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Oct.9, 2013

Vol. 114, No. 2

Features

Eisgruber Takes Charge

The new occupant of One Nassau Hall is a folk-rock fan with a sharp sense of humor and a deep interest in ethics — and a plan to spend the year listening

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the October9, 2013, issue


President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 greets students after Opening Exercises.
Ricardo Barros
President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 greets students after Opening Exercises.

Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83’s move from the provost’s office to the president’s suite took him only a few dozen yards along the first-floor corridor of Nassau Hall. His predecessor, Shirley Tilghman, graciously moved out a week early; by the time Eisgruber moved in July 1, his office was ready for him. The walls had been repainted, Tilghman-era blue giving way to Eisgruber-era beige; the boxes unpacked. A day later, what pleases the new president most is that his books are on the shelves. “I feel at home with my books around me,” he says.

The Princeton community seems to feel at home with Eisgruber, who as provost earned a reputation for listening, reaching out, and building consensus. His selection has been widely seen as a vote for continuity; the transition appears to have been, as Tilghman promised, “seamless.” After all, Eisgruber had been the University’s second-ranking officer for nine years, with a finger in almost every Princeton pie.

Even so, anyone looking for insights into the new president’s thoughts and values might want to start someplace other than his freshly painted, book-filled office. Instead, walk down the corridor past the provost’s office (now occupied by David S. Lee *96 *99) and out of Nassau Hall to Mathey College, where a few years ago Eisgruber taught a freshman seminar called “In the Service of All Nations? Elite Universities, Public Policy, and the Common Good,” which examined Princeton’s role in society.

Eisgruber taught the course partly to drive himself to delve deeper into the literature on higher education. He also wanted his students to ascertain the core values of an elite university and apply them in practice — and so students read everything from University policy papers to books on higher education to Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action. “You could tell that he really wanted us to look at what the University owed to the community through several lenses,” says Caroline Hanamirian ’13, co-winner of this year’s Pyne Honor Prize. Jake Nebel ’13, who shared the Pyne Prize with Hanamirian, also was in the seminar; he describes it as a “class in applied ethics.”

The freshmen quickly learned that their professor expected them to be actively engaged in their own education — it was not enough to absorb information. And so it’s no surprise that in one of his first acts as president, Eisgruber asked each freshman to read the book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, by Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah. To make this exercise more than just an advanced high school summer-reading assignment, he posed specific questions for the students: What does honor mean within our society? What honor practices do you and your peers participate in? To what extent are those practices healthy ones? This fall, the freshmen discussed these questions in their residential colleges (alumni may participate online via student-led “E-Precepts”). Eisgruber hoped the Princeton Pre-read, as it is called, would enable many people in the University community to read and learn together.

Graduation photo
Nassau Herald
Graduation photo

Since Eisgruber was named Princeton’s incoming president in April, writers covering the appointment have struggled to find things that might surprise Princetonians who knew him as provost. There are a few. Alongside his intensity is a sharp wit and self-deprecating humor. He unwinds with thrillers and mystery novels, and subscribes to Rolling Stone. As an undergraduate, he worked for independent presidential candidate John Anderson, then interned for a Republican governor, and contributed to Barack Obama’s campaign during the last election. He loves folk-rock music, particularly singers Sara Borges and Jake Bugg. “Jake Bugg is to Bob Dylan what Amy Winehouse was to Motown,” he explains, making a comparison that is only comprehensible to, well, someone who subscribes to Rolling Stone.

Eisgruber; his wife, Lori Martin; and their 10th-grade son, Danny, will move into the president’s residence, Lowrie House, in the winter; Martin will continue commuting to her job as a securities litigator in New York. “We’ll be present [at University functions] as a family,” Eisgruber says, “but we’re going to be present as a family in a way that is a 21st-century family, and a family like many others around the University.”

The child of German immigrants who met as graduate students at Purdue University, Eisgruber was born in Lafayette, Ind., and moved to Corvallis, Ore., when he was 12 and his father became dean of the School of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University. In high school, Eisgruber edited the newspaper and led a national championship chess team. If it sounds like a high-achieving but unremarkable family, Eisgruber later would find that there was more to the story. Only as an adult, when he was helping his son with a school project on family history, did he learn that his mother had been guarding a great secret: Eva Kalisch Eisgruber, who long had professed to be Catholic, had been born Jewish and fled the Nazis as a young girl. She cut ties to her family when she married Eisgruber’s father, Ludwig. Both parents had died before he made his discovery, and so he never discussed it with them.

“I was disequilibrated. Bewildered at first,” Eisgruber told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “You think things are true about your childhood, and suddenly you find that things were very different.” Eisgruber continued: “Understanding myself as Jewish helps me understand who I am ... . ”

For college, Eisgruber chose Princeton because he wanted to learn more about the theory of relativity. Friends remember him as a studious undergraduate typically found on a lower floor of Firestone Library; to this day, he cites its open stacks as one of his favorite places on campus. As a senior, he wrote a column for The Daily Princetonian in which he stressed the importance of studying the great books, saying it was too easy to “come into the curriculum asking narrow questions, and unless we choose with care, find a series of courses all asking the same narrow questions.” He suggested that every Princeton student should be required to take at least two upper-level courses involved in intensive study of these books.

By then, Eisgruber’s interests had swung from physics to law. He credits Professor Walter Murphy, whose course in constitutional interpretation was legendary to a generation of Princeton undergraduates. Murphy gave a 90-minute lecture each week; deeper work was done in weekly two-hour seminars, where the students examined the theoretical underpinnings of the Constitution and teased out its practical applications. Eisgruber remembers delving so deeply into some Supreme Court decisions that he could recite them almost word for word. Preceptors sometimes broke the seminars into moot-court sessions, pairing students to argue the merits of a made-up constitutional case and assigning the rest of the class to sit as judges and write opinions. To Eisgruber, it was heaven: “I remember thinking, I could do this for the rest of my life!”

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1 Response to Eisgruber Takes Charge

James E. Faller *69 Says:

2013-10-07 16:53:15

The most interesting questions mentioned in this article (copied below) ... were never answered. "The first of these controversial reports" -- for which the new president's answer was not given -- might best be addressed in the manner in which "blind" testing of applicants for positions in an orchestra have occasionally been carried out, namely they perform behind a curtain, making the selection process solely one of their "playing" and their "interpreting" rather than meeting an institutional quota. The second laudable goal is nevertheless complicated in practice by the commitment of funds needed AND by being certain that the raw talent is there that can be developed. One institution where I was on the faculty for a few years (Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.), was one of the first universities to aggressively admit black students, many as premeds, who (sadly) didn't for some reason or other make the grade on their admission to various medical schools where a high number flunked out -- perhaps (?) because an institutional goal of aggressively meeting quotas had become confused with the underlying need -- above all other considerations -- to admit quality. [Text from article attached here: Two potentially controversial reports, initiated by Tilghman, were on the horizon: one addressing the need to increase diversity among the faculty, senior administrative ranks, and graduate-student body (see page 14), and the other recommending ways to improve access for low-income students.] -- Jim Faller
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