A conversation with President Eisgruber

President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, photographed in August in the William Elfers ’41 Reading Room on the third floor of Firestone Library.
Peter Murphy

In late July, PAW editors Marilyn Marks *86 and W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71 sat down with President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 for an hourlong interview that touched on a wide range of issues, including campus speech and diversity, his role in public life, University fundraising, and student service. Here’s a condensed account of the conversation, which included questions submitted by readers.


PUBLIC LIFE

You have been speaking out on immigration policy, on tax reform, and on other national issues. How do you view the proper role in public life for a university like Princeton? 

There are a couple of pieces to that. I have a set of principles about which kinds of issues I will speak out about, and at least one of two things has to be true. One is that the issue might have specific relevance in some way to what the University is doing or the University’s interests in general. Certainly that’s true, for example, when we talk about issues of research funding, or the regulation or taxation of university endowments. The second is with regard to issues that might be within the scope of my scholarly authority. Maybe the best example is last September, when I spoke out about the confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who was being questioned about her religious beliefs; I write on religion and remain an authority on religious freedom and the Constitution.

Those are necessary rather than sufficient conditions. There’s also a question about under what circumstances it makes sense to speak about something, and I’m guided in part by the idea that higher education right now is a topic that’s very much in the public eye and under public scrutiny. It’s important that we be telling our story, because if we’re not telling our story as institutions of higher education, the story’s going to be told and written about us in ways that don’t get out a good account of what it is that we’re doing. So that, I think, requires us to speak out more. Those of us in higher education, those of us who are university presidents — we need to be speaking out about the moral mission and the ethical mission of what universities do. 

That’s been important around the issue of immigration, for example. Immigration is an issue that I think does affect universities disproportionately to the rest of society. Princeton and other universities in general are very international places. We’re international in our undergraduate student body, we’re very international in our graduate student body, and we’re very international in our faculty and in our staff. There are a lot of these issues right now. It’s a fraught and contested time. It’s very important as well that we not only be focused on, but articulate about, the values that define us as an enterprise. 

Do you find that it’s having an impact? 

I do think so — and with a lot of different audiences. People may agree or disagree with particular positions that I have taken and that the University has taken, but I think most people agree that universities are institutions that need to have a service mission and they need to have a sense of values about what it is that they are doing. On the one hand, people want me and want the University to be careful about when we intervene in issues, because if I do so inappropriately, it can have an aspect of orthodoxy about it or chill the kind of robust conversation that needs to take place on a university campus. About a year ago, there were people asking me to take a stand about climate change and issues related to American participation in the Paris Accords. I personally am very concerned about climate change, and as a personal matter, I regret the decisions that the United States made. We as a university are very committed to investment in environmental studies and the research and teaching that’s taking place there because we think those issues are important, but I don’t think that that topic is one that fits either of the two criteria I just described. 

I also think [our approach] has been helpful thus far in my conversations both with people on Capitol Hill and with the press: People want to know what our stands are on issues ranging from free speech to socioeconomic diversity, and, again, I think it helps us to be clear about what our values are in those areas. 

To pick up on one strand of what you were saying, which is the University drawing talent from around the globe: Is the University seeing any impact from the policies adopted by the Trump administration? For example, has Princeton been hurt by visa restrictions or other new policies? 

Yes, we have seen some impact. The impact isn’t as bad as some people might fear in terms of chilling applications or other things, and it is kind of population-specific in some ways. On the basis of my conversations with the dean of our Graduate School — it’s very international — we continue to see strong sets of applications and strong interest from around the world in coming to Princeton. We continue to have a very international graduate student body with extraordinary talent in it. 

I will say this: As we try to recruit particular faculty members to Princeton and people face the prospect of uncertainty in coming here, as a result not only of the actual visa restrictions they may face but also in terms of restrictions that they worry may come down the road — that does affect our competition vis-a-vis institutions in other countries. There are individual cases that are very troubling as we try to get students here or if we have students here who are affected by travel restrictions and suddenly worry about their ability to leave the country or go home. So, yes, we continue to attract extraordinary talent from around the world, but it feels like we’re fighting battles on a lot of fronts in order to be able to do that successfully. 

Do you think Princeton will be affected by the reversal of President Obama’s policy urging universities to consider race in admissions? 

We believe that it is imperative to put together a class that draws talent from every sector of society, and right now we continue to believe that in order to do that, we will use a holistic admissions process that takes race into account as one factor among others. So we see no reason right now to alter the policy that we have continued to apply and that has been fully approved by the Supreme Court.


STUDENT ACTIVISM AND CAMPUS SPEECH

It’s been more than two years since the sit-in at Nassau Hall. When we spoke with you two years ago in this setting, you said you felt Princeton was “being pushed forward on issues where we should welcome being pushed forward” but that “some of the pushing is going in directions we shouldn’t go.” How do you look back at that time and the ways that the University has responded, and how has it changed the kind of place that Princeton is? 

