A Parable

In May 2022, at a Reunions panel on “The Fight For Free Speech at Princeton and Beyond,” Princeton’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Robert “Robby” George, shared  this parable:

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“I arrived at Princeton way back in the Middle Ages, in the fall of 1985. And [back then], there were some faculty members who were known to relish the prospect of a certain kind of student coming in.

“They had a real reputation for it — they’d be rubbing their hands together [in anticipation] of a student coming in from the cornfields of Indiana: Eagle Scout. Grandpa was a World War II veteran. Saluted the flag. Patriotic spirit. Evangelical Christian. Traditional morality.

“And they couldn’t wait. Because they were going to get him here, and they were going to tell him about Darwin, and the historical criticism of the Bible, and so forth. Challenge him — challenge him!

“We don’t get that student anymore. These poor people, these faculty members who might like to [challenge him], they don’t get the opportunity. Because the kids come in pre-indoctrinated. So they’ll come in from Nightingale-Bamford, Andover, Exeter. Or from these famous public high schools.

“And they are just, you know, fully in line with — totally on board with — can give you chapter and verse as if it’s the catechism of — the whole ‘woke’ program: environmentalism, racial issues, sexual issues, and so forth.

“And they arrive.

“And this time, I’m the one.

Robby George
Over His Shoulder: Inspired by the fourth U.S. president, Robby George founded the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions in July 2000.
Sameer A. Khan h’21

Two Stories

There are two stories that can be told about the conservative project at Princeton.

The first is that it has been wildly successful. Over the past 60 years — ever since the modern conservative movement rose from the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid — Princeton has become a premier incubator for right-wing talent.

During this era, Old Nassau has minted generations of future conservative lawyers, judges, politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals. In June, when Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito ’72 wrote the majority opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson abortion case, he set a new high-water mark for Princetonians’ contributions to the conservative cause.

This same period has also seen the rise of several lasting conservative institutions on campus. The Princeton Tory magazine, founded in 1984, is one example. The Anscombe Society is another. Since 2005, it has promoted a socially conservative stance on marriage, family, and sexual ethics.

Then there is the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, which sits under Princeton’s politics department. Under the stewardship of Robby George, it has become a training ground for young legal minds, especially through its popular undergraduate fellowship program.

And after 30 years on campus, it’s fair to say that George, too, has become an institution unto himself.

“Robby cares a lot about undergrads. You know, he could be a teacher at any law school in the country, but he chooses to be at a university without a law school,” said Solveig Gold ’17, a postdoctorate researcher at the James Madison Program who also worked with George when she was an undergraduate.

“Robby also, I think, loves Princeton as an institution. Though some of us are increasingly skeptical that his love for the institution is justified ... . Although I say that while, of course, still loving the University, too.”

Which brings us to our second story. This is, for what it’s worth, the story that is being told by many politically conservative alumni themselves: that conservative life at Princeton is embattled, endangered, and maybe even dying.

Late last year, I spent many hours talking to conservative writers, professors, think-tank executives, attorneys, television hosts, business owners, and government officials. Time and again, I ran into what I came to think of as “the moment.” This was when my interviewee would break away from their (usually fond) reminisces about the Princeton of yore — and utter, instead, some dark assessment about the Princeton of today.

They wanted to know: Had I heard … ?

Had I heard … about the new threats to free speech on campus? About how the University had, for instance, approved no contact orders that barred writers from The Princeton Tory from contacting liberal student activists — thus blocking journalistic inquiry on campus?

Had I heard … about how official Princeton institutions were abandoning their standards of political neutrality? Had I seen the statement from the University’s Gender + Sexuality Resource Center that had openly condemned the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case?

Had I heard … about what they did to Joshua Katz? (This was the most frequently referenced incident in my interviews. Here’s some background: Katz was suspended in 2018 for having a relationship with a student in the mid-2000s, and then fired in 2022 because of new evidence about his conduct during the relationship, according to the University. His supporters, including Gold, Katz’s wife, say that Katz was dismissed for a different reason: because he described a defunct student group called the Black Justice League a “small local terrorist organization” in a 2020 opinion column.)

