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Princeton’s Buried Bodies

Revelations of academic fraud and sexual harassment allegations against a little-known librarian in 2008 may help explain the firing of tenured professor Joshua Katz 14 years later

by
Paul Needham
July 13, 2022
Oliver Morris/Getty Images
Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Princeton University’s firing in May 2022 of classics professor Joshua Katz has been widely covered in the media, and the recent article in Quillette by professor Robert P. George, who served as Katz’s official adviser during four years of disciplinary hearings carried out by the university administration, gives us important information about the process. George concludes that Katz was treated unjustly by Princeton in two ways: First, it smeared his name by falsely presenting him as a racist; second, it subjected him to double jeopardy over a matter in which Katz had openly admitted his culpability years earlier, and been disciplined: an affair with one of his students in 2006-07. For this offense, Katz was suspended in 2018 without pay for a year; at that time, the former student involved declined to participate in the disciplinary proceedings. In 2021, the former student made a complaint that Katz had harmed her at the time of the affair by discouraging her from seeking mental health care although he knew her to be in distress.

The university, which declined to provide comment, has carefully walked a tightrope in defending its actions. It maintains that Katz’s widely publicized criticisms in July 2020 and after of Princeton’s statements and stances on racism played no role whatever in the decision to fire him. Likewise, it maintains that the second disciplinary action against Katz for his 2006-07 transgression is entirely independent of its first action. Banish the thought that he has been punished a second time for an already resolved offense. George’s article provides important details about both claims, and gives strong reasons to question their sincerity and thus their justice. George’s own balanced judgment is, moreover, that the second charge against Katz regarding his affair with the student was exaggerated: “I personally do not believe that professor Katz actually tried to prevent the woman with whom he was having an illicit affair from getting the mental health care she needed.” George does not have the reputation of someone who would write something like this lightly. In his conclusion, he expresses “reason to hope” that his “old friend” Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, will be “guide[d] ... toward an appreciation of the injustice done to Joshua Katz.”

I am less hopeful than George, for there is an additional factor silently at play in Eisgruber’s recommendation that Katz be fired. It has not appeared in any of the public discussions of the case, but Eisgruber is himself aware of it, and until it is closely examined, Katz’s firing will be on its face unjust.

In 2008, in conversation (that is, in heated argument) with me about another matter of academic discipline, Eisgruber, then provost of the university, took the position that a Princeton employee who had lied about three academic degrees she did not possess nevertheless should not be fired. The reason he gave was that the employee had been examined by the dean of the faculty, David Dobkin, who had decided to keep her in her job. The dean’s decision could not be changed. In essence, the dean of the faculty had handcuffed himself, and consequently handcuffed the university, in perpetuity. I pressed Eisgruber on the implications of this, and he agreed that it would create a precedent—as of course it must.

Therefore, when Eisgruber received the current dean of the faculty’s recommendation that Katz should be fired, approved it, and passed it on to the trustees for action, he must have believed in principle that Katz’s offense was significantly more severe than that of the 2008 employee who was a serial inventor of academic degrees. Surely Joshua Katz, the university as a whole, and its trustees must be given an explanation, for the integrity of the university, centered in its president, comes into question. What wrong has Katz committed that goes so far beyond the apparently forgivable sin of multiple academic frauds?

A little background about the 2008 case is necessary to put Eisgruber’s position in context. A librarian was hired by Princeton in 2000 to fill a responsible post. Her resume stated that she held five academic degrees, a B.A. and B.Mus. from Oberlin, an M.A. in art history from Oberlin, and two master’s degrees from the University of Iowa, one in music and one in library science. She was granted “continuing appointment,” a rough equivalent of faculty tenure, in 2003, and in 2004 was promoted to what was then a new and exclusive rank, senior librarian. In the summer of 2006 another librarian, noticing a disparity in her statements about her academic background, investigated and discovered that three of the five degrees did not exist: the B.A. and M.A. from Oberlin, and the master’s degree in music from University of Iowa. He reported this to the appropriate channels and was never contacted again. The librarian with three phantom degrees continued in her job. I first learned about the situation in late 2007, and when I next saw the librarian who had discovered the apparent frauds, I asked him: Why was she still employed by the university? He and I and two other colleagues decided to approach the dean of the faculty directly, not knowing what, if anything, had been done; not knowing, indeed, whether the dean had even been informed. We requested an interview.

