Prof enjoys debate, rocking the boat Bill McClellanI've written about him once. That was in 2002. Washington University had decreed that reporters needed official permission to conduct an interview on campus. According to the new guidelines, a reporter who wanted to conduct an interview on campus was required to notify the Public Affairs office, and a person from that office would have the right to monitor the interview. So Katz called and asked if I wanted to break the rules. Of course, I said. I went to his office and interviewed him. He wanted to talk about his bosses.
Had Washington University professor Jonathan Katz been nominated to the Civil Rights Commission, I would understand why some people might point to his writings and object to the nomination. In particular, I would understand why his 1999 essay defending homophobia might be a cause of concern.
But he wasn't asked to join the Civil Rights Commission. He was asked to join a group of scientists working on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
What do his thoughts about sexuality have to do with that?
Nothing is the correct answer.
I should be upfront about this. I have known Katz for a long time – our kids went to grade school together – and I have always admired him. He is a man of strong opinions, and he does not care a whit if those opinions are popular.
"They're control freaks," he said. "This kind of policy is something you'd expect from a corporation. I have nothing against corporations, but a university is a fundamentally different thing."
He dismissed the notion of a closed campus.
"A university is a small town with public spaces open to all. There is supposed to be a free flow of ideas and people. If you don't have those things, you don't have a real university. I've done a fair amount of consulting for the defense industry, and I've seen more freedom of thought, freedom to disagree, in the defense establishment than I see here."
By the way, the door to his office was decorated with an American flag. That's unusual in the physics department. Heck, it's unusual anywhere in the university. Which is, I suspect, part of the reason he did it.
On the other hand, Katz represents something quintessentially American – a zest for engaging in the battle of ideas.
Over the years, he has often disagreed with stuff I've written. He lets me know.
His wife, Lily, is much the same. When my daughter was in fifth grade with one of the Katz kids, the class was studying Ireland. I asked a friend who had been in the Irish Republican Army to speak to the class. Lily did not share my sympathy for the IRA. But she was not against my friend speaking. She just disagreed with his views and wanted to air those differences.
There is a big difference between disagreeing with somebody and wanting to silence that person. Vigorous debate used to be considered the hallmark of a healthy democracy. We're losing our ability to engage in a debate.