“We are excluded, explicitly, and with malice,” Sev Onyshkevych ’83 wrote when I asked if he had time to talk for this project. “[F]or students, it is much more difficult to be an ‘out’ conservative than it was to be Jewish, Black, female, or gay in my day. So much for ‘diversity’ of viewpoints, nor tolerance, nor inclusiveness.”

16 Polls

Is Princeton no longer a politically conservative campus? Was it ever? Here is a tale of 16 election polls:

In 1952, as was its custom, The Daily Princetonian surveyed its readership about the upcoming presidential election. It found that 72% of undergraduates favored the Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower. A mere 27% went for the Democrat, even though he was one of Princeton’s own: Adlai Stevenson 1922.

Four years later, Eisenhower won the Princeton vote once again, by a similar margin, against the same opponent.

The next presidential election cycle, in 1960, offered a fresher matchup: Vice President Richard Nixon on the right, versus the young John F. Kennedy on the left. Still, the result was the same: nearly 70% of the undergraduates supported the Republican.

Campaign buttons for Johnson and Goldwater
Two buttons: “America Needs Johnson,” and “Goldwater in ’64.”
Peter Tsal Photography, Independent Picture Service/Alamy

But then, in 1964, a reversal: Lyndon Johnson 66%, Barry Goldwater 27%. For the first time since on-campus polling began in 1916, a Democrat had won the campus vote.

And then, again, in 1968, it was: Humphrey 40%, Nixon 28%.

From then on, the trend was clear:

A chart of voter statistics.

Around two-thirds of the way through the 20th century, it seems, the political makeup of Princeton’s student body began to veer leftward. At the same time, Princeton’s cultural reputation for being a staid, aristocratic, conservative place hasn’t changed nearly so much.

This divergence between politics and culture explains why the concept of the Princeton conservative remains so slippery. It’s why it might have been possible, for instance, for a politically liberal student in the 2010s to talk about the difficulties of coming up as a queer artist “at a conservative place like Princeton,” while, at the same time, their politically conservative classmate could lament their existence as a dwindling minority.

Neither student would be wrong, exactly.

A chart of voter statistics.

Four Conservatisms

Princeton conservatism is, in reality, Princeton conservatisms — plural.

Princeton’s traditionalist reputation has never depended solely, or even mainly, on its ties to the conservative political movement — which is to say, on its reputation for political conservatism.

That’s because there are plenty of other conservatisms that make Princeton, Princeton: ways the school tends to resist change.

Yoram Hazony ’86
Yoram Hazony ’86, founder of The Princeton Tory in 1984
Shiomi Bernthal

First, there’s the school’s academic conservatism. You’ll find this in Princeton’s ongoing commitment to pure research and the senior thesis; and in its fealty to the (ironically named) “classical liberal arts.”

There is also Princeton’s 2015 adoption of University of Chicago Free Speech Principles. In theory, these have kept Princeton on the outside of progressive philosophies that balance free speech guarantees against a desire to protect people against harmful or dangerous speech.

Next is Princeton’s aesthetic conservatism. This one is the easiest to picture. You’ll find it in the school’s commitment to preserving its Gothic campus core. And in the “WASP cosplay” cheerfully donned by students of all backgrounds at Lawnparties, or on plenty of other school days.

And then, there’s what might be understood as a kind of conservatism of the elite. This is the conservatism by which Princeton serves as a bastion of the old, still-dominant social order. Big Business … Big Finance … High Culture … the Ivy League.

Yes, Princeton now has more racial diversity than it used to, as well as improved financial aid. But through it all, Princeton has remained unshakably committed to defending its existence as an elite, private university. That’s conservative!

A black and orange striped bow tie.

“Before the 1960s, elite universities were schools that catered to the children of local wealthy groups. After, the purpose of Princeton has been to find the best, most energetic, most achievement-oriented, most talented young people from all over the country,  and vacuum them up. It cuts them off from their local roots, and then they don’t go back.”

