American artist Titus Kaphar's mixed-media work “Impressions of Liberty” on the lawn of Maclean House in 2017. The Princeton University Art Museum commissioned the work for the Princeton & Slavery Project. One of the proposals in the July 4 faculty letter is addressing Princeton’s history with slavery as part of orientation for first-year students.
Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications
Critical response to letter gets a presidential rebuke

More than 300 Princeton faculty and staff have signed a July 4 open letter to President Eisgruber ’83 and other administrators, proposing specific ways the University should confront racism in hiring and promotion, admission, research, the appointment of campus leaders, and other areas of campus life.

The 4,000-word document urges the University to “take immediate concrete and material steps” to acknowledge racism in all forms and work against it, outlining 48 demands that apply to faculty, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduate students, and the University as a whole. Amid a growing faculty debate about racism and intellectual freedom, the letter inspired a sharp reply from classics professor Joshua Katz in an essay posted July 8 on; this was followed by condemnations of Katz by several other professors. 

The faculty letter’s proposed changes include anti-racism and anti-bias training for faculty and administrators; the creation of a scholarly center devoted to anti-racism; reconsidering the use of standardized tests in admission; and addressing Princeton’s history with slavery as part of orientation for first-year students. 

The letter also critiqued a lack of “significant demographic change” on the Princeton faculty, noting that only 4 percent of full professors are Black. It proposed rewards for departments that support faculty of color and consequences for departments that do not demonstrate progress in diversity. Referring to the particular challenges faced by junior faculty of color, the letter called for HR support and mentoring and “summer move-in allowances” for those who are new assistant professors. 

Four faculty members collaborated to create the letter: Tracy K. Smith, the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts and former U.S. poet laureate; Jenny E. Greene, professor of astrophysical sciences; Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, associate professor of classics; and Andrew Cole, professor of English and director of the Gauss Seminars in Criticism. 

Greene, the director of Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative, told PAW she first raised the idea of a letter just before Eisgruber issued a call to action on confronting racism at Princeton. The authors considered limiting their letter to key principles but eventually decided that detailed actions would be valuable both for administrators and faculty. “We are talking to the administration, but we are also really talking to each other,” Greene said. Cole added that by engaging with other faculty members, the authors drew on an “enormous breadth of expertise throughout the University.” 

Not all faculty members embraced the effort, however. Katz, who is the faculty representative to PAW’s board, wrote that while the letter offers “plenty” of ideas he supports, “there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate.” Katz’s essay included stinging comments about the Black Justice League (BJL), the student group that started the debate over Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, and called it a “small local terrorist organization.” In November 2015, BJL members staged a 33-hour sit-in in Eisgruber’s office. 

Eisgruber, in a statement to The Daily Princetonian, condemned Katz’s characterization, saying he objected “personally and strongly to [Katz’s] false description” of the BJL,  whose members “protested and spoke about controversial topics but neither threatened nor committed any violent acts.” Other professors, including Smith and Padilla Peralta, also denounced Katz in remarks to the Prince.

Katz said in a message to PAW: “Was the Black Justice League a violent terrorist organization? No, and in context I suggested no such thing. Quite to the contrary. But as everyone knows, violence is not the only way to terrorize people. The BJL used intimidation and other fear tactics against fellow students who attempted to debate them in good faith. In my view, smearing decent and honorable people as racists and white supremacists, with no evidence to back up these epithets, merits the blunt language I chose to use. Of course, if you define ‘terror’ as necessarily involving violence, perhaps using criteria that make perfect sense for specialized purposes, such as investigations by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, then my use of the term is merely metaphorical. Either way, it was not unjustified.”

Parts of Katz’s essay aligned with a July 7 letter to Harper’s Magazine, signed by more than 150 leading intellectuals, including six Princeton faculty members. That missive cautioned both the right and left against “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

While many of the proposals in the Princeton faculty’s anti-racism letter deal with practical considerations in how the University recruits and supports diverse faculty, researchers, and students, there are also calls for symbolic actions against racist legacies. The letter called for the University to acknowledge on its homepage that it was built on indigenous land of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. It also demands the removal of a statue of John Witherspoon, Princeton’s sixth president, near East Pyne Hall. According the Princeton & Slavery Project, Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, “had a complex relationship to slavery.” He tutored free Africans and African Americans in Princeton but owned slaves and opposed the abolition of slavery in New Jersey. 

One demand — for the creation of “a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication” — drew criticism on social media as a potential threat to academic freedom. Greene said “more discussion is needed” on that point, but the proposal was sparked by experiences on campus. “We heard a lot about students encountering racism in classes and faculty encountering racism from colleagues, and I think that should be confronted,” she said.

In a statement to PAW, University spokesman Ben Chang thanked the letter’s authors and supporters for “raising important questions on the critical issues of racism, equity, and justice,” noting that Eisgruber’s June 22 letter to the campus community called for this type of examination of “all aspects” of the University. 

“The letter covers a range of topics, and as part of the process laid out in June, we are currently reviewing these and other suggestions for change that have been made by members of our community,” Chang said. “The Dean of the Faculty has been in touch with a number of faculty members as part of this process, and will continue to ensure that faculty voices remain a part of this ongoing work.”  

Cole noted that many of the ideas the authors included have been proposed before, and other institutions have seen comparable calls for action from faculty. The letter is essentially a policy statement, he said: “For those who wonder what it is our faculty of color are asking for, this is it.”

Updates: More than 125 alumni signed “A Princeton Alumni Statement of Support for the Rights of Professor Joshua T. Katz,” published online July 16.

President Eisgruber ’83 wrote a July 20 opinion column for The Daily Princetonian about the need for universities to “remain steadfastly devoted to both free speech and inclusivity.”