When we met in February 2008 (our request for a meeting was slow-walked), Dobkin was joined by the university’s vice president for human resources, Lianne C. Sullivan-Crowley. We were told that Dobkin was already aware of this problem and had taken action that he could not describe to us. That action having already been taken, he said, “I’m handcuffed,” and “my decision was made in a black box.” “What you don’t understand is,” Sullivan-Crowley told us (I wrote down her words as she spoke), “we’re the employers and you’re the employees.” Nonetheless, we persisted in asking questions, and it became clear that Dobkin, who was candid in his responses, had not investigated the matter very thoroughly. It may be recalled that less than a year before this there had been prominent reports in The New York Times and elsewhere about the dean of admissions at MIT, who had also invented an academic degree. That person apologized and resigned less than two weeks after the evidence of fraud became public. Dobkin stated without explanation that he saw no relevance in this story. Sullivan-Crowley informed us that MIT had handled the case badly. We, the employees, vigorously disagreed with our employers.

Our meeting ended unsatisfactorily. Asked repeatedly how the honest librarians could be expected to work effectively with someone they knew to be a fraud, Dobkin had no answer. Sullivan-Crowley told us that Dobkin’s sterling reputation should reassure us: The dean knows best.

In the following weeks, knowledge of the dean of the faculty’s mishandling of this case spread widely and unhappily among library staff. On April 17, 2008, 45 of us—all Princeton librarians with continuing appointment—wrote to the provost, Christopher Eisgruber, expressing our dismay, quoting from the university’s own “Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities,” which included the statement, “Academic freedom can flourish only in a community of scholars which recognizes that intellectual integrity, with its accompanying rights and responsibilities, lies at the heart of its mission. Observing basic honesty in one’s work, words, ideas, and actions is a principle to which all members of the community are required to subscribe.” Simply put, we felt insulted to be asked to work alongside this transgressor, who continued to have supervisory powers over other staff.

Eisgruber did not respond to our letter, and so I called his office, requesting a meeting, saying that I had additional knowledge. We met on May 2, 2008, in Nassau Hall. I asked Eisgruber if there were statements in our April 17 letter with which he disagreed. He replied that he didn’t recall its details; by good fortune I had a copy at hand. After reading it, he told me our letter was self-righteous and dogmatic, that the reality was more complicated than we knew, and that the dean relied on “facts” about which we knew nothing. (As for our being self-righteous and dogmatic, the core of our letter was deliberately couched in the university’s own statement of “Rights, Rules, and Responsibility.” In the eyes of this administrator and future president, Princeton’s foundational beliefs were self-righteous and dogmatic.)

After admonishing me for being disrespectful in the way I spoke about Dobkin and Sullivan-Crowley, Eisgruber brought up what he claimed was a comparable situation to Princeton’s. Two Harvard Law professors, Lawrence Tribe and Charles Ogletree, had been “found” to have plagiarized (I subsequently learned this was an exaggeration), yet remained as professors. I replied that the invention of phony degrees was a higher order of fraud, and moreover that Tribe and Ogletree had had to defend themselves publicly and take heat for their actions, whereas our dishonest librarian had never had to acknowledge anything outside the confines of the dean’s “black box.” Eisgruber allowed that this was a valid point. He then proposed that perhaps Dobkin had shown courage in declining to fire this librarian, doing what he believed to be the right thing despite the many people who now disagreed with him. I replied that Dobkin’s decision had been made in secret, and its entire premise was that no one would learn about it. Once its secrecy was unveiled, the dean remained quietly within his black box. This was no profile in courage.

Two more points relevant to the case of Joshua Katz came up. I argued that Dobkin’s decision meant that he must apply the same standard of wrongdoing in every other case of academic malfeasance that came before him, using the same scale of discipline: Three invented academic degrees are not disqualifying for employment at Princeton. Termination of employment could only be for some offense objectively worse than that. “Of course,” Eisgruber replied. I then said (as my notes made immediately after the meeting paraphrase): Well, that makes for a ton of problems. We now have a Princeton policy, not just a single decision. And anyway, I’m glad you’ve acknowledged this, because the Dean of the Faculty refused to.