— Yoram Hazony ’86

Unity

By and large, Princeton’s conservatisms have tended to coexist peacefully, or even commingle.

When I was on campus in the early 2010s, I was particularly fascinated by a well-dressed subset of Princeton’s right-wingers — young traditionalists who seemed to unite the school’s various conservative traditions in their very personhood and bearing.

Academically, I remember these men and women as being terrifically well-prepared in precepts. Aesthetically, they stood out for their commitment to midcentury collegiate style. Think sweater vests, blazers, and bow ties — not always all at once, and not all the time, but certainly for special occasions.

And if that sounds a bit like a caricature, remember that sartorial self-parody is itself one of Princeton’s greatest traditions. (See also: Lawnparties, beer jackets, “the Ivy League Look.”) I have also checked these recollections against my generation’s archive of record, the Facebook album. And there they are: my conservative friends and acquaintances, those Princeton Tories, wearing natty suits, sipping dark spirits, and chomping on fat cigars.

Disunity

These days, however, the threads that once bound Princeton’s various conservatisms together have begun to fray. And even in Princeton conservatives’ own telling, this unraveling isn’t solely the fault of the “woke left.”

Consider how the populist wing of the Republican Party has gained in strength over the past decade — and how it has cast elite, globally minded institutions like Princeton as an enemy of their movement.

Even some Princeton graduates have broken away to join the ranks of these anti-Ivy populists — although not all of them are ready to announce it. I interviewed one Anscombe Society alum who was happy to explain their long-standing opposition to contraception and gay marriage. But they asked to move off the record before discussing their more recent awakening: that Princeton as we know it should probably not exist, because America’s “meritocracy” had become rotten to the core.

Other alumni were less shy in voicing their objections.

Yoram Hazony ’86 is a political philosopher and Princeton skeptic. In the words of Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he has also become “the house intellectual of the world’s nationalistic circles,” including the Trump White House. Conservative leaders such as Peter Thiel, Ron DeSantis, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have all spoken at the “national conservatism” conferences that Hazony puts on around the world.

Hazony fears what places such as Princeton are doing to the structure of the U.S. “Before the 1960s, elite universities were schools that catered to the children of local wealthy groups. After, the purpose of Princeton has been to find the best, most energetic, most achievement-oriented, most talented young people from all over the country, and vacuum them up. It cuts them off from their local roots, and then they don’t go back.”

The Founder

Yoram Hazony ’86 is the founder  of The Princeton Tory.

In 1984, Hazony and a classmate, Julia Fulton ’88, took a trip to Manhattan to ask a group called the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA) for a year’s worth of funding. Their goal was to start a conservative journal at Princeton.

The IEA was the brainchild of the neoconservative writer Irving Kristol, who saw college journalism as a battleground for America’s youth. With Hazony and Fulton, he made a wise investment. The Princeton Tory has since published a long line of conservative notables, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ’92, Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel ’94, and Fox News host Pete Hegseth ’03, to name just a few.

Cover of the Princeton Tory

Today, Hazony and Fulton are married and live in Jerusalem. Fulton, who now goes by Yael Hazony, works as a think-tank executive, while her husband writes books and organizes conferences on conservatism worldwide.

Yoram Hazony’s latest book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, also happens to function partly as memoir about the early days of The Princeton Tory. Hazony explains, for instance, that the magazine’s name was inspired by George Will *68’s 1982 book The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions. And indeed virtue — or its absence — was a major preoccupation for Hazony in 1980s Princeton:

“There were no responsible adults anywhere. Here, 5,000 very young men and women had been dumped into dormitories together and given as much access to alcohol and drugs, sex, and party music as they could consume. And if they smashed the windows in their dorm rooms, broke empty beer bottles in the stairwells, or bashed in a streetlamp with their heads while they were drunk — all common occurrences — then nameless men in green uniforms would appear and repair the campus to its prior, Edenic beauty, with no questions asked .”

