Christopher Eisgruber ’83 will mark his third anniversary as Princeton’s president July 1. His tenure has been anything but quiet, with a sit-in at his office by members of the Black Justice League, a debate about how Princeton should recognize Woodrow Wilson 1879, and planning for Princeton’s long-term future.
PAW editors Marilyn Marks *86 and W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71 spoke with President Eisgruber in February, shortly after the release of a strategic-planning framework that set the stage for a larger student body and the admission of transfer students.
What has given you the most satisfaction since you’ve started here, and what have you found most challenging?
It’s a highly varied job. As for satisfaction, one thing has to do with my contact with the [Princeton] community, broadly speaking. Being president means you’re a part of every reunion and you’re welcome at every student-group event, and people are happy to see you at them. It was amazing to me to go to a volleyball game my first year as president and have some of the players waving at me. At first I thought they were waving to friends behind me in the stands. It’s an opportunity to connect with people and hear what they are thinking about the institution.
The most challenging: We are in a period now of heightened student activism. It is a different kind of a set of circumstances than we’ve seen. At least on that front, the years that I spent as provost were more tranquil. I believe that simultaneously there are important social issues at stake and that some of the demands made by the activists are inappropriate demands. I think we are being pushed forward on issues where we should welcome being pushed forward, but some of the pushing is going in directions that we shouldn’t go. That combination of two things is challenging.
Can you say more about the directions we shouldn’t go?
Let me give one. One of the things that students ask for, for example, is mandatory cultural-competency training for faculty members. They ask for that because they see examples of insensitivity in the classroom and elsewhere, and I think they’re right to worry about instances of unjustified insensitivity. It would be better if we all had deeper cultural understandings of one another. There are some times when arguments are going to offend people, but all of us want to avoid insensitivity that comes out of ignorance.
So there’s a cause there that matters and a real problem worth addressing, but mandatory training is the wrong way to address that. I think that on a purely pragmatic basis, it’s ineffective. I also think it’s inconsistent with academic freedom, because figuring out how to deal with cultural differences is a complicated question. People have different views about it — it’s not like training to comply with a particular law on, say, sexual harassment or something else where you can tell people: This is what the law is, and in order to be compliant you do the following things and you don’t do this thing. Intercultural understanding is a complicated ethical question that certainly requires deeper knowledge than I think most of us feel we have right now, but it doesn’t lend itself to that kind of instructional primer.
How do you see the balance between protecting free speech and being concerned with inclusivity? You want to have a welcoming environment, but at the same time, how do you deal with something like a microagression?
I think free speech and academic freedom are bedrock values of any academic community. In order to be worth our salt as a university, we have to be willing to engage vigorously on fundamental questions. Indeed, we have to welcome challenges to our fundamental convictions and beliefs. That’s what it means to be part of a university dedicated to free inquiry and to getting at the truth. I should say here that I fully support the set of principles the faculty adopted last year [endorsing free speech and academic freedom], but I don’t think there is any inconsistency between a vigorous affirmation of free speech and a desire for real inclusivity within a community. On the contrary, I think one reason we care about inclusivity is that we want all people to feel sufficiently comfortable and sufficiently full in their belonging here that they feel empowered to raise their voices to ask provocative questions and to have provocative questions asked of them.
I don’t particularly like the term “microagression.” I think it implies a kind of willfulness that is usually absent from the kind of conduct being described. But in the wake of the protests that we had here, I had one alum write to me very thoughtfully that what is often called a microagression today may also be understood as just a kind of insensitivity or even impoliteness. Being ignorant of somebody else’s background in a way that causes you to say something that causes needless offense is what most of us would consider to be impolite or impolitic, and we would recognize it as a behavior we want to change. We should hope that all of us are committed enough to do the work to understand other people’s backgrounds so that we don’t give needless or unintended offense.