Next, I raised a subsidiary point. I reminded Eisgruber that Princeton had an obligation, as a good neighbor within academia, to inform Oberlin and the University of Iowa about the frauds committed in their names by our librarian, so that they themselves could act if they wanted to. One of my colleagues had brought this up in the February meeting with Dobkin and Sullivan-Crowley. The latter had asserted that there was no legal requirement to do so. Dobkin simply said that he had not thought of it. Conceivably, the thought now having been put in his head, Dobkin had followed through and notified these fellow institutions. Having my doubts, I made the same request of Eisgruber, but he was silent. My notes read: I scribbled this down on a piece of paper before the meeting, and handed it to him as a reminder, as I left. It would be revealing to learn whether Eisgruber did notify Oberlin and University of Iowa, and if not, why not. Certainly, if someone falsely claimed a degree from Princeton, the university would be grateful to learn of it and would take action against that person.

Only after it became clear that Eisgruber would not commit to supporting any reconsideration of this egregious case of fraud, I asked if he felt confident that he had heard, from the vice president for human resources and the dean of the faculty, all that he needed to know about the matter. He admitted that he was not fully confident. I then told him that there was one other aspect he might not know. After Dobkin had “disciplined” but retained this librarian, a member of her staff made a complaint of sexual harassment against her, and his complaint had never been processed by the Office of Human Resources. The event that led to the complaint would, I said, never even have occurred if Dobkin had acted responsibly and fired the librarian in 2006.

Eisgruber tried to cut me off, saying (again, in the paraphrase of my immediate post-meeting notes): This isn’t really relevant, it’s a completely separate question; and remember, everyone’s rights have to be respected, including the person complained about.

I replied: That’s exactly what I was going to say when you interrupted—its burial [that is, the burial of this complaint] means it can no longer be investigated properly, which is not fair for anyone. But the office where the complaint was buried is that of the Vice President for Human Resources. Also, I want you to think about the person who made the complaint: a junior member of library staff; here on soft money; recently married; and this comes up at a time when his wife is pregnant. Months later, he learns about the librarian’s academic frauds, and how they’ve been papered over, and thinks—there’s no way in the world I can pursue this complaint, this is a totally protected person.

Eisgruber replied, per my notes: I suppose I do have to ask you then: Did you learn this from the person who made the complaint?

Me: Yes, he said he wanted to tell me because he trusted no one in the administration.

Eisgruber: I think, then, I do have an obligation to report this.

Because it was not clear to me, after our meeting, that Eisgruber was going to take any effective action, I sent him a letter on the following Tuesday, May 6, 2008. This letter will be in his files, presuming it was not discarded:

Dear Chris,
Thank you for taking the time to talk and, as we would agree, argue with me on Friday. Since then, I have continued to review the fundamental question: Should a university continue to employ someone who has been shown to have invented one or more academic degrees? I have picked away in my mind at the implications of one or another of the examples you brought forward, considering where they should be placed on our “spectrum of fraud.”
Then I had a clarifying thought. We could continue to argue lengthily about this spectrum of fraud, but the only example that counts is the one which Princeton’s administration took up and answered in the fall of 2006. Unless some explicit change of policy takes place, the answer is: Yes, our staff may invent academic degrees and continue in the employ of the University. And by allowing someone who invented three academic degrees to remain an employee, in practice Princeton will find it difficult in the future to deal appropriately with any academic fraud, for a triple invention must be a very uncommon event. As far as I know, no other academic institution has taken Princeton’s position. I strongly suspect that the policy created in the fall of 2006 has no direct precedent in Princeton’s own distinguished history. The Dean of the Faculty told me and others that he had not inquired into precedent.
You tell me you disagree with the central points of the letter that forty-five of us sent to you, but I hope that as you reflect upon these issues you will find reasons to change your mind. I have re-read the letter, and it accurately expresses our belief. We who signed it believe passionately in the foundational importance of academic integrity, and are willing to speak up in its defense. We believe this firmly enough that we are willing to state it to people who have power over us and do not want to hear it. I know personally that some of Princeton’s most respected faculty support our position. The general response of almost everyone who knows the situation has been: I never would have believed that this could happen at Princeton.
In my opinion, Princeton’s administration has established a policy that our community does not want. This policy can live only in secrecy, but that secrecy is gone, and properly so. As Robert Durkee stated four years ago: in certain circumstances, there are aspects of personnel matters that cannot and should not be handled completely privately, for “people have a right to know.” So striking a case of multiple fraudulent degrees, a case that is becoming ever more widely known, creates such a circumstance. Because this is a matter of fraudulent degrees, it is of concern to the entire university, not only to the library staff. If you stand by this policy, the matter needs to be discussed in an open forum with wide participation, to test the arguments. The forty-five signers have raised in good faith an extremely serious question, and have shown courage and leadership in doing so. We—by which I mean the entire Princeton community—need an answer that likewise shows courage and leadership.
With regards,
Paul Needham
Scheide Librarian / Senior Librarian

