On April 21 some 200 members of the Princeton Club of Dallas/Fort Worth turned out for a chance to meet with President Eisgruber ’83 at an event sponsored by the Office of Alumni Affairs.
Former Princeton trustee Terdema Ussery II ’81, president and CEO of the Dallas Mavericks, served as interlocutor for the interview that got the discussion under way. Eisgruber also fielded questions from the audience. While many serious issues were brought to the fore during the hour-long session, it was frequently punctuated by lighthearted humor.
Ussery began by asking the president about his background and experiences growing up as the son of immigrant parents in Indiana and Oregon. In particular, this part of the dialogue explored what in his past led Eisgruber to have the views he does about religious freedom as an essential element of the Constitutional framework. The president revealed that his mother, who had fled Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, suppressed her Jewish roots after converting to Catholicism, and it was only much later, when he got involved with his son in an elementary school project investigating his family’s history, that he discovered that his mother had been categorized at Ellis Island as Hebrew.
Having rebelled as a youth against his religious upbringing, the President acknowledged that this became an important revelation for him and led to his eventually coming to identify as a secular Jew, very interested in the Jewish tradition that he only came to appreciate later in life. It further fueled his lifelong interest in religious freedom, which was the subject of one of his books, Religious Freedom and the Constitution (2007).
This biographical note led to a discussion of how Princeton has dealt with issues of religious and other kinds of diversity. Eisgruber emphasized how important respect for religious freedom is in the United States, not making the state the arbiter of religion and following a free-market approach, and why Princeton wants students from a wide variety backgrounds and traditions.
How is Princeton doing overall, and what are the greatest challenges facing it today? Admitting puckishly that it worries him that, already being ranked No. 1, the University has no room to move up, Eisgruber pointed to the great pride that exists throughout the University and its alumni body for the residential style of college life and education that Princeton has long considered to be its greatest strength.
There was much discussion about the tremendous pressures students are under and how the University can help them cope with these pressures. Another theme of the evening’s discussion was how the University now already serves, but can also improve its service to, students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The president cited the recent growth in the number of admitted students eligible for Pell grants — from 6.7 percent to 18.1 percent — and noted how the increase in the size of the student body also has made it possible for more such students to be admitted — which leads him to believe that another such expansion in the near future would be a good idea.