Hazony recalls making a connection between this spectacle on campus and the Enlightenment philosophers he was reading in class. “Liberalism is such a preposterous doctrine because it was devised by men who knew little about [real life]. Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Kant never had children … . Enlightenment rationalism was the construction of men who had no real experience of family life, or what it takes to make it work.”

He concludes: “The freedom of unmarried, childless individuals — the freedom of the college campus — is not something that real-life families, communities, and nations can have.”

The Rebel

If Yoram Hazony is The Tory’s father figure, Matt Schmitz ’08 is one of its rebellious children.

In college, Schmitz wrote for, edited, and served as publisher of The Tory. From its pages, Schmitz probed what he saw as the hypocrisies and failures of Old Nassau’s dominant liberal order.

Today, Schmitz is a founding editor of the political journal Compact Magazine. Since its debut in 2022, Compact has published a heterodox slate of religious conservatives, anti-interventionist foreign policy wonks, and supporters of social-democratic economic programs. The notion that these traditions can (and should) reunite has led Schmitz to support Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential reelection bid.

Schmitz tells PAW he is “depressed” by what he sees as the Princeton administration’s indifference toward freedom of speech and due process. And in 2020, he wrote this critique of higher education more generally:

“America is undergoing a godless revival. A new creed — called ‘social justice,’ ‘wokeism,’ or ‘the successor ideology’ — resembling religion yet avowedly secular and anti-spiritual, is spreading across the country. Its seminaries are the nation’s elite universities, its missionaries work in prestigious newsrooms.”

Matt Schmitz ’08
Rebel with a cause: Matt Schmitz ’08 says he is depressed by what he sees at Princeton.
Victor Liorente

When he’s not in high-prophetic mode, Schmitz is also a keen observer of the tribes to which he has belonged. These include Nebraskan churchgoers, Catholic intellectuals … and Princeton Tories.

At Princeton, Schmitz says, “I was never much of a scotch-and-cigars guy, myself. But yeah, there was some of that, and I think it’s an interesting thing. You know, that notion that, like, young conservatives would drink scotch and smoke cigars together.

“Being kind of ‘young fogies’ [together] — that’s interesting. I guess it’s the well-established type. And it brings out the ironies of being a rebel for the sake of order. The provocateur, in favor of conformity.

“I mean, how does that really work? In what sense can you really be conservative, or be traditional, when you’re publicly in rebellion against the institution that embodies order and authority in American life?

“Nothing embodies order and authority in America like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. These are the institutional continuations of ‘White Anglo Saxon Protestant’ rule in the country, right? Of, quite literally, clerical authority.

“So it’s very funny to kind of say, ‘Well, I really support order, I really support authority. I reject chaos. And that’s why I’m rebelling against Princeton University.’ ”

The Justice

Here’s a question I kept asking alumni: How much credit does Princeton University deserve for the success of its most prominent conservative graduates?

“You know, Sam Alito ’72 is a Princeton alumnus,” begins Jerry Raymond ’73. Raymond is a businessman, attorney, and member of the board of directors of The National Review. He is also a former schoolmate of Alito.

Raymond continues: “But I don’t think there’s a design to it. I’d like to think that if you gather together a group of above-average young people, some percentage of them are going to turn out to be conservative and libertarian, right?”

Raymond and Alito attended Princeton at a tumultuous time. Antiwar undergraduates burned their draft cards, firebombed ROTC headquarters, and boycotted the P-rade.

At the same time, some conservative students held rallies and teach-ins in support of U.S. military action in Vietnam. They did so, primarily, as part of a group called Undergraduates for a Stable America, or USA.

Court illustration of Alito swearing in.
Holding Court: Samuel Alito ’72 was sworn in as the 110th justice of the Supreme Court on Jan. 31, 2006.
Dana Verkouteren/AP

One of USA’s biggest successes was a referendum it sponsored on the future of the school’s ROTC program. Princeton’s faculty and trustees had been planning to kick ROTC completely off campus, but when the student body voted in favor of keeping the program, the administration reversed its decision.

