Saturday, May 28, 2022

Career-Ending Consensual Affairs

Two somewhat related stories have caught Curmie’s attention of late.  What they have in common is that elite universities are now punishing scholars for romantic/sexual affairs with students or colleagues, relationships which have long since ended.  The cases differ in significant ways, too, with the result that Curmie can’t decide which is worse.

Joshua Katz

Let’s take them in the order they appeared on Curmie’s radar.  In 2006, and apparently for some time thereafter, Princeton Classics professor Joshua Katz engaged in a romantic/sexual relationship with a student.  Apparently, the affair began when the young woman was a junior and continued until after her graduation.  OK, so Katz would have been pretty close to twice her age, so there’s a little bit of an “ick” factor, and it’s not at all unreasonable for a university to forbid even ostensibly consensual relationships between faculty and students.  

In this case, apparently, the student in question was Katz’s senior thesis advisee, so that complicates matters considerably.  Katz claims “It was a consensual relationship. It did not involve — nor has anyone ever suggested that it involved — any coercion, harassment, or quid pro quo.”  This may be true, but it’s still not unreasonable for the university to raise a skeptical eyebrow in response.

But it’s not until 2018, over a decade later, that Katz was punished for the affair: a one-year suspension without pay.  The now-former student apparently refused to participate in the proceedings.  (What inspired the investigation to begin with is unclear, at least to Curmie.)

OK: what follows next may look unrelated, but go with me here…  In 2020, in the immediate aftermath of the Great George Floyd Kerfuffle, a group of Princeton faculty—literally hundreds of them—signed an open letter to university officials, demanding that the university “publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus.”  It’s pretty predictable fare, including both important aspirations and ridiculous, even illegal, demands like automatically granting black faculty course relief and summer salary.  Particularly noteworthy in Curmie’s mind was the complaint that faculty of color are “routinely called upon to exert influence in hiring committees.”  It requires little imagination to guess what the complaint would be if this were not the case. 

Anyway, in a published response on Quillette, Professor Katz had the audacity to suggest that the Faculty Letter might have been something less than the divinely inspired.  Katz argues that there are four potential reasons for affixing one’s name to that document:

(1) They believe in every word. I suppose this is true for a few, including, presumably, those members of the faculty who were the initial drafters.

(2) They signed without reading it. I would not ordinarily believe this, but I am aware of a similar petition, not at Princeton, that people were asked to sign—and did so!—before knowing what they were putting their name to.

(3) They felt peer pressure to sign. This is entirely believable.

(4) They agree with some of the demands and felt it was good to act as “allies” and bring up the numbers even though they do not assent to everything themselves.

Katz believes that #4 was the principal reason many of his friends signed on.  Curmie suspects #2 and #3, as well.  I just hope that few professors at one of the nation’s greatest universities fall into category #1.

Katz then launches into a lengthy, more or less point by point, decimation of the group’s demands (which are far longer than Katz’s response).  You can read it for yourself, Gentle Reader.  Curmie merely calls attention to two important elements: 1) that Katz supports some of the points raised by his colleagues, is neutral about some, and opposed others. 2). He is unequivocal in his belief that his fellow faculty are free to believe and indeed to say what they choose about their concerns: “To my colleagues who signed the Faculty Letter: If you signed it independently and thoughtfully, good for you.”

Oh, one more thing: Katz describes “Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, [as] a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.”  This rather expansive use of the term “terrorist,” a locution he subsequently defended (here), of course, allowed those who disagreed with Katz to ignore the substance of his essay and to concentrate on what they labeled as racist commentary. 

Shortly thereafter, calls began to have Katz censured or, despite his tenure, fired.  Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber argued in a statement to The Daily Princetonian that “While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly.”  

That student newspaper also reports that “University Spokesperson Ben Chang said in a separate statement that the administration “will be looking into the matter further.”  Well, that’s certainly not chilling of free expression, right?  Notice that there’s no similar denunciation of those who call Katz a racist.  (It is hypothetically possible, of course, that Eisgruber did indeed say something of the like, but the editors of an undergrad newspaper sort of casually forgot to include that part.)

Eisgruber finally, a few days later, issues another statement, this time affirming free speech, and even granting that other parts of Katz’s essay are worthy of consideration.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) responded: 

FIRE applauds Eisgruber’s message, but has to ask: What took so long? Free speech is a founding principle of higher education, eloquently enshrined in Princeton’s own regulations with such forceful statements as, “[I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive[.]

Good point.

Anyway, there’s more—a lot more—but you see where we’re going here, don’t you, Gentle Reader?  We jump ahead in time to 2021, when, for undisclosed reasons, the young woman with whom Katz had had a fling over a decade earlier suddenly decides to share information about that old relationship with university officials.  Apparently she gives them emails (Katz says they were de-contextualized) and accused Katz of trying to dissuade her from seeking counseling while the relationship was going on or cooperating with the 2018 investigation.

So now, to use a term that appears not infrequently in criminal cases involving double jeopardy, Princeton wanted, and got, another bite of the apple.  The university, of course, contends that these were entirely new allegations, thereby freeing them to pursue their witch-hunt punish Katz for being insufficiently Woke legally and ethically take further action against Professor Katz.  Oh, and of course none of this has anything to do with Katz’s criticism of the “anti-racism” initiative.  (Curmie’s mantra: if you have to tell me, it ain’t so.)

Predictably, Eisburger urged the university’s Trustees to fire Katz (reminder: he had tenure); they obediently complied earlier this month. 


1). Trustees, Regents, Councilors, whatever they’re called at a given university, will always, and I do mean always, rubberstamp any truly idiotic idea from the administration... unless, of course, their de facto job is indeed to be a rubberstamp (hiring faculty, tenure and promotion decisions, honorary degrees, etc.), in which case they consider themselves free to interfere.