One can believe that you’re going to have arguments, that people are going to disagree, and that sometimes people are going to be offended by arguments — and simultaneously believe that all of us should struggle to the greatest extent we can to avoid giving unintended offense. I may disagree with you, maybe so much that I intentionally give offense, and I’ll go to the mat to defend anybody’s right to do that. But I don’t think that we should be going out of our way to offend one another, and I don’t think we should be giving unintentional offense. We should want everybody to find places here where they not only can confront views that are challenging to them, but also where they feel welcomed and can relax.
How close do you think Princeton is to that ideal now?
A good environment at a university is an environment where uncomfortable arguments are taking place. So sometimes when people think about or talk to me about what they seem to believe is the ideal environment, it’s one where people aren’t getting offended or upset. But an environment can be tranquil and peaceful because critical questions are not being raised and because some people are just putting up with things that they don’t want to put up with. So part of the reason I think the climate feels so fraught today is because there are questions being surfaced and discussed that ought to be discussed, and we are the better for that. Any kind of environment at a university that is healthy is going to feel yeasty and contested.
I also think there is a feeling of tension in the country around the issue of race right now, and college campuses are always places where this plays out. In this regard, ours is like others. One would hope that you could have that kind of feistiness you want on a college campus without the level of tension we feel now. But I think that it’s a step in a positive direction to have some of these questions surfaced. And there are times when students think that they should be insulated from disconcerting arguments. I think that’s a mistake, but I don’t think it’s nearly as prevalent as some press accounts would make you think. I actually think this is a pretty good time for free speech on college campuses, because there’s a lot of argument going on — which is what you want.
Let’s move to the strategic-planning framework. The document talks about Princeton participating vigorously in the future of higher education. Do you see yourself speaking out more frequently on these issues? Which ones are most important to you?
One that I’ve spoken about frequently to alumni is the importance of continued support for America’s great public universities. There are a lot of issues you can worry about in higher education today, but the one that worries me most is the tendency of our governments to ask public universities to do more and more, with less or the same resources that they have now. There is no way that we can be healthy as a country or that Princeton can be healthy as a university without continued investment in these great public universities that we count on to educate so many of our students.
Why is it in Princeton’s interest to advocate for public universities?
At the most basic levels, we depend on the other universities in the country and the world to generate the faculty members that we hire. We depend on them for hiring the graduate students that we bring through the system. We depend on them as collaborative partners in the research that we do. We depend on them as part of the kind of overall system in which what we do makes sense: We know that we’re going to turn down a large number of applicants every year, and part of what we do is rely on the fact that there are other institutions that are capable of educating the students who are not coming here. All of that is, I think, critical to our mission.
The plan proposes a new residential college and bringing in 500 more undergraduates. Will the campus expand across Lake Carnegie?
No. We do not have to move across the lake, nor do we have to think about the golf course. We are able to work on what we think of as our traditional campus while also preserving a lot of green spaces that exist within that campus. You can have some athletic functions there. But one of the things emerging from the campus-planning project is that Princeton remains blessed not only in having land that will be very important to its future, but also in having a lot of land that remains within our traditional campus perimeters.
“Part of the reason I think the climate feels so fraught today is because there are questions being surfaced and discussed that ought to be discussed, and we are the better for that. Any kind of environment at a university that is healthy is going to feel yeasty and contested.”
We are getting to the point where we’re having interesting questions about what happens across the lake eventually. Is it back-of-the-house space? Is it about parking and athletics, which has for a long time been the assumption? Is it a place where we expand long into the future? One of the interesting questions is: Is it possible that things that might go on over there would be mixed-use in character and contribute in some ways to the innovation ecosystem that is important to our teaching and research mission? So could you imagine — and I’m speaking speculatively — a combination of graduate and postdoc housing with incubator space and some other kind of development over there? That would be very different in character from what it is we do on our historical campus.
How we make some of the decisions now will affect what it is that we can do in the future. When you decide to build something somewhere, it can affect your destiny for a very long time to come. Things have to evolve around it. So I think [the campus-planning document] will lay out options rather than make a decision.