“We were able to kind of act as a conscience when there were excesses that were antithetical to what a university should be,” says Raymond, who served as chairman of USA during his time at school.

Alito, meanwhile, was friends with USA members — one was even his commander in ROTC. But he did not participate in any of its campaigns; in fact, he steered clear of all campus groups that might be read as political, let alone conservative.

But as PAW writer Mark F. Bernstein ’83 described in his 2006 profile of the Supreme Court justice, in many other ways, Alito’s time at Princeton hewed closely to the ideal of the traditional Ivy League gentleman.

“We didn’t drink much, by the standards of Prospect Street,” [recalls Alito’s college roommate, Ken Burns ’72] , though in an affectation that might have earned him hoots of derision in down-to-earth Hamilton Township, Alito apparently had somewhat sophisticated (for an undergraduate) tastes in alcohol, shunning beer in favor of an occasional scotch, sherry, or whiskey sour. Musical tastes in their dorm room ran heavily toward classical. On weekends, Alito often would go home; friends say he regularly attended Mass. For relaxation, Burns says, “We talked with each other.”

However, Bernstein also detects a note of alienation in the Alito’s public comments about his alma mater.

“It was a time of turmoil at colleges and universities,” Alito told the Senate Judiciary Committee [in 2006]. “And I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly. And I couldn’t help making a contrast between some of the worst of what I saw on the campus, and the good sense and the decency of the people back in my own community.”

The Godfather

As for the Undergraduates for a Stable America, by the mid-’70s the group had transitioned away from overt political activism to become a self-described educational organization. “I have not noticed any … overwhelming anti-conservative sentiment [at Princeton],” USA’s chairman told The Daily Princetonian in 1976. “It’s just that there’s kind of a vacuum of conservative thought.”

Which is to say that in the history of political conservatism at Princeton, there is before Robby George,  and after.

George arrived at Princeton in 1985 to work as an instructor in the politics department. From almost the moment he stepped on campus, George was a magnet for conservative students. “In the old days, there were no other fully out of the closest, truly non-hyphenated conservatives around,” he explains. Today, he is something like the godfather of the school’s modern conservative identity.

On July 4, 2000, George founded the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. It now boasts a $4 million annual budget, all raised by George from outside sources (although the University helps with the administrative side of its fundraising drives).

Since its founding, the Madison Program has remained scrupulously nonpartisan in its official messaging — and its undergraduate fellows represent many points along the political spectrum. But from the start, one of its main commitments has been to increase what George calls “viewpoint diversity.”

As George tells PAW, this has “enhanced the presence of conservative voices on campus.” During the school year, the Madison Program’s lectures, dinners, and research projects put students in close contact with conservative luminaries.

All of this “makes a statement that it’s OK to be conservative,” George says. “The success of the program sends a message that being open in your dissent from progressive beliefs does not mean that you’re going to be a failure in your career in academia. It sends a message that you can be conservative — or at least more toward the center, relative to progressivism — and still flourish.”

George rose to high prominence in the early 2010s as the architect of the conservative legal case against gay marriage. (Alito cited George’s work on the subject in his dissent to United States v. Windsor, which legalized gay marriage nationwide.) These days, George has gained new attention through his Twitter presence, in which he offers criticisms of abortion, gay sex, and the use of gender-fluid pronouns.

As an educator, George’s thesis advisees have included Ramesh Ponnuru ’95, the editor-in-chief of The National Review, as well as Ted Cruz. He has also provided more informal advice and support to groups such as the Anscombe Society, Princeton Pro-Life, and the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), a nonpartisan group advocating for free speech.

“One problem is that university faculty have been taught to no longer see ourselves as having a major responsibility for campus life,” George says. “And I think that’s a shame. [Student life] is not something about which we should just say, ‘Oh, the administrators, the bureaucrats will take care of that,’ — so that we can just do our research, teach our classes, and go home.”