One of the things that has changed at the University as a result of that activity and the time from which it emerged is a greater attention to making sure that we represent — in how we talk about the University and how we constitute the symbols of the University — the full diversity of the community that we are today and that we aspire to be in the future. Specific examples of that include the renaming of West College as Morrison Hall, the naming of the Sir Arthur Lewis Auditorium, the recent naming of the Betsey Stockton Garden, and the Jimmy Johnson Archway. We have encouraged our academic and residential-life units to think about how they want to represent their communities on the walls of their buildings. In the past, there was a lot of conformity and, I think, sometimes just a lot of emptiness in the sense that there were blank walls that might have been embellished or decorated in ways that send a message of inclusion and now are being handled that way. So when our students walk around, they can see themselves and people like them represented in the iconography of this University. 

It’s affected the way I talk about our community as well. I used to tell stories about Woodrow Wilson in an unself-conscious way, and in some ways in an uneducated way, about the complexity of his history. Now I realize that if I’m going to talk about Woodrow Wilson, who did do some great things for this University, I also have to talk about the things that he did wrong both at this University and in public life more broadly. I think [history professor] Marni Sandweiss’ Princeton and Slavery project this past year is another great example of this. It was, in my view, an extraordinary weekend of events and the culmination of it, that represented a lot of what’s best about this University — and underneath it all, a pervasive commitment to telling the story of the past in a way that was faithful to its complexity and to the parts of it that may be embarrassing to us, rather than just laudatory. Our business is truth telling, and so being pushed in ways that cause us to tell the truth more fully is a good thing. 

One of the trends right now in the popular discourse that I find disappointing is a tendency to talk about free speech and inclusivity as though they were opposed ideals. I don’t think they’re opposed ideals, because I think you need both free speech and inclusivity for a university to succeed. You need people to feel free to express their opinions, even when those opinions may be disagreeable to people or offensive to people around them, but you also need people from all sectors of society genuinely feeling empowered to come to the table and feeling that their voices are respected. So getting a robust discussion isn’t just about unfettered speech, it’s also about inclusivity and making sure that the variety of voices are present at the table. You get free speech and inclusivity by adding to the speech that’s on campus in appropriate ways, not by shutting it down and not by turning your back on inclusivity. Equality and free speech are, speaking as a constitutional scholar here, two pillars of what this country is about, and being faithful to those ideals isn’t about choosing between them; it’s understanding how to be faithful to both. 

You chose Professor Keith Whittington’s book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech as the Princeton Pre-read. Is there anything that you feel particularly strongly about in that book, and is there any area in which your views differ from his? 

Keith and I share a conviction that robust argument and debate and a culture in which people can and do speak their minds — those things are fundamental to what a great university does and to our mission. One of the things I appreciate about Keith’s book is that you can agree or disagree with his resolution of particular issues, but I think he does a pretty good job in taking questions about things like so-called safe spaces. I think, as Keith does, that the term is often confusing and does more to stir up emotions than illuminate what’s at stake. But he takes those debates and draws out the differing sides in ways that help people to understand one another better in those conversations. 

The book has an introduction from me where I talk a bit about my own views. [Read the foreword here.] I emphasized something that I would want to make more prominent: the idea that both free speech and inclusivity are critical values of a university that need to be respected and rightly understood, and are consistent with one another in a way that we were discussing a moment ago. Keith has a view about what a university is, and while I agree with the kind of fundamentals of it, it may be in some ways a little narrower than what I see. He says that universities are about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and everything else that goes on at a university is kind of collateral or derivative of that. I do think the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is something that universities must value. But in my introduction, I also quote Emily Carter, the dean of our School of Engineering and Applied Science, who feels very strongly that for what engineers study and teach, the practical consequences of knowledge really matter. [Engineers] have an urgent drive to produce knowledge that is indeed valuable and beautiful for its own sake, but is also valuable for the problems that it addresses. I think there are many people throughout the University who feel that way as well. 

In the wake of the February incident in Professor Lawrence Rosen’s class [in which the professor used a racial slur as a pedagogical technique in a class on hate speech], the University appointed a faculty group to look at speech within the classroom. What progress has been made?

That’s still at the early stages. From my standpoint, it’s useful to have a clarification of the rules that govern classroom speech, given the amount of attention that incidents generate. But first of all, you’ve got a set of general commitments that exist right now that are clear and well understood about the importance of robust discussion, and more importantly you have a culture that’s supportive of that. When you have a lot of people engaged in free speech, occasionally you’re going to have events that are a bit messy. When you’re calling for people to speak out and to express themselves with ideas and forms of expression that are sometimes very provocative, that’s not always going to take the form of a kind of polite seminar discussion. I think that the norms of free speech on this campus are strong and robust, and I think they are [strong] principally because our faculty members are committed to it in a way that understands the full complexity of the idea and in ways that reflect differing but important and respectable conceptions of what the most important aspects of free speech are. 


