The National Association of Scholars gave Amy Wax the Peter Shaw Memorial Award on April 12, 2018, at a ceremony in New York hosted by the magazine First Things. Here we publish an abbreviated version of the speech that NAS President Peter Wood gave on the occasion.
At the time of his death at age 58 in 1995, Peter Shaw was chairman of the National Association of Scholars. Peter had been a professor of English at SUNY Stony Brook from 1965 to 1980. His tenure there was cut short by a heart attack. He found his second vocation in helping to found and carry forward a new movement aimed at revitalizing intellectual inquiry, the liberal arts, and academic freedom in American higher education. Peter was one of the small group of people who, along with Steve Balch and Herb London, founded a working group in 1982 that five years later would incorporate as the National Association of Scholars.
After Peter’s death, the National Association of Scholars established a memorial fund to support an award in his name, for the purpose of honoring scholars who have made signal contributions to academic freedom. On this occasion, we have tweaked that purpose ever so slightly. Rusty Reno suggested that we amend it in the case of Professor Wax from “academic freedom” to “academic courage.” I trust the aptness of that alteration doesn’t require much explanation. For academic freedom to mean something it needs the added ingredient of courage. Willingness to stand up to those who those who attempt to enforce conformity and silence is never easy.
Outsiders who don’t know better sometimes think that tenure obviates the need for courage. The tenured professor can speak his mind in perfect security. But that’s not how things work. The tenured professor can be fired for concocted reasons, as recently happened to Professor John McAdams at Marquette University. The tenured professor can be hounded to the wall by relentless administrators determined to silence a dissenter from feminist orthodoxy, as is happening to Professor Dennis Gouws at Springfield College. The tenured professor can find his peer-reviewed article erased from a journal when the publisher caves to death threats against the editor, as happened to Professor Bruce Gilley at Portland State University.
That partial roll call is necessary to understand the significance of Professor Amy Wax’s actions since August 2017. Last August she co-authored an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer in which she argued that allegiance to bourgeois values, such as getting married before having children, would go a long way towards improving the lives of young people. This was taken as a racial insult by some students and a cry went up at Penn Law School to punish Professor Wax.
Her dean sided in spirit with the protesters but could find no grounds to punish her. Some protesters, stung by their lack of success, began looking for something more incriminating. They thought they found it when they discovered a recording of The Glenn Show from September 10, 2017, in which Brown University professor Glenn Loury interviewed Professor Wax.
Professor Loury brought up the problem of those black students admitted to academic programs through preferential treatment. What happens, asks Loury, “when you are looking at that kid in the face and the kid is saying are you saying that we are unqualified and we don’t deserve to be here?” Professor Wax answers that when she has to answer a direct question she explains what she calls the “downside of affirmative action,” which consists of taking “perfectly capable kids” and putting them in programs in which they are over their heads. Then comes the sentence that occasions all the trouble that is to follow: In reference to the Penn Law School, “I don’t think I have ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter and rarely, rarely in the top half.”
I should add that Professor Wax observed this in a tone of regret, as one who wished better for those students whom she saw as victims of well-intentioned but dysfunctional admissions policies.
During the first weeks of March 2018, some students at the School circulated an online petition, citing this sentence, calling on their school to ban Professor Wax from teaching first-year law students. They also demanded that the school declare Professor Wax’s statement false.
On March 13, the Penn Law dean, Ted Ruger, capitulated to the petitioners on their primary demand and their demand for several other punishments for Professor Wax. Dean Ruger, however, presented his repudiation of the accuracy of Professor Wax’s observation in an oddly evasive manner. He said, “it is imperative” that he “state” that Professor Wax’s “claims” are false. That is a far from saying that Wax’s statements are actually false.
No one to date has come up with an instance that vitiates Professor Wax’s observation. In anticipation of that the petitioners created a strawman, to the effect that merely talking about the subject without mentioning anybody in particular is, “in clear violation of the terms and spirit of Penn Law’s anonymous grading policy, and compromises the law school’s assurance that grades are maintained by the Registrar under strict scrutiny.”
Professor Wax plainly did not violate any student’s confidentiality. She had and still has the right to speak about the issues that Glenn Loury raised. And as far we can tell, she told the truth about the academic performance of black students at the Law School. If she is in error— which is possible—it would have to be a very minor error, since a plain factual refutation would have been forthcoming by this point. The attack from the bushes of “anonymous grading policy” is merely an effort to circumvent the pertinent facts which seem to vindicate Professor Wax.
That’s the play. The petitioners, having carried their initial points with Dean Ruger, have upped the ante by calling for Professor Wax’s firing from her tenured position.
Now to the business at hand.
Amy Wax, Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania; Yale graduate; Harvard Medical School M.D.; Columbia J.D., expert on social welfare law and policy, renowned teacher of civil procedure, author of Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century, the National Association of Scholars takes this occasion to recognize your remarkable service to American higher education.
You have stood tall against the gale-force winds of demagogy that now blow through the academy. You have spoken the truth without fear or favor when others have cowered. You have braved the calumnies of those who, unable to answer your arguments, have resorted to unrelenting personal attack. Under fire, you have neither retreated nor flinched, but walked calmly forward. However shallow the safeguards of tenure may be in an age of academic casuistry, and however fearful honest colleagues may be as they sense the fanaticism of the mob, you have shown that clarity of purpose for which there is only one proper word: courage. I speak of moral courage, but not only of moral courage. The threats against those who defy the prescriptions of the social justice enforcers can lead to physical violence.
Professor Amy Wax, in recognition of your words and actions not only during the last academic year but over your career as a teacher and scholar unafraid to speak the truth in times and places where it pays to fall silent or to temporize, the National Association of Scholars proudly bestows on you the Peter Shaw Memorial Award for Academic Courage.