interesting that the person who was there for the entire hour long conversation with Wax did not find her remarks “extreme”? Maybe Professor Loury (who just happens to be black) is an “extrem[ist]” too?

    The Bucknellian editorial writers postulate a remarkable causal connection between Wax’s remarks on this topic and the possible effects of her talk at Bucknell: they apparently believe that any Bucknell departments that would sponsor her visit to campus “cannot escape the implication [that they endorse “Wax’s beliefs”]” and that they therefore would cause “student[s] of color in [co-sponsoring] departments [to] fear that his or her professors do not believe he or she can succeed as a top member of the class.”

    So, let’s boil that down: they are saying that agreeing to help support her visit means you are telling students of color that you believe they cannot do well.

    First of all, as I’ve just noted above, the Bucknellian clearly does not even know what “Wax’s beliefs” are, nor do they make any kind of case that they are “extreme.” Wax said nothing in the podcast discussion about her expectations of students. She spoke about what she had observed over the course of many years as a teacher. I can observe that I’ve seen lots of evidence that e.g., men in their 20s commit substantially more violent crime than men in their 70s without thereby making any kind of a statement about how I think about or treat 20 year old men (or 70 year old men) when I run across them.

    Stating facts, or what one speculates might well be a fact based on one’s reading of the information one has, about a thing has no necessary relationship to how one values those things. Knowing that, to take another example, more men than women go into engineering doesn’t mean you have to like that fact, and it certainly doesn’t mean you are necessarily committed to helping that situation persist.

    The Bucknellian writers apparently believe that a department that decided to co-sponsor the Wax visit is necessarily endorsing any specific claims she makes. What if they just decide that they will co-sponsor any requests for talks they receive that they understand to be within the legitimate scholarly purview of debate? (and let’s be clear: Wax’s work clearly is inside those boundaries, as evidenced by the fact that she has a full professorship at an Ivy League institution and regularly publishes her work in well-respected scholarly journals and presses).

    So nothing can be inferred by students or anyone else about a department’s co-sponsorship of a speaker except that they are recognizing it as inside the legitimate sphere of academic debate and discourse.

    If students of color, or any other students for that matter, do not think Wax is a legitimate contributor to academic debate, or if they are confused as to what she actually has written and said, I would suggest that can be quickly addressed simply by reading her and listening to what she says in careful detail and context. I’ve already provided a few links to help here.

    Here also is Professor Wax’s Penn Law page: It has links to a number of her publications. I invite readers to browse through those and see if they look like the writings of an “extrem[ist].”

    Here’s Google Books page for her book, which contains big chunks of the first two chapters:

    The whole book is available as an eBook in the Bucknell library, so any interested student can easily consult it. I would encourage interested students to do just that before they follow the Bucknellian’s example and leap into unfounded judgment and accusation

    The “extreme” crowd is, it turns out, an amazingly diverse one, for the Bucknellian. It includes not only Professor Wax, but also Christina Hoff Sommers, who has a Ph D in philosophy and was a tenured professor at a university before she left that post to take up a position at a political think tank. What’s the basis for calling Sommers “extreme”? No information is provided by the Bucknellian.

    The final individual in their “extreme” category is Milo Yiannopoulos, a media provocateur and professional troll with no significant academic training or publications. Do you see the move the Bucknellian has made here? There is absolutely no legitimate basis in fact, in the content of what these three have written and argued, to put them all in the same box in this manner, but the Bucknellian can count on many readers with as little information about Wax and Sommers as the Bucknellian writers themselves apparently have to see the virtue signaling move (‘oh, these two are like Milo? They MUST be extreme then!”) and to fall obediently into line.

    If the Bucknellian is troubled by “extreme” speakers at Bucknell, one wonders: what did they have to say when Chelsea Handler was here on campus recently? If you don’t think Handler can reasonably be described as “extreme,” have a look at page A5 here:

    The person who interviewed Handler at her event is a Bucknell professor, so by the Bucknellian’s logic, we have here an endorsement of Handler’s views by at least one faculty member, and conservative students in the classes of that faculty member might infer that they are being judged by reference to those views.

    So certainly the Bucknellian must have been concerned about Handler’s visit in the same way they were concerned about Wax’s, right?

    Well, compare the Bucknellian’s account of Handler’s visit to this editorial on Wax:

    Just to summarize: someone who has accused Republicans of “sanctioning mass murder” and who cannot say more than a few words on her Twitter account without personally insulting conservatives in vulgar and sometimes homophobic terms is not “extreme,” or “divisive,” or “alienating”; rather, her “heart [is] definitely in the right place” and she is someone the Bucknellian “admire[s].”

    Meanwhile, a full professor at an Ivy League law school with decades of scholarship, about whom the Bucknellian apparently knows nothing beyond what it has been told by a handful of faculty members who themselves give no evidence that they have read anything she has written or that they can mount anything in the way of criticism of her arguments beyond epithets,that person is “extreme.”

    If the Bucknellian were serious about accurately reporting on Wax’s visit, they’d have waited until they could actually hear her talk, and they would have spoken with people who had attended, and they would have done some homework to see what she has actually said and written.

    If they’d waited to hear the talk, they’d have seen that Professor Wax was eloquent, eminently scholarly, and exceptionally generous. She spoke for about 35 minutes and took questions for nearly an hour and half, staying even after most of the crowd had left to go into more detail with a few students who stayed. She fielded every critical question she received calmly and expertly, and by the end of the evening, I saw some of the students who initially evinced hostility to her argument nodding their heads in agreement as she communicated the complex realities underneath what they had perhaps assumed were simpler matters.

    Conservative students and community members who were there were effusive in their praise of Wax and of the BUCC for inviting her.

    The event was a stellar example of how to have civil discussions of difficult questions in an academic setting. It is exactly the kind of thing that Bucknell University ought to be doing much more often.

    On Friday, she agreed to visit one of my classes and for 90 minutes we had a vigorous discussion of her book. Students asked hard questions and again she responded with clarity and authority, and students were enthusiastic in thanking her for her visit.

    A serious report on Wax’s visit would have included this kind of detail.

    For those of us with high expectations of Bucknell students, this failed effort must be called what it is. If this were the classroom, the Bucknellian writers of this editorial and the other story on Wax’s visit would be looking at the necessity of making up a credit, because the grade here is F.

  4. kenneth a doak on April 30th, 2018 9:27 pm

    This editorial is nothing less than disgraceful. It exhibits a complete lack of research or understanding of the facts or the issues.

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Editorial: the debate over Amy Wax’s visit