The framework provides for admitting transfer students. Can you talk about this, including its possible effect on athletics?
The reason to have a transfer program is because it enables us to add to the diversity of the undergraduate student body in important ways that we could not otherwise achieve. The two most important ways, I think, are enabling us to take community-college students and enabling us to take military veterans. Community-college students by definition already have some college credits. Military veterans almost always have college credits. Under our definitions now, the fact that you have college credits makes you a transfer even if you are willing to start over as a freshman. So that has made it virtually impossible for us to take such students. One question we have to ask going forward is under what circumstances might we permit or require a transfer student to start as a freshman.
You know, we have had a transfer program at many points in our history and have had relatively recent distinguished graduates who were transfers. One of those is Jason Garrett [’89], who is head coach of the [Dallas] Cowboys. That does bring up the question of athletics. I see no reason to rule out the possibility that within a small transfer program there might be a tiny number of athletic transfers. I would emphasize “tiny.” You can sometimes see alumni comment that would suggest there are large numbers of students coming in, or even perhaps read a column in the Alumni Weekly that would suggest something of that character. The numbers at Harvard and Yale are one or two per year, or less than that, in terms of athletic transfers.
I am very proud of what Princeton does in intercollegiate athletics. What Princeton and the Ivy League do in intercollegiate athletics is different from what the rest of the country is doing right now. We are supplying real educational value through the programs that we have, and that is a tribute to the coaches and their values and the caliber of the students they bring in. We do that in a way where we want to compete at the highest level. And I see no reason to ask our coaches to compete with one hand tied behind their back as long as we are maintaining fundamental consistency to the values that define Princeton athletics.
Would students transferring from community colleges have the background they need to do well here?
Yes. And one reason I’m optimistic is because there are examples. The University of California system is particularly successful at doing this, but our peer institutions are also able to take transfer students. As I said, there’s a real question about whether or not you would ask a student who had done two years at a community college to come in and start, perhaps, as a freshman or a sophomore. But we know that there are some tremendously talented students who for one reason or another start their careers in community colleges. What we want to be able to do is go out and find that spectacular talent coming from very nontraditional backgrounds, and that’s what this would enable us to do.
“We have had a transfer program at many points in our history and have had relatively recent distinguished graduates who were transfers. ... I see no reason to rule out the possibility that within a small transfer program there might be a tiny number of athletic transfers. I would emphasize ‘tiny.’ ”
I think that most of the people who look at what it takes to achieve genuine social mobility in the United States in higher education are enthusiastic about the idea that there need to be paths from community colleges to institutions like this one. So that student who — for whatever reason — doesn’t see that path open at the beginning still has that chance later on.
The mission statement in the planning framework seems to give more attention than previous statements did to the Graduate School. Is that the correct understanding?
It’s true that the Graduate School does figure more prominently in the mission statement, and I think that’s important. We used to have a habit of saying that Princeton aims to be one of the world’s great universities and its best liberal-arts college — as though undergraduate education was what we aim to do best of all — and we’re also one of the great research universities. Our Graduate School is every bit as good as what we do at the undergraduate level, and we compete with extraordinary success against all institutions within that framework.
I would say the Graduate School figures prominently in the framework. One of the things that is at least more clear is that we recognize the need to continue growth in graduate programs. It’s less mechanical than with the undergraduate classes, where you expand them in big blocks with dormitories. There’s a recognition in the report that we will adjust the size of graduate programs selectively and strategically, an expectation that the Graduate School will continue to grow in the future and there will be attention to the need to provide appropriate support for our graduate students. Perhaps the major theme is the need for funding for graduate students. I would expect that as we go forward and start configuring policies in response to these priorities, we are going to be very sensitive to that theme.
The other thing is that there’s a pretty direct connection between investment in the quality of the academic enterprise and the research enterprise, and the quality of the Graduate School. Graduate students are dependent on being trained at the cutting edge.
