Alejandro Zaera-Polo, a former dean and architecture professor at the Princeton University School of Architecture (PSOA), has registered his distaste for contemporary academia in two different courts: Last August, he filed a suit in Mercer County Superior Court against the Trustees of Princeton University, university administrators, and former colleagues Mónica Ponce de León, Elizabeth Diller, and V. Mitch McEwen, among others, alleging wrongful termination, breach of contract, discrimination and defamation, the creation of a hostile work environment, and other violations.
More recently, Zaera-Polo’s efforts are also being heard in the court of public opinion via a Twitter exchange with McEwen, who tweeted this on December 18, 2022:
Fun personal fact:
A former Dean of an ivy league architecture school is suing me for defamation because I had the gall to go on the record with the university paper to explain his totally immature chaos and incompetence as a symptom of white privilege.
— V. Mitch McEwen (@mitchmcewen) December 18, 2022
Her tweet referred to a statement she gave to the Daily Princetonian in June 2022. In that interview, she stated she believed Zaera-Polo was “playing a reverse racism card” after he essentially dismissed her as an affirmative action hire.
“There’s a preposterous sense that simply in there being Black faculty that that indicates some kind of preference, which is itself kind of trafficking in default white supremacist presumptions, that the most talented people would be the white faculty displaced by the Black faculty who joined in the past few years,” McEwen said.
In multitweet reply to McEwen, Zaera-Polo led with an apology of sorts:
Sorry Mitch. Nothing personal. If you have read the claim you probably realize that you are mere collateral in a much wider case. You have made two mistakes: 1. Get into a war that is not yours: you are not responsible of your own hiring. You were not there, I was.
— alejandro zaera-polo (@azaerapolo) December 19, 2022
Zaera-Polo encouraged his former colleague to publicly apologize for her comments in the Daily Princetonian. He added: “Lesson #1: free ride is over, from now on white males answer back.”
As of this writing, Zaera-Polo’s Twitter profile picture displays a Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta, which has become a symbol for anti-establishment movements, including the hacktivist collective Anonymous.
Despite his claim that McEwen was collateral in a bigger case, Zaera-Polo is personally suing her in part over what she said to the paper.
“McEwen’s comments are defamatory and a good measure of the brazen misuse of gender and race stereotypes that was promoted in the School of Architecture by Dean Ponce de Leon, implemented through the systematic use of identitarian stereotypes, peer pressure and slander, to suppress free speech and the open discussion of academic matters,” the suit alleges.
This dust-up is the latest in Zaera-Polo’s controversial timeline at Princeton. In 2014 he was accused of plagiarism and resigned as dean. In 2016 he sued the university for defamation. In 2020 he was banned from contacting current dean Mónica Ponce de León. In 2021, Zaera-Polo meditated on these and other experiences in the Gonzo Ethnography of Academic Authority, a seven-part, self-published video series that explores identity politics, groupthink, and “cancel culture” in academia from the start of Zaera-Polo’s Princeton career through his dismissal from the faculty in July 2021. (Many of the taped episodes contextualize the allegations in Zaera-Polo’s recent suit.) The videos are accompanied by a 156-page, theory-heavy dossier titled The Princeton Experiment that expounds on the videos and includes correspondence between Zaera-Polo, faculty, university administrators, and students. (There’s also a related, 850-plus page document in which Zaera-Polo supplies further evidence for his allegations.) After reviewing available material, a version of the controversy that inspired the document—and spurred the recent lawsuit—goes something like this:
Zaera-Polo maintained that fellow faculty member Elizabeth Diller’s coordination of the school’s thesis system violated student and faculty academic freedom. Each year, Diller picked a theme to which all theses had to respond, a move that Zaera-Polo criticized as undermining independent research. While students worked with an assigned advisor on their projects, Diller signed off on thesis grades, an arrangement that, in conjuncture with the yearly theme, Zaera-Polo believed inappropriately imposed the procedural and ideological dimensions of his and other faculty’s supervision methods. He claimed her management evinced an “evil will to power and outright corruption” and compared her approach, as well as his perception of fellow faculty’s complicity in the thesis system as-is, to Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil.
At one point, a dissatisfied Zaera-Polo declined to supervise theses. “I decided that I would no longer tolerate this system and that in the absence of proper protocols, Princeton could not force me to participate in that corrupt system,” he wrote. “An institution that truly respects the principles of free expression and academic freedom cannot allow systematic interference with the tasks of thesis supervision by the department, and should tolerate public debate on the protocols imposed by the department.”
A dismissal letter to Zaera-Polo from university officials included in the Gonzo Ethnography cited an internal investigation that found Zaera-Polo refused to perform critical duties and repeatedly failed to follow faculty policies and requirements. The letter also noted that, despite repeated warnings, Zaera-Polo disrupted PSOA operations and acted in ways that negatively impacted affected students’ education.
Despite his contentious relationship with many fellow professors, the current lawsuit makes a request for Zaera-Polo to be immediately reinstated as tenured faculty, seeks damages and punitive damages, coverage of attorney’s fees and related costs, and other relief as the court sees proper, just, and equitable.
Beyond his former role at Princeton, Zaera-Polo is a cofounder, with Maider Llaguno-Munitxa, of AZPML, an architecture practice based in London and Lugano, Switzerland.
According to court records, Zaera-Polo is representing himself in the civil case.