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Faculty are debating whether to regulate the sometimes-controversial statements

President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 says Princeton community members have been asking for a policy addressing statements made by University units — including departments, centers, institutes, schools, councils, and administrative offices — so in September 2022, he charged a group of faculty members with examining the issue.

Eisgruber told PAW that “people were expressing to me either just the desire for a policy, or a concern about what was being said, or a concern about what wasn’t being said. It was apparent that we would be better off if we had a campus discussion around this.”

The need was especially apparent, he added, as the evolution of digital platforms brought about a “new communications environment,” raising questions whenever units use social media, websites, and email to express controversial opinions.

“I don’t imagine that this would lead to an increase in the amount of contentious political debate within departments.”

— Shamus Khan, sociology professor

But just before Princeton’s faculty were poised to vote on a policy proposal at the last regularly scheduled faculty meeting of the academic year on May 15, the decision was shelved. First, a vote to postpone conversation on the policy narrowly failed. Then, John Londregan, a professor of politics and international affairs, suggested the meeting lacked a quorum; a quick count verified this and the meeting was adjourned.

The policy proposal was the result of a months-long effort by a subcommittee of the Faculty Advisory Committee on Policy (FACP), which was led by sociology professor Shamus Khan and included professors Danelle Devenport (molecular biology) and Sujit S. Datta (chemical and biological engineering). During the 2022-23 academic year, they researched more than a dozen policies at peer institutions and met with campus community members to solicit feedback. Khan estimated he personally met with around 300 people individually and in groups.

The subcommittee then produced a report that included the policy proposal, which outlined two criteria for unit statements: “Silence [must be] untenable” and the statement must be “critical to the functioning of the unit.” Any unit statement that is made without satisfying both conditions would be removed and potentially retracted.

The policy defines statements as “written communications that can reasonably be interpreted as taking a position on a policy, political issue, or other matter of public or campus concern or debate.” Expressions of care that do not take a position — for example, in support of students affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — would not fall under the policy unless such statements consistently express care for one side of an issue, which then may be subject to the policy.

The policy also would not affect individual speech or statements by groups of individuals.

Princeton has a history of practicing what President William G. Bowen *58, who served from 1972 to 1988, called “a significant degree of institutional restraint,” and Eisgruber has echoed this sentiment. Khan told PAW that “our own particular policy was not a radical departure in any way from what other institutions were doing, but it was also firmly located within Princeton’s tradition of institutional restraint, as has been expressed by President Eisgruber.”

Some faculty members are in favor of the policy. Alan Patten, chair and professor of politics, told PAW via email that having guidelines would be helpful, and Thomas Duffy, chair and professor of geosciences at Princeton, added that “requiring departments to think more deliberately about how they go about making these statements is a good idea.”

Other faculty have concerns. Keith Whittington, a professor of politics, would prefer if units did not make statements. Prior to the faculty meeting, he sent a memo — which was signed by several dozen colleagues — to the subcommittee that stated in part that such statements are “antithetical to the purpose and mission of a university or scholarly institution.”

Depending on each unit’s procedures, which vary, Whittington worries that some people may be put in the uncomfortable position of having to make their views on controversial topics known, which might affect hiring and promotion decisions. He also suggested that a statement from any unit may have broader implications.

“There is a real concern, I think, all across the country from a lot of universities, that we need to buckle down and try to calm the political waters surrounding higher education at the moment,” Whittington told PAW. “If you encourage departments to start issuing these kind of statements, it’s going to be bad for those particular universities [and] it’s going to be bad for higher education more generally.”

Khan maintains that these types of statements would be “exceptionally rare.”

“I don’t imagine that this would lead to an increase in the amount of contentious political debate within departments,” Khan said.

Princeton history professor David A. Bell, addressing the issue in a Chronicle of Higher Education essay published in June, argued that universities “host scholars with different, often conflicting beliefs,” and “these differences need to be respected and protected.”

Londregan, who spoke against the policy at the May faculty meeting, told PAW that if faculty “don’t want to be embroiled in very unpleasant departmental politics from here to eternity, then you have to get involved in some unpleasant University politics now” by voting against the proposal, if and when it ever comes back up for a vote.

Eisgruber declined to get into specifics regarding next steps, but said “I think it would be desirable, for the same reasons that I charged the committee, if the faculty had a full opportunity to discuss the issue.”

For his part, Khan appreciates the conversation, saying that “debate is valuable.”