The Alumna

Solveig Gold has known Robby George since childhood through her late grandfather, who counted him as a longtime friend. In college, she was part of a group of undergraduates who founded the POCC.

The coalition formed soon after Princeton’s Black Justice League occupied Nassau Hall in November 2015. One of the POCC’s first acts was an open letter to President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, which called for a return to “civil discussion” and warned against the dangers of “groupthink.” “Princeton needs more Peter Singers, more Cornel Wests, and more Robert Georges.”

“We denounce the notion that our basic interactions with each other should be defined by demographic traits,” the letter-writers continued. “We will not stop fighting for what we believe in.”

Some of the group’s initial meetings were held in conference rooms at the Witherspoon Institute — an off-campus, independent conservative think tank founded by George in 2003. “But this was a very student-led discussion. This was not any particular professor, you know, telling us what to do,” Gold says. “I mean, we were just motivated …. When I go into battle mode, I kind of just see red, and I do what I feel like I have to do. It’s not really an emotion. I just kind of locked in.”

Gold recently finished a Ph.D. in classics at Cambridge and now works as a postdoctoral research associate at the James Madison Program. She has been married to Joshua Katz, the former Princeton classics professor, since 2021.

Gold declined to comment on her husband’s firing. But she was frank about her feelings of disillusionment toward the University that once gave her its highest undergraduate award.

“I don’t see Princeton through rose-colored glasses anymore — or orange-colored glasses, I should say,” Gold says. “That’s a pity, because I really thought it was about as perfect as a university could be. I thought it the opposite of a hostile place to be a conservative thinker. On the contrary, I always felt supported and appreciated … . For heaven’s sake, I won the Pyne Prize as an outspoken conservative.

“And I’m really, really sad to see that none of this is the case anymore for conservative-minded students — or for any kind of differently minded student.”

The Student

Abigail Anthony ’23 is the president of the Princeton chapter of the Federalist Society, chief copy editor of The Princeton Tory, and vice president emerita of the POCC. Additionally, she is a founder of the Princeton chapter of the Network of Enlightened Women and an undergraduate fellow of the James Madison Program.

Anthony is also an inactive member of the Princeton University Ballet. That’s how she put it in a fact-checking email when listing her extracurriculars: “Dancer, Princeton University Ballet (Currently Inactive).”

If you think there’s a story there, you’re right. And you can read Anthony’s full take on it in The National Review, where Anthony also interned last summer.

Briefly, however: During the 2020-21 school year, the University’s Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) hosted a series of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) workshops for leaders of undergraduate arts groups. The goal of this “EDI circuit” was to “center equity, diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism in Princeton’s arts community.”

Following the end of the program, several groups, including Princeton University Ballet, presented “anti-racism action plans” at an ODUS-sponsored EDI event. The Ballet’s plan began: “Ballet is rooted in white supremacy and perfectionism. We are all entering this space with a mindset that what we see as perfect is a white standard. Unlearning that will be difficult, but rewarding[.]”

Before Princeton, Anthony attended a performing arts boarding school in Philadelphia where she danced 40 hours a week while taking online classes at night. In her opinion, “The Princeton University Ballet is not a ballet club. It is a social justice activism group.”

“I would not entirely disregard anti-racism,” Anthony says. But, she adds: “If you can’t escape politics within a ballet club, if you can’t simply perform as a butterfly in Carnival of the Animals without being indoctrinated with anti-racism initiatives, then there’s no space on campus without progressivism. It’s totally absurd!”

(Princeton University Ballet declined to comment for this story.)

“I don’t necessarily like Princeton, but I am glad I went here. I think that, of the elite schools in the United States, it is one of the most sympathetic and welcoming to conservative views. With all that said, it hasn’t been particularly enjoyable. Peers I have never met have taken to social media to call me transphobic, racist, fatphobic, an enemy of queer people.