2). The relationship between Katz and the student was consensual, albeit uneven in power dynamics.  Were this a criminal case (which Curmie understands that it was not), it would be thrown out for not one, but two, irrefutable reasons: not only double jeopardy, but also timing.  Whatever we think of Katz’s actions, they fall well short of forcible rape, the statute of limitations for which in New Jersey is seven years.  Katz’s relationship with the student took place over a decade ago.

3). Had Dr. Katz been fired instead of suspended in 2018, it would have been reasonable. This was not.

4). It is possible that the two cases are, as President Eisburger describes them, completely unrelated.  It is also possible that the Nigerian prince who promises to reward me handsomely in the future in exchange for a short-term loan of only a couple thousand dollars is entirely on the up-and-up.

David Sabatini

OK—moving on to the second case.  MIT biologist David Sabatini was fired after having an affair with a considerably younger colleague, Kristin Knouse, who claimed he “groomed” and “coerced” her into a sexual relationship, according to a report and court papers.

There’s an extensive overview of the to-ings and fro-ings of the relationship here.  A few points to highlight: Dr. Knouse was 29 years old, a grown woman, when the affair started in 2018.  And she’s obviously intelligent: people with a PhD from MIT and just short of finishing an MD from Harvard (she finished that degree a few months into the affair) tend not to be stupid.  Does anyone else think that’s a little too old and a little too worldly-wise to have been “groomed”?

Moreover, although they both worked at MIT, she did not work in his lab or report to him in any way.  So there’s little if any possibility of a quid pro quo.  As NYU Medical School Dean Robert Grossman puts it, “If people are close minded to the idea that there can be a consensual relationship between two adults, I’m afraid we can’t make any traction.”

To be fair, there was a change in HR guidelines at MIT while the affair was underway, prohibiting lab heads from sexual relationships with co-workers.  It’s unclear whether the continuing affair, or Sabatini’s failure to report it, really constituted a violation of the new policy, as they weren’t really co-workers, per se.  Moreover, things were “fizzling” in the relationship, so it seemed not to matter.

The chances are very good, Gentle Reader, that you will recognize this scenario: X and Y were once lovers, but the relationship fell apart.  X now regrets having entered into the affair at all, blames Y for its demise, especially if it was Y who broke things off, and does not harbor exclusively positive feelings towards the ex.  If Knouse is “X” in this scenario, she’d be joining about 98% of the rest of us.  Good people like you and I, Gentle Reader, wouldn’t stoop to trying to ruin an ex’s career, but not everyone is as ethical as we are. 

Sabatini further argues that he was denied due process:

I was not given an opportunity to hear the allegations made against me and was never informed of the true nature of the allegations that were being investigated. The names of witnesses were withheld, and I was forbidden from speaking with any colleagues about the matter. I was not initially permitted to have any attorney present during the process, although others were.  

I was given no opportunity to present any exculpatory material nor to present witnesses. There was no cross-examination or any opportunity at all to challenge the claims. Though I was promised the opportunity to review and respond to any report before it was finalized, I was never allowed to do so. To this day I am unaware of who made accusations against me and what exactly they said.

Certainly the report initiated by university, though voluminous, is notable primarily for its squishiness.  Sabatini didn’t really have power over Knouse, but had “indirect influence,” whatever the hell that means, over her.  There wasn’t even the suggestion of a quid pro quo, but he had “experience, stature, and age” over her.  (The question “So freaking what?” rises to the surface.)

The report claims that whereas “we have not found any evidence that Sabatini discriminates against or fails to support females in his lab, we find that Sabatini’s propensity to praise or gravitate toward those in the lab that mirror his desired personality traits, scientific success, or view of ‘science above all else,’ creates additional obstacles for female lab members.”  So success and focus are now specifically masculine traits?  Curmie thought Sabatini was the one accused of sexism.

Colleagues claim that words were put in their mouths by the investigating lawyers, that the characterization of Sabatini as lascivious and retaliatory is “deeply insane,” and, chillingly, that they are unwilling to go on the record in support of Sabatini not because they believe him guilty of anything, but because they fear retribution should they publicly support him. 

By all accounts, Dr. Sabatini is brilliant—described by colleagues as a “genius,” “one of the best scientists alive,” “a pillar,” and a prospective Nobel laureate.  Of course, none of this is relevant if Sabatini did in fact coerce sex from Knouse.  But it does mean that if he’s really innocent, as he claims, that the loss to the scientific community—and indeed to us all—is especially significant.  The chairman of the board of NYU’s Langone Medical Center described their vetting of Sabatini for a possible position as “exhaustive.” The fact that NYU ultimately didn’t offer him a job can legitimately be described as pandering to the mob an absurd excess of caution.

Based on unsubstantiated allegations, hearsay, and a process that could charitably be described as flawed, MIT cut ties with a universally-acknowledged brilliant scientist, leading to an unraveling of his entire career.  The level of evidence adduced here, even though in serious dispute, could legitimately be a reason to deny tenure.  It isn’t even in the ballpark of enough to revoke it.  Unless there’s a lot more to the story than currently meets the eye, MIT is in for a serious reckoning.

So, which is worse?  Firing a tenured professor for an offense he’s already been punished for (and masking the true reason—to eliminate someone who refuses to drink the Kool-Aid of politico-philosophical orthodoxy)?  Or firing a tenured professor because his ex doesn’t like him anymore?  Curmie can’t decide. 

Oh, one more thing these two cases have in common.  Sabatini is already suing; Katz is almost certain to do so.  It’s a good thing Princeton and MIT have deep pockets.  Curmie suspects they’re going to need them.

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