Philly lawmakers call on Penn to revoke professor’s tenure after racist comments

Amy Wax teaches a class at the University of Pennsylvania.

Amy Wax teaches a class at the University of Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania)

Philadelphia leaders and politicians, led by Sen. Anthony H. Williams, convened Thursday to condemn anti-Asian comments made by University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax. The public officials questioned why Wax remains at the university as a tenured professor and called on Penn to revoke her tenure.

City Councilmember David Oh, Catherine Hicks, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, Senator Sharif Street, and others joined Williams to discuss Wax’s racist comments about Asians and the Asian-American community. Wax made her remarks in conversation with Brown University professor Glenn Loury on The Glenn Show.

The next Sunday, Loury allowed Wax to respond to growing criticism of her words, but she made matters worse by elaborating on her position.

“Maybe it’s just that Democrats love open borders, and Asians want more Asians here,” she wrote. “Perhaps they … are just mesmerized by the feel-good cult of ‘diversity.’ I don’t know the answer. But as long as most Asians support Democrats and help to advance their positions, I think the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.”

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This is not the first time that Wax has come under fire for racist remarks.

In 2006, faculty members at Penn Law criticized her public remarks against same-sex marriage. A decade later, again, on the Glenn Show, Wax made racist remarks towards Black students in a first-year law class, saying, “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.”

Penn removed Wax from teaching mandatory first-year courses in 2018.

“Many of us stand in amazement that in 2021 we are still reflecting upon limited and bigoted views,” Williams said. Williams called hate speech especially detrimental as the country grapples with issues of social justice and racism.

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“Dr. Wax’s comments … are speaking to a tone and a temperament that is running through this country that is making all of us extremely fearful,” he said.

So far, Penn hasn’t made any public plans to discipline the professor. The lack of action was a big point of concern for the speakers.

Dr. Amy Wax, Councilmember David Oh pointed out, has a right to free speech as a person.

“The question is, does she have a right to say that as a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania? The university has responded by saying she has tenure. I would question that seriously,” he continued.

In a statement to WHYY, Penn Law said the school’s dean, Ted Ruger, has consulted faculty regarding “appropriate action.”

“University rules require that any sanction on a faculty member, whether major or minor, must go through a process that involves Faculty Senate authority, and cannot be made by a dean or other administrator unilaterally. Dean Ruger is carefully considering all aspects of that process and will announce more specific action imminently,”  the university spokesperson said.

Speakers noted that Wax’s remarks could deter future students of color from considering the institution. In 2020, Penn’s undergraduate student body was 8% Black students, and 25% Asian or Pacific islander. Penn Law says its entering student body for Fall 2021 is 48% students of color. 

“The fact of the matter is that it will affect people who want to apply to the school to go to law school. It will have a chilling effect on African-American students who attend when you demean and demoralize them as well…the speech of this professor has a chilling effect.” Senator Street said.

Senator Williams, in closing, gave his final suggestion to the university.

“What’s efficient is that Professor Wax is removed and no longer hides behind the veil of tenure to spew her hateful speech.”

WHYY’s Tom MacDonald contributed to this report.

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