One of the things that Shirley [former president Tilghman] began that I give her and [former] dean Bill Russel a lot of credit for is to embrace graduate alumni more warmly. All forms of engagement of graduate alumni are rising, and I think that’s something that we need to continue to invest in.
The framework also puts an emphasis on international studies.
I think there are three things here. One of them is study abroad — we think it’s close to essential for undergraduates to get some international experience. I think it’s better to be an aspiration than a requirement, but it’s becoming a more and more important part of education. We’ve gotten that number up dramatically, but we need to boost it to a new level. The second is Princeton being places — for example, our role in the Mpala preserve [a wildlife research center] in Africa and the office that we’ve opened at Tsinghua [University, in China]. And I think there’s an important signaling function that comes as I travel. I have made the commitment that I’ll be in Asia every year of my presidency. Given the importance of that region to us in many different ways, it’s important for me to signal that.
Ultimately in this area, the most critical thing is the faculty whom we have full time in Princeton caring about these issues in the right way, and that’s what the regional-studies initiative is about. So we hired Yu Xie from the University of Michigan and told him that we want him to make us the best place to study contemporary China from a social-science perspective in the United States — we want him to create a center for the study of contemporary China, and we want to do more hiring around that. His presence in Princeton, New Jersey, will do more than all of my trips to Asia to make us more international. Ultimately, what determines the quality of any initiative at any university and especially at Princeton is the quality of the faculty who are doing work in that area — people like Yu Xie, Bernie Haykel, and Qasim Zaman in Near Eastern studies, and Dan Kurtzer in the Woodrow Wilson School.
We’d like to ask you about any changes in the admission process, including the weight Princeton gives to legacy status.
Certainly I have given thought to our admission process, and we have discussed it with our trustees as one aspect of the strategic-planning process. Princeton continues to look for students who combine academic excellence with a variety of extracurricular strengths. The principal change over time has been the growing number of applicants. We’re up — and some people celebrate this, but I think in some ways it’s quite distressing — up to 30,000 applicants, roughly speaking, this year. Alumni say to me, “Well, you’re not taking students like me anymore.” We are taking students who are very much like the ones we took before — the problem is that for every one of those students who was applying before, there are now five or more of them, and we’re still only able to take the one. So it’s quite true that your odds of getting in are less good than they were before, and that creates a great deal of frenzy around the process.
I think legacies add an important ingredient to what is a diverse student body. It’s very important to appreciate that our legacy applicants and our legacy matriculants are as well qualified as the other students whom we admit and who matriculate here, and perform as well as those students do. It literally is a tiebreaker, and of course it does matter in a set of circumstances where there are a lot of ties. We think that remains important — one of the reasons that we think it’s important to expand the undergraduate student body is because it enables us to continue admitting the extraordinary students we have here now, who represent a wide variety of backgrounds that I think are important to this university, while also adding some other students and giving [Dean of Admission] Janet Rapelye at least more degrees of freedom as she makes those choices. People sometimes treat these things as “either/or.” I think they’re really “both/ands.” The reason that Princeton and other institutions have succeeded as institutions is because of the way — I’ll talk just about Princeton — the Princeton family comes together to make possible things like our financial-aid program, so that students who couldn’t otherwise attend are able to attend. We should recognize that continuing to honor the bonds that keep our family together is also a way to continue to move forward on diversity.
What are your signature priorities?
There’s always something curious about being a university president; you’re always asked about your signature priority and your legacy. I’m far less concerned about that than I am about what’s the right thing to do for Princeton University. There are a number of initiatives that are called out in the strategic framework. Environmental studies is one that I think is indispensable for the future of the University. I also think we need to invest aggressively in engineering — I believe that engineering is critical to the liberal-arts university of the 21st century. You cannot be educated in the liberal arts unless you have at least access to engineering education, and conversely, we need engineers who are working in interdisciplinary ways, across the humanities and the arts and the natural sciences and the social sciences. So I think engineering will be a very important area of investment. We have a great school in buildings that will not enable them to do their best engineering.