“There can be extreme loneliness [at times], even though we do have a relatively thriving conservative community. We have issue-based organizations like Princeton Pro-Life and Anscombe, and then we have broader conservative organizations like The Tory, and Clio, and the Federalist Society. And so it is easy to find a conservative community on campus. But associating yourself with that community will subject you to criticism, and even hostility, from your other, more liberal peers.”

Abigail Anthony ’23
Making a pointe: Abigail Anthony ’23 explains why she left the Princeton University Ballet.
Frank Wojceichowski

The Professor

Three of Abigail Anthony’s eight semesters as a college student have taken place during pandemic years in which Princeton students took most of their classes on the internet and were forbidden from large social gatherings.

This digital interregnum may explain the current discontent of the Princeton conservative, says politics department professor Keith Whittington, who studies free speech and academic freedom in higher education.

COVID-19 moved Princeton’s campus culture even more online than it already had been. This meant that, for a time, the school’s political debates were almost wholly mediated through impersonal, outrage-amplifying internet discourse.

“I can easily imagine pandemic-era technological shifts having really significant consequences for what peoples’ experiences are like as a student; how it can heighten the sense of conflict and potential ostracism and abuse that might occur,” Whittington says.

Whittington also notes that at Princeton — as at other college campuses — there have been prominent calls to rethink the impact that unfettered free speech has on racial minorities. As one Black Justice League activist put it in 2015: “It is not ‘fundamental’ to any academic setting to have ‘debates’ that make its students of color feel threatened.”

As an advocate for institutional neutrality in higher education, Whittington has tangled publicly with Eisgruber over the University’s official communications about the Katz case. But in an interview, Whittington is cautious about making definitive claims about how Princeton has changed for conservative students and faculty. He notes that perceived patterns of ostracization on campus are often hard to prove concretely or statistically.

“Just because you’re a minority on campus doesn’t, in and of itself, mean anything in terms of the [social] consequences you face for belonging to that minority group,” he says. “Presumably, there’s a small minority of students on campus from Arkansas. And yet, I can’t imagine there’s actually any kind of hostility directed towards them just because they’re from Arkansas.”

But conservatives occupy a different place at Princeton than Arkansans do, he ventures: “I think right now, we’re in a pretty heated and polarized political environment more generally. And so, I do think as a consequence, political divisions are going to be one of those areas where there might be more tension, and more unpleasant behavior directed toward that small subset of students, especially if there’s a severe political imbalance among the student population. If our larger political environment was less heated, political affiliation might not matter very much.”

 Keith Whittington
Many minorities: Keith Whittington is careful to say whether life has changed at Princeton for conservative students and faculty.
Kevin Birch/Princeton University

The Present

Is this the last call for the Princeton conservative?

Their lives are not all strife and woe. But they occupy an increasingly strange and unsettled place within their native realm.

This is a world that, from the outside, may still look plenty conservative — but perhaps isn’t so, at least not in the ways that Tories think it ought to be.

True, they retain a high degree of influence in national politics, especially considering how their numbers have dwindled in academia and other elite cultural spheres.

But for all their successes, and the successes of their movement — including, most recently, the overturn of Roe v. Wade — the Princeton conservative feels embattled as never before.

Today, they are apt to speak in pessimistic — or even apocalyptic — tones about the future of the place they once loved. They speak of feeling outmaneuvered by a new kind of foe: a class of censorious liberals, the “wokists,” who have found a way to cloak authoritarian impulses in the language of social progress.

The Future

Of course, all of the above could also describe today’s Republican Party as a whole. Which suggests some measure of hope for the future of the conservative project at Princeton. If Princeton has, indeed, become less of a safe haven for conservative thought, and more of a combat zone for ideological warfare, perhaps that now makes Princeton an even better launching pad for tomorrow’s right-wing leaders?

It’s hardly a demerit, in today’s Republican Party, to have a track record of fighting against an icon of elite academia like Princeton. To have come of age, in other words, as a “rebel for the sake of order.”

David Walter ’11 is a journalist based in New York City.