It is likely that the last item of information I presented in our meeting—the buried complaint of sexual harrassment against the offending librarian, pressed upon Eisgruber though he at first tried to deflect it—did lead to action, for on the afternoon of June 5, 2008, library staff received an email from the university librarian, stating baldly that the librarian in question “has resigned from her position.” It seems that the persistence of the librarians against the administration’s stonewalling had rescued the university from the dilemma of its own incompetent handling of academic fraud, and presented it with a path to quiet resolution.

If this story had reached national media, as it was well on its way to doing, it would have exposed Princeton to a storm of criticism. No thank-yous were forthcoming from the administration. Eisgruber did not reply to my letter. Nor did he reply to the April 17 letter from the library staff, which had irritated him with what he characterized as self-righteous dogmatism.

Did Eisgruber communicate this precedent? If he didn’t, all disciplinary proceedings by the deans of faculty for the past 14 years come under a cloud.

How do the events of 2008 relate to the recent firing of Joshua Katz? Certainly, they suggest hypocrisy within the administration, and particularly by Princeton’s president. But we can drill down deeper into the questions raised by Princeton’s precedent on academic discipline as created in 2006-08 by the dean of the faculty and endorsed in May 2008 by its then provost, now president. The central point is not whether Joshua Katz was worse in his actions than the fraudulent librarian years earlier. In principle, someone might argue that yes, discouraging a student from seeking mental health care (presuming that this is an accurate characterization— “discouraging” is not a precise action, and Robert George believes this was not Katz’s intent) is worse than inventing academic degrees.

But more central is the general question of equity as guided by precedent. Eisgruber agreed with me that in the case of the fraudulent librarian, precedent was established, to stay in effect until some explicit change of policy was enacted. Therefore, every dean of the faculty after David Dobkin needed to be made aware of the precedent, for without its guidance he or she would be incapable of judging fairly and accurately any disciplinary cases that came to their office.

In the case of Joshua Katz, the question is: Did the current dean of the faculty, Gene Jarrett, know of this precedent, and take it into account when making his recommendation? If he was unaware of the precedent, he was deprived of the ability to judge this case fairly, for Katz’s actions needed to be weighed in the balance against it; they cannot be judged in isolation from precedent. Indeed, the same question of fairness arises regarding every other case that came to the office of the dean of the faculty from May 2008 onward: How did their severity of offense or transgression, and the penalties imposed, compare to the case of the triple-fraudulent librarian and the unknown penalties imposed upon her? It is imperative to know: Did Eisgruber communicate this precedent? If he failed to communicate it, all disciplinary proceedings by the deans of the faculty for the past 14 years come under a cloud.

Finally, a request to the Princeton University community: Engage yourselves and speak up. Exercise that power of free speech which President Eisgruber so strongly encourages. When Joshua Katz’s firing was announced, Eisgruber stated proudly that Princeton, in his years there, has never “been willing to accept gag orders in exchange for a solution where somebody quietly walks away.” The meaning or relevance of “gag orders” is unclear. But as to the second clause, his memory falters: In 2008, the fraudulent librarian whose actions were granted absolution by the dean of the faculty did indeed quietly walk away, according to arrangements in which Eisgruber was deeply involved. The reason is obvious: It would have been highly embarrassing for Princeton to admit that it had intentionally protected someone with fake academic credentials. I asked for an open forum in 2008; Eisgruber did not respond.

As to Katz’s firing, Eisgruber continued his statement: “We think it is important that we be able to speak after the fact.” So encouraged, I speak, 14 years after the fact. And I hope that the Princeton community will continue to speak, to question, to remain unsatisfied with the administration’s sophistries and bad faith (which professor of mathematics Sergiu Klainerman has dissected brilliantly in these pages). In short, I hope the Princeton community will continue to challenge the authority of its administrative branches until it is convinced of their honesty and integrity. I continue to believe that an open forum, such as then-provost Eisgruber declined to enter in 2008, is the best arena for exploring these questions.

Paul Needham, an historian of early printing, was Scheide Librarian at Princeton University from 1998 to 2020.

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