Eisgruber: In a time of political division, Princeton must defend its principles

In his second annual “State of the University” letter to the Princeton community, President Eisgruber ’83 provided a mixed report: part celebratory, acknowledging recent ribbon-cuttings and an ambitious campus plan, and part filled with concern for changing attitudes toward higher education.

“In the broader American community,” Eisgruber wrote, “higher education is increasingly a focal point of partisan political division. That trend was evident in the recent tax-reform legislation, which included several provisions directly targeting colleges and universities.” While some objectionable provisions were rejected — including a plan to tax graduate-student tuition waivers — the new law levies a 1.4 percent tax on the “net investment income” of about 30 private colleges, including Princeton, with assets valued at more than $500,000 per student. 

While it’s not clear how much the tax will cost Princeton, Eisgruber said it could be more than $20 million per year and that “its effects will be felt mainly through a long-term erosion of this and other universities’ ability to preserve program quality, pursue new initiatives, or enhance affordability.” 

“As important as the tax bill itself are the political trends that accompanied it,” Eisgruber said, citing polls showing “rapidly polarizing opinions about higher education.” But Princeton and other schools must “stick to our principles ... and tell our story as clearly as we can — even if portions of that mission are unpopular or controversial.” This mission includes using endowment funds to make a college education affordable, advocating for immigrant students, and ensuring free speech, he said. 

“Our truth-seeking mission depends on robust discussion and on an unflinching willingness to confront and analyze a wide range of ideas,” he said. “But that same truth-seeking mission precludes us from making changes to achieve some politically driven notion of ‘balance’ or to appease partisan critics.”

It’s a mistake on the part of some public figures to pit the ideas of inclusivity and free speech against each other, Eisgruber said: Last fall’s Princeton & Slavery Project and other programs demonstrate how free speech and inclusivity support each other. Eisgruber said he has chosen a new book by politics professor Keith Whittington, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, as the Pre-read for the Class of 2022. (See related stories, page 24.)

In his letter, Eisgruber also highlighted accomplishments of the last year, such as the opening of the Lewis Arts complex, and aspects of the campus plan released in December, saying that the ability to move forward will depend on fundraising efforts. Among the proposals is a “thorough renovation” of the Princeton University Art Museum; based on support that has already been shown, Eisgruber said, he is optimistic that it will proceed in the near future.

READ MORE: For the full text of President Eisgruber’s letter, go to http://bit.ly/Eisgruber-letter.