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Princeton Fires Tenured Professor in Campus Controversy

A Princeton classics professor was fired, “effective immediately,” on Monday after the university’s administration found that he had not been fully honest and cooperative with an investigation into his sexual relationship with an undergraduate student about 15 years ago.

The dismissal of the professor, Joshua Katz, was a rare case of a tenured professor being dismissed, and came after a fierce debate on campus and in wider political spheres over whether Dr. Katz was being targeted for an article in an online journal that criticized anti-racist proposals by faculty, students and staff.

The board voted to dismiss him based on a “detailed written complaint from an alumna who had a consensual relationship with Dr. Katz while she was an undergraduate under his academic supervision,” according to a statement from the university issued Monday afternoon. That relationship was in 2006-07, but the alumna did not file her complaint until 2021.

When told that Princeton had announced his firing, Dr. Katz’s wife, Solveig Gold said, “That’s news to me. We have nothing.” She added, “It’s pretty damning that we don’t have it ourselves.”

Dr. Katz declined to comment immediately. But last week, Dr. Katz’s lawyer, Samantha Harris, said, “In our view, this is the culmination of the witch hunt that began days after Professor Katz published an article in Quillette that led people to call for his termination.”

The university’s statement did not even allude to the free speech issue — Dr. Katz’s denunciation of a faculty letter urging Princeton to take steps against institutional racism. The reasons the university gave for dismissing him were confined to his conduct surrounding the relationship with the student.

It said a 2021 investigation had “established multiple instances in which Dr. Katz misrepresented facts or failed to be straightforward” during an earlier Princeton investigation in 2018 into the relationship with the undergraduate.

One such instance, the statement said, was “a successful effort to discourage the alumna from participating and cooperating after she expressed the intent to do so.” The investigation also found that “Dr. Katz exposed the alumna to harm while she was an undergraduate by discouraging her from seeking mental health care although he knew her to be in distress, all in an effort to conceal a relationship he knew was prohibited by university rules,” according to the statement.

These actions, the statement said, were “not only egregious violations of university policy, but also entirely inconsistent with his obligations as a member of the faculty.”

Dr. Katz and his allies pointed out that he had already been punished once for the relationship, and contended that it was being resurrected as a pretext to retaliate against him for an article he published in Quillette, an online journal. The article criticized anti-racist proposals set forward in a July 2020 letter signed by more than 300 Princeton faculty, students and staff.

In the most widely quoted and reviled element of his article, he called a student group, the Black Justice League, a “small local terrorist organization” that had made the lives of many students, including Black students, miserable.

The firing was expected after Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, recommended his termination in a May 10 letter to the chair of the board of trustees.

Princeton rejected the idea that Dr. Katz was targeted for his political views. In a November 2021 report laying out the evidence for Dr. Katz’s dismissal — which Dr. Eisgruber relied on for his recommendation — the faculty dean, Gene A. Jarrett, said, “the current political climate of the university, whether perceived or real, is not germane to the case, nor does it play a role in my recommendation.”

Dr. Katz, who was hired by Princeton in 1998 and received tenure in 2006, had a sexual relationship with an undergraduate from June 2006 through her graduation in 2007, according to Dr. Jarrett’s report.

Princeton learned of the relationship years later through an anonymous tip and investigated in 2018. Dr. Katz confessed to a consensual relationship and was quietly suspended for a year without pay.

Dr. Jarrett’s report said Dr. Katz was suspended for violating the university’s “Consensual Relations With Students” policy as it stood in 2006 and 2007. In addition, “his failure to disclose to university officials an ongoing personal and romantic relationship with a student he was grading and supervising” was found to violate the university’s nepotism policy, the report said.

When the spotlight was on Dr. Katz for his denunciation of the faculty anti-racist proposals in 2020, the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, began an investigation of sexual harassment allegations against him. In February 2021, the paper published a long article exposing his relationship with the undergraduate.

After that article, the former student, who had not cooperated with investigators in 2018, while she was a law student, filed a 63-page complaint to the university against Dr. Katz, and Princeton opened a new investigation. The student was not named in The Princetonian’s article and could not be reached for comment.

Princeton apparently anticipated that the investigation could be seen as a form of double jeopardy, and was careful to say that it was not reinvestigating the sexual relationship, but rather was looking into new issues, according to Dr. Jarrett’s report.

“His decision to put his own interests above his obligation, as a member of the faculty, to protect his student” was enough by itself to justify dismissing Dr. Katz, the report said.

In May, Dr. Eisgruber accepted Dr. Jarrett’s recommendation and submitted it to the trustees.

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