In his annual State of the University letter released Jan. 18, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 chastised “nakedly partisan jeremiads” and “centrist voices” who have been attacking the reputation of American higher education, particularly since last month’s contentious congressional hearing during which three college presidents dodged questions about antisemitism and calls for genocide.
In the 12-page letter, Eisgruber agreed with New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg who said the former presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, Claudine Gay and Liz Magill, respectively, and the president of MIT, Sally Kornbluth, “walked into a trap” when they spoke at a Dec. 7 U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing where they were questioned about heightened tension on college campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. “[B]ut walk into it they did. The damage has been significant … ,” Eisgruber wrote. Following the hearing, the House Education and Workforce Committee launched an investigation into antisemitism claims at all three schools, Gay and Magill resigned, and critics’ claims that colleges and universities embrace antisemitism grew even louder.
Those increasingly vocal attacks are wrong, Eisgruber wrote, and many have “a clear target: they aim to stoke animosity toward diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.” Eisgruber affirmed that antisemitism and anti-Arab and Islamophobic hatred are unacceptable at Princeton, but said the University should not trust any official, including himself, “to decide which ideas, opinions, or slogans should be suppressed and which should not.”
He echoed previous comments in calling for “Princeton and its peers [to] confront a challenging political landscape” by protecting freedom of speech while simultaneously promoting inclusivity and a sense of belonging.
“Even when arguments are wrong, listening to and rebutting them can deepen our understanding of our own positions, strengthen our capacity to defend them, and help to educate others,” Eisgruber wrote.
Princeton’s Rights, Rules, Responsibilities bars speech that is unlawful, defamatory of a specific individual, threatening, harassing, an invasion of privacy or confidentiality, or speech “that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University,” but Eisgruber wrote that speech that is simply offensive is “never grounds for discipline at Princeton.”
Several times in the letter, Eisgruber cited and dismissed a CNN video by journalist Fareed Zakaria that alleged American higher education institutions have been neglecting excellence to pursue diversity and inclusion goals.
“America’s leading universities are more dedicated to scholarly excellence today than at any previous point in their history, and our commitment to inclusivity is essential to that excellence,” Eisgruber wrote. He detailed at length Princeton’s efforts to diversify the student body over the last century and acknowledged past wrongs, such as “antisemitic quotas” and the absence of Asian and Asian American students in the 1950s.
While recent conflicts at some colleges, such as Columbia University, over the Israel-Hamas war have led to violence, Eisgruber credited Princeton faculty, students, and staff in noting this has not been the case at the University. Eisgruber further stated that student protests “have played an essential role in drawing attention to issues” such as those faced by marginalized groups.
In closing, Eisgruber urged Princetonians to “stand up more broadly for the excellence of America’s universities and for free expression” while also championing “the radical idea that in college and in our society, people of all backgrounds and identities should feel themselves to be at home” on American college campuses.