This story was updated on Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. Eastern to include additional information about Katz’s relationship with a former student and Princeton’s statement on an internal review of the classics department.
Kellen Heniford stopped grading papers as soon as she heard the news. It was the first rule of teaching, she said: Never grade angry.
And Heniford was furious.
For weeks, Heniford, a teaching assistant at Columbia who graduated from Princeton in 2014, had been waiting for her alma mater to respond to allegations against classics professor Joshua Katz. A Daily Princetonian investigation published Feb. 4 uncovered allegations that Katz had “crossed professional boundaries” with three female students who attended Princeton years ago.
In the most serious allegation, Katz was accused of engaging in a years-long relationship with a female student in the mid-2000s and having sex with her. The other two students say he behaved “inappropriately,” taking them out for expensive dinners where he always picked up the tab. One woman, who told the Daily Princetonian that Katz pursued her for years, said she felt trapped: As an influential professor, she said, Katz held considerable power over her future.
Katz confirmed Friday that he had a consensual romantic relationship with a student that “violated the university’s rules,” which prohibit faculty-student relationships, and received a year-long unpaid suspension in 2018-2019, which appeared as a standard period of faculty leave. “It was wrong, and I am ashamed of my past conduct,” he said. Soon after Katz issued his statement, the university responded.
“Based on the information available to the university, and his subsequent compliance with university requirements, we believe that Professor Katz is able to fulfill his responsibilities as a member of the faculty,” university spokesman Ben Chang wrote in a statement to the Daily Princetonian on Feb 19. Katz will continue to teach classes and advise students on independent work.
“They say he is capable of fulfilling his responsibilities. Well, one of those responsibilities as a professor is not to have sex with your students,” said Heniford, who advocated for victims of sexual misconduct as a student at Princeton, and now at Columbia. She immediately texted the statement to a group of her college friends.
“He should be fired, point blank.”
Many members of the Princeton community are urging the administration to do more to hold Katz accountable. Students and professors say Princeton’s inaction sends a troubling message to female students, especially those who work closely with Katz, leaving them to wonder whether they’ll experience the same kind of behavior — and how the university will respond if they do.
“We take seriously any allegations of misconduct by any member of our campus community,” Chang wrote in a statement. “Violations of our sexual misconduct and consensual relationship policies are unacceptable, and individuals who violate those policies are held accountable and disciplined.”
Chang reiterated that Katz was disciplined for the relationship he had with a student in the mid-2000s with a one-year unpaid suspension and mandatory counseling, adding that suspension is “the most severe penalty provided for in the University’s Rules and Procedures short of dismissal.”
“The Daily Princetonian reporting has not contained any new allegations of disciplinary infractions by Professor Katz,” Chang wrote. “In the instances previously brought to the attention of the University, the administration took appropriate action.”
But while the relationship confirmed by Katz took place more than a decade ago, community members worry that his inappropriate behavior has continued. Jennifer Jennings, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, cited a public speech delivered by a graduating senior in 2017. Accepting one of the university’s most prestigious academic awards, the student mentioned late-night conversations with Katz, where they would discuss “my existential crises at 4 a.m.”
Katz and the student are engaged to be married in July. The Lily reviewed a copy of the wedding invitation, along with various references to the wedding on social media. (Katz and the university did not respond to questions on the nature Katz’s relationship with this former student, or when it began.)
At Princeton, Katz is known as a “gatekeeper” for prestigious fellowships and academic opportunities, said Nicolette D’Angelo, a classics major who graduated from Princeton in 2019, winning a Rhodes scholarship. While she never took a class with Katz — her time in the department corresponded with his administrative leave, now recognized as a suspension — professors and other academic mentors often advised her to reach out for a recommendation letter, because a good word from Katz would resonate with fellowship selection committees.
“There is this perception that he is someone you should talk to,” said D’Angelo, a first-generation college student who said she relied heavily on mentorship to succeed at Princeton. More than once, she said, people told her that Katz “was the key to winning the Rhodes.”
This struck D’Angelo as problematic, she said: A close relationship with Katz — or a similarly prominent White male professor — shouldn’t be a prerequisite for a prestigious fellowship. “There is something really pernicious to this logic that in order to succeed at school, you need to solicit the approval of White men.”
In the classics department, the “golden child students” were almost always White women, “selected” by men like Katz, said D’Angelo, who is White.
The classics department chair, Michael Flower, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, requested on Tuesday that the university conduct a “culture review” of the department. The review would solicit feedback and recommendations from students and professors. Princeton has committed to support the review.
When D’Angelo won the Rhodes, several students asked her whether she slept with her professors to get it, she said. They were mostly joking, she said, but she didn’t find it funny. Their comments grew out of a culture that was real.
Princeton had an opportunity to come out strongly against that kind of culture when the allegations surfaced against Katz, said Princeton senior Aisha Tahir, an African American studies major who advocates for victims of sexual misconduct on campus. Now that the allegations are public, everyone will know how Katz has behaved, she said — and they’ll know the university chose to take no further action.
Students who receive high marks or special attention from Katz, she said, will wonder: “Am I here for my brilliance? Or am I here because you have this really predatory relationship with students?”
Women in Katz’s classes might hesitate to seek him out for help, said Heniford, or worry about asking him for a recommendation, wary of the kinds of inappropriate situations they read about in the Daily Princetonian — receiving special gifts from his travels abroad or unwanted comments on their appearance.
“It’s yet another structural block for women, preventing them from accomplishing the things they came to Princeton to accomplish,” Heniford said.
Princeton should have issued a strong statement after the article was published, said Jennings, the sociology professor: “We don’t sleep with our students. Period. Full stop.” If the administration doesn’t address the issue head-on, Jennings said, students and faculty might be left thinking that kind of behavior is acceptable.
Jennings would like to see some kind of formal investigation into Katz’s behavior, she said, especially in light of the “written record” of the speech from a few years ago, referencing the 4 a.m. conversations.
Romantic relationships between students and professors should never be tolerated, Jennings said. Since she’s become a professor, she said, she has realized just how much power faculty members have over students, holding the key to opportunities that could shape their professional futures. Even if a student consents to a relationship, she said, the faculty member should know better.
“I just can’t see a world in which, as an institution, we can honestly look at ourselves and say we are doing great by our students, especially female students, if we don’t enforce this basic social norm,” she said.
It’s frustrating to even be having this conversation, Jennings said.
“This is not something we should ever have to discuss. It puzzles me that we do.”