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Penn Law professor who said black students are ‘rarely’ in top half of class loses teaching duties

A University of Pennsylvania law school professor will no longer teach required courses following outcry over a video in which she suggested — falsely, according to the school — that black students seldom graduated high in their class.

Amy Wax, a tenured professor, will continue to teach electives in her areas of expertise but will be removed from teaching first-year curriculum courses, Penn Law Dean Theodore Ruger said in a statement Wednesday.

Ruger said Wax spoke “disparagingly and inaccurately” when she claimed last year that she had “rarely, rarely” seen a black student finish in the top half of their class.

“It is imperative for me as dean to state that these claims are false,” he said, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper.

“Black students have graduated in the top of the class at Penn Law,” Ruger said. “And contrary to any suggestion otherwise, black students at Penn Law are extremely successful, both inside and outside the classroom, in the job market, and in their careers.”

Wax didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment early Thursday morning. In an article last week on a petition to discipline her, she told the Daily Pennsylvanian that “student performance is a matter of fact, not opinion. It is what it is.”

The professor’s remarks came in an interview she gave in September 2017 with Brown University professor Glenn Loury titled, “The Downside to Social Uplift.”

“Here’s a very inconvenient fact, Glenn: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely, in the top half,” Wax said in the video, which discussed affirmative action policies. “I can think of one or two students who scored in the top half of my required first-year course.”

Wax, who specializes in social welfare law and policy, also claimed in the video that the school’s law review had a diversity mandate. Ruger said that was incorrect, too. “The Law Review does not have a diversity mandate. Rather, its editors are selected based on a competitive process,” he said.

The exchange and the resulting backlash echoed similar clashes that have played out at colleges around the country in recent years. Minority students have pressured academic institutions for more recognition, saying faculty and administrators have failed to address bigotry on campus. At the same time, a growing national focus on race and so-called identity politics has given rise to a new breed of political provocateurs who have brought inflammatory views about social issues to lecture halls from coast to coast.

When Wax’s video surfaced earlier this month, it sparked outrage among student groups and faculty members, many of whom called her statements racist. A petition circulated calling on Ruger to discipline her.

“Amy Wax insinuated demonstrably false and deeply offensive claims about black law students and alumni,” Nick Hall, a third-year law student and president of the school’s Black Law Students Association, told Philadelphia magazine last week. “In the end, this story will not be about Amy Wax. She doesn’t need any more of a platform. It will be about the resilience of black Penn Law students to rise against bigotry.”

Regarding the decision to remove her from teaching first-year courses, Ruger said he would expect students to feel denigrated by Wax’s remarks.

“Black students assigned to her class in their first week at Penn Law may reasonably wonder whether their professor has already come to a conclusion about their presence, performance and potential for success in law school and thereafter,” he said.

In recent months, Wax seems to have turned her public statements about race and culture into something of a brand. Before her video drew attention, an August commentary in by Wax and another academic stirred controversy for advocating a return to a “bourgeois” era in American society.

“All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy,” Wax wrote. The column went on to state that some working-class whites, “rap culture of inner-city blacks” and “anti assimilation ideas” among Hispanic immigrants were destructive to American democracy. The piece called on academics, the media and Hollywood to “relinquish multicultural grievance polemics” and “return to the 1950s posture of celebrating” bourgeois culture.

Around the same time, she told the Daily Pennsylvanian that “everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans” because their cultural norms were superior. “I don’t shrink from the word ‘superior,’” she told the newspaper.

In response, a group of 33 Penn Law faculty members condemned her remarks. She had every right to express her opinions without fear of legal sanction or fear of being fired, they wrote in an open letter, but she was not immune from criticism. “We categorically reject Wax’s claims,” they wrote.

Her commentary was also blasted by student groups, who wrote that her arguments were “steeped in anti-blackness” and “white supremacy,” and called on Penn Law leadership to denounce her.

Wax defended her positions in an hour-long lecture in October, suggesting that some of her colleagues were trying to suppress unpopular opinions. “One does have the right to hurl crude words like yuck, ick, xenophobe, hater, and of course, the ubiquitous, accusatory ‘racist,’” she said. “But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do or the right way to go about academic discourse.”

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