INTELLECTUAL DIVERSITY AND ‘VIEWPOINT PLURALISM’

One alum suggested that we ask you this question: “The faculty is becoming more diverse except in one respect. It seems to become even more liberal and overwhelmingly supports Democratic candidates. How should we think about this in the context of your focus on the benefits of diversity?” Do you think that this kind of diversity is something that should be taken into consideration when hiring? 

I do think it’s important that there is a diversity of views on the faculty, and I do think it’s important that conservative students and faculty be comfortable speaking up in conversations. 

There was a workshop that [professors] Steve Macedo and Robby George put together this past year that a number of our faculty attended and that I attended for the course of the full day about the question of political diversity or viewpoint pluralism. One of the takeaways from that particular gathering was that “viewpoint pluralism” was probably a better way to talk about this issue, and that it was important. It’s important to make sure that there is robust conversation and argument about the topics that deserve to be the subject of robust argument. 

I make that point — and your question referenced this — because sometimes people just talk about it in terms of balance or representation, and I think that’s deceiving. The arguments that take place on a college campus about ideas are not point-and-counterpoint debates between political candidates. Oftentimes, the political affiliation of a particular faculty member is just irrelevant to what is being discussed in their course, and that’s including in the humanities and in the social sciences. Even when it is relevant, it’s relevant not in terms of a question of balance, but in terms of a question of truth seeking. We need to have arguments about the questions that matter, rather than figuring out whether or not the sides are evenly balanced. I continue to think that it has been a problem in American higher education that in some arguments — where it does matter that you have a pluralism of political viewpoints — we haven’t had enough. I think the situation is better at Princeton, but I do think it’s something that makes sense for us to pay attention to. 

Should this concern about viewpoint pluralism be taken into account in hiring decisions? 

I think you always want to be asking the question, how do you get simultaneously the most talented people in the field and really vigorous and rigorous argument. So you want to make sure you’re not putting inappropriate constraints on the hiring process. I think most of the thoughtful conservatives who are concerned about this don’t think that the right way to do this is through some form of preference or designations of slots in hiring. On the other hand, you must take into account the need to have vigorous arguments. It’s when you start thinking about it in terms of counting heads or political affiliations ... that’s a mistake. 


ADMISSIONS AND ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY

There seems to be a sense among many families in the middle class and probably the lower-middle class that they’re being squeezed out, not just at Princeton but at other elite universities, while upper-income students are continuing to be admitted in large numbers and there’s a push to recruit talented lower-income students. 

How are you defining middle class? 

The kind of family that comes to mind is a two-income family making about $125,000, or a single-income family making around $60,000, which is around the national average income. 

So we’re taking more students than we have been in the past from the income sectors that you just described as middle-income. When you talk about Pell-eligible students, you’re talking about families with incomes ranging up to around $50,000 a year, and when Princeton talks about low-income students more broadly, using our own criteria rather than Pell eligibility, we’re talking about 40 percent to 50 percent of the American income distribution. 

When you said middle- to low-income, our efforts to diversify the class are about taking those numbers up, and in fact we have done that. Over the past dozen years, we have been taking up the percentages of students in every income quintile other than the top one, which continues to be the most over-represented income quintile. [See graph, page 36.] Even when you get up to the top American income quintile, which cuts in at around $110,000 per year, we’re increasing the number of students that we are taking in the lower reaches of that. People have very different definitions of what’s middle income, but the efforts that we’re making right now are around diversifying all of those groups. 

If you ask people, “Who’s middle income?” most people think middle income is the people they know. Rich is seen as unimaginable affluence or something like that. Middle income is the people I know, and depending on whom you’re talking to, the people you know can have incomes around $250,000 to $300,000 a year. We appreciate that those are folks who are often working very hard to put their kids through college. In that sense, that’s a middle-class experience. They are having to make tough choices that are not choices the very affluent must make. 

But as a statistical matter, if we’re talking about $250,000 or $300,000, we’re talking about the top 5 percent of the income distribution. What [people in that income bracket] feel is, “We’re middle income,” and on some definitions that’s true. And they feel it’s getting harder and harder to get into a place like Princeton, and [Princeton is] making outreach to these kids who are low income or who are at the middle of the American income distribution. All of those things are true. If you look at those income quintiles, all of them are going up, and it’s the top one that’s going down. I want to sympathize with what parents are feeling in that range, but it doesn’t change the answer to the question you asked, which is, are you more likely to get in as a middle-class or working-class parent than you used to be? The answer to that question, at least at Princeton, is yes.

This graph, provided by the Office of the President, shows family income of Princeton undergraduates, by cumulative quintiles. Over the period shown, representation of students in the top quintile (not shown) decreased from 79.7 percent to 64.3 percent.

We were saying the other day that our parents felt pretty secure that if their kids went to a good college — it didn’t have to be Princeton — the kids would do better than they did economically. I don’t think they would feel that way today. 

It’s a related question, but it’s really important, because it goes to what’s happening in colleges. There are real questions today about under what circumstances a child is going to do better than their parents did, and I will tell you from having conversations with parents, that’s a concern, and not just for working-class parents. That concern may be even more present as you get to parents who have done better [economically]. All parents want their kids to do as well or better than they did. As you get higher in the American income distribution, it becomes more difficult to do that. 

There was an important book by Robert Gordon of Northwestern, published by the Princeton University Press, talking about whether or not we can count on the kinds of growth that we have seen in the past. There are worries about that. All of the following things could be true at the same time: It could be true that your chances as a child of working-class parents of getting into an Ivy League institution are greater that they were in the past. It could be true that a college degree provides you with a higher wage premium than it has in the past. And it could also be true that your chances of doing better than your parents within the society are not as high as they were in the past because the last one of those things isn’t about whether you get into college or the premium from a college degree, it’s about the overall economic prospects within the society. The economic evidence does suggest that right now the college wage premium is as high or higher than it has ever been in our history, but people are more worried about whether or not kids will get jobs out of college. 

Part of what you see again and again in the press are stories about students who have graduated with $80,000 in undergraduate debt, which is a real outlier number. [In the stories], they’ve got that much debt and they’re either unemployed or they’re a barista. People who fit that profile exist, but they are statistically incredibly rare — but for some reason, that anecdote is what captures people’s attention. The question for me, then, becomes: Why is it that such an anecdote has so much pull on people right now — rather than the other kind of anecdote, some of which may be equally unrepresentative but lead you in the opposite direction? 

I think a lot of it is about this sense of chastened economic prospects. It is real, and we have to think about what it means for our educational institutions. It’s part of the reason I’m out there talking more about what it is that we do, because I think we’ve got to be telling the story. 


PAW LIGHTNING ROUND 

Transfers: Did this year’s experience with transfer admissions accomplish what you hoped for? What’s the plan for next year? 

We have a tiny transfer class this year. I think we were aiming for 12. [Nine enrolled.] Here’s what I’m happy about: bringing in community-college students and military veterans. They are going to be a really different kind of student. I hope that over time and as we expand the undergraduate student body, we can take these numbers up. One of the things that we keep learning over and over again is, we can’t just open the doors and say we want this kind of talent on our campus. We have to realize these students are coming from different backgrounds, and we need to enable them to flourish. 

Innovation: The University just created the position of vice president for innovation. Can you speak briefly about the University goals for innovation and specifically in encouraging joint ventures? 

The driver here is that we are hearing from our very best faculty, and many of them think their teaching and research will be better if they have more contact with the entrepreneurial world and the innovation ecosystem. What we want to be able to do is to look for ways to increase our connections to what’s around us, and to help build that innovation ecosystem in the state of New Jersey. We’ve been very pleased that the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy has been proactive about reaching out to us and shares these aspirations.

Service: In your talk to alums at Reunions, you said, “We want all our students thinking about their service initiatives.” How close is Princeton to that goal, and are more steps needed? 

Well, I think the good news is that this generation is a great generation when it comes to service. They come in the door caring about service; if you look at the rates in which they volunteer, for example, both in high school and beyond, this generation is a heck of a lot better than my generation was and generations before us. I also think we have a great range of service activities on campus. There are lots of things our alumni have done that have been important partnerships, and I’ve been really pleased with the way our alumni want to continue to build on that. 

But do we need to do more? Yeah, we need to do more. One of the things that we are piloting right now is the Service Focus program that came out of our task force report on service and civic-engagement initiatives. It looks to find service internships for our students as they come out of their freshman year, and then integrate [the internships] into courses to encourage reflection by the students in an academic way about what they learned. We have a set of courses in our fall term that incorporate this element into what they’re doing. I’m really thrilled about the range of faculty members from across the University who have been interested in this.

Annual Giving and the next capital campaign: Can you address the issue that while the total amount of money collected by Annual Giving has been increasing, the percentage of alumni who are giving seems to be decreasing — and that’s happening nationally. Broad participation has been a priority here; is that changing? 

I have a stack of Annual Giving letters that are going out — I’ve been signing them for days. We just finished a year in which 55.7 percent of all living Princeton undergraduate alumni gave back to the University, and so my first reaction to that is: That is astonishing, and thank you to our alumni. We continue to have numbers on participation, which we care about tremendously, that are jaw-dropping to all of us who