The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Recently, Philadelphia Councilman David Oh wrote a letter urging the University of Pennsylvania to review Professor Amy Wax's "role with the university." More recently, PennLaw Dean Ted Ruger announced that he will begin a formal sanction process against Wax. Erich Makarov, a 3L at UPenn who was in Wax's class, wrote a letter in response to Oh, that also addresses the issues in Ruger's announcement. Erich asked me to post his letter, which I do here:
Dear Councilman Oh,
I would like to preface my letter to you by saying that I am a second-generation American of Eurasian heritage. My parents are immigrants who escaped a brutal, totalitarian regime and came to this country penniless. I am also currently a law student at the University of Pennsylvania.
I write to you with the humble request that you inquire further into what is really going on at Penn Law and with Professor Wax specifically. You have doubtlessly witnessed the media firestorm that followed Professor Wax's comments in her interview with Glenn Loury. As a Republican in a place like Philadelphia, you surely realize that media reactions and blue checkmarks on Twitter are not always the best indicator of what is true. Such is the case here. Here is what is definitely true. Professor Wax is provocative. She holds heterodox views. She is not afraid to voice unpopular ideas so long as she honestly believes them to be true. Many of these views are certainly offensive to some people.
But as her former student, I can state without a doubt that Professor Wax's ultimate goal is the preservation of the principles of ordered liberty and private property upon which this nation was founded. She believes these principles are in mortal danger and under constant assault. She has never advocated for any kind of ethnostate; racial policymaking is the exact opposite of what she supports. Her goal is to make American meritocracy impregnable and prevent the kind of race-based, equity-seeking system that progressives push on the American people. If you watch her entire interview with Professor Loury, you will hear her make several crucial points that are being omitted in the media space.
Professor Wax's greatest concern is that Asian-Americans overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party. As a Republican in Philadelphia, it is hard to imagine that you would not share this concern. The Democratic Party has done more to set back the rights, opportunities, and safety of Asian Americans (both recently and historically), than any political force in American history. But even beyond that, the agenda of the Democratic party is rattling the classical liberal foundations upon which our nation stands. With progressive prosecutors, militantly anti-religious politicians, and an army of young followers that despise genuine free expression, this party makes us unsafe in our own communities, attacks our faith relentlessly, and seeks to punish us for any speech that is deemed politically incorrect.
When Professor Wax sees that Asian-Americans overwhelmingly give their endorsement to this agenda by voting for its creators, she draws a narrow (but natural) conclusion that there is something incompatible about the values of immigrants from Asian countries with the constitutional liberalism she so cherishes. I come to a different conclusion on this issue. I believe that it is the rotting of America's institutions that has led many people astray. Curricula that train young minds to despise America, popular culture that denigrates all traditional values and extols conformity, and politicians who appeal to base tribal instincts to turn groups against the common good are to blame. All can fall victim to these immense pressures—race isn't the cause.
But here's the thing, Professor Loury immediately made this very point and forcefully disagreed with Professor Wax right during the interview. He made a respectful and excellent rebuttal and placed emphasis on how institutions like schools and media are actually culpable for corrupting American ideals rather than racial background. And guess what? By talking it through, Professor Loury actually got Professor Wax to engage with these points and adapt her understanding of the issue. And that is the essence of what is at stake here. It is the ability of two people who hold different, possibly controversial, views to sit down together, speak frankly, and come to a more accurate and less narrow-minded understanding of reality. It is the essence of American democracy and it is the essence of any proper system of higher education.
Professor Wax may say things that make us uncomfortable, but like all of us, she is searching. She is searching for truth, she is searching for ways to build a better society, she is searching for ways to preserve the ideals that made America a place that both my parents and yours wanted to come to. Her ideas are often unorthodox. Heck, her ideas are sometimes incorrect. But is taking her livelihood and ability to share her extensive expertise away from her going to truly help anyone?
Students at Penn who wish to learn from Professor Wax's expertise in areas like neuroscience and legal remedies tremble at the thought of classmates finding out they are taking her course. People are afraid to be seen walking into her classroom for fear that they will be isolated and vilified. Should they all be deprived of the ability to learn from her, to debate her, to respectfully challenge her in a safe classroom setting? Students at Penn Law can go through their entire three years of law school without even seeing Professor Wax within a mile radius. No one has to take her courses. No one has to read her work or listen to her words. She inhabits the tiny spaces of 14-person elective seminars and YouTube podcasts with niche intellectual audiences. It is no longer even the real presence of Professor Wax that offends students but her mere association with the university. This is no longer about protecting vulnerable students; it's about sanitizing the public forum to exclude non-progressive views. Radical progressive students wish to gag dissenting thought on campus, and there is not a doubt in my mind that they will not stop at Amy Wax.
Councilman, I understand why you wrote your letter to the University of Pennsylvania. Sometimes, we hear very painful things and we draw the conclusion that people are out to hurt us. We want to stop those people from saying hurtful things. And the flurry of incensed talking heads makes it seem like the whole world has turned against this one woman. There doesn't seem to be any reason not to condemn her. But as a second-generation American of Eurasian background and of Christian faith, I can assure you that when times really get tough, it won't be the blue checkmarks and the protesting college students that stand up for your rights, your property, and your safety. Rather, it will be those people who are willing to bear the burden of unpleasant opinions for the sake of higher principles who will be there for you.
We all know that Professor Wax has made uncomfortable observations about Black Americans in the past. Yet, Professor Loury, a Black man, regularly invites Professor Wax on his show to engage in meaningful and civil discourse. He is able to put aside whatever discomfort he feels from Professor Wax's past words to find common ground wherever it may be. By doing this, Professor Loury embodies the American ideal. I sincerely hope that you can overcome the discomfort in your own heart just as Professor Loury has in his.
One of the core principles of Republicanism and of classical liberalism is that the government should play only a limited role in society. As a representative of the government of Philadelphia, you are urging a private institution to investigate one of its employees, implying strongly that she should be fired. This is a powerful move, and it may have some kind of impact. But is this really the right move? What would our founding fathers think of statesmen pressuring a university to fire a professor over something she said? As a constituent, an American, and a brother in faith, I humbly ask that you reconsider your request to the University of Pennsylvania. Unity that is achieved through silencing those who disagree cannot last.