The report also speaks for examples of regional studies, which we’ve talked about, and about the importance of visible leadership in the arts and the humanities.
When you talk about areas that I am personally passionate about, one of them is undergraduate expansion; that is something that I think is indispensable to our execution of our mission going forward. Another has to do with service and civic engagement. If you’re looking for things that have glittering buildings or giant campaign price tags attached to them, it’s not in the same category. But on the other hand, this commitment to service and civic engagement is indispensable to the understanding of everything that we do as a university. We have to ask — since we’re operating under circumstances where higher education is under pressure and where we are investing aggressively in the human talent on this campus — what justifies that investment? What justifies it is the difference we make in the world by virtue of the teaching and the research that we do. Every aspect of that is public-service oriented, but I think we need to be self-conscious about it, and that self–consciousness depends on having a manifest and visible commitment to service and civic engagement.
How do you view some of the more difficult things that took place this year, specifically the sit-in at your office?
I think there are questions that all of us need to ask about not just what happened in my office, or what happened on the Princeton campus, or what’s happening on college campuses — but what’s happening with race in America. We have seen video evidence of the use of force by police officers — and I should say I have great respect for the professionals who go into police forces across the country — but we also know that there are some wrongdoers in that mix, and it puts on the national agenda and on the agenda of colleges and universities issues about what we need to do to take further steps toward inclusivity within our country. I think the defining challenge in this country since the moment of its founding has been to figure out how a people — who even at our inception were so heterogeneous that European political theorists thought we could not succeed as a republic — can come together as a nation. One thing I would take away from this is the importance and difficulty of understanding the context of particular events in terms of the larger values and aspirations that we have as a university and as a republic.
One thing that has changed the character of protest on college campuses is the role of social media and viral videos. People see a 90-second clip of a Yale student screaming at a professor or of a couple of students arguing with me in my office, and they think they know these people and what’s happening on the campus. They respond in very visceral ways, and information takes off in ways that we haven’t seen before. What might in the past have played out over days, with the opportunity for reflection and dialogue, now plays out over the course of minutes with disputes escalating while people are in the grip of emotional intensity. You get a different kind of dialogue. So I think one of our challenges is to think about how we create the kind of productive discussion that needs to take place across boundary lines and across intensely felt feelings in a time when the forms of communication often push in very different directions.
“One thing that has changed the character of protest on college campuses is the role of social media and viral videos. People see a 90-second clip of a Yale student screaming at a professor or of a couple of students arguing with me in my office, and they think they know these people and what’s happening on the campus. They respond in very visceral ways, and information takes off in ways that we haven’t seen before.”
I don’t think we yet appreciate how much social media are changing the way that we interact with one other. It’s obvious that we email and text one other a lot. What we don’t know is how the change from the serendipitous human interaction of the face-to-face to the selective and focused — and, I would say, emaciated — interaction on social media changes the set of feelings that we have, which then affects the way we interact within our communities. I think the form of communication is changing our psychology in ways that sometimes build on anger rather than on trust.
Were you involved in a student protest when you were an undergraduate?
Yes. I marched outside Nassau Hall. We were protesting draft registration. The New York Times ran a story about the protest because the student at the front had been carrying a sign saying “Nothing is worth dying for.” The Times ran a very critical editorial on these pampered Princeton students because that week in New York a police officer had died in the line of duty, I think heroically. The Times basically said, how can all these Princeton students march behind this sign? And I have to say that I felt ashamed. I didn’t realize that that was the sign I was marching behind, and it wasn’t what I believed. But it led me to believe that protest wasn’t the way that I wanted to express myself. I felt like I ended up being associated with someone else’s expression in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. This has stayed with me. As a faculty member, I took the view that I shouldn’t sign petitions — I should say what my reasons are. In the academy, what should matter is the quality of your reasons, which you should sincerely express — not the force of numbers. We should argue with one another. So this was a very affecting experience for me. I continue to respect the importance of protest, but this taught me something about its limits — and about my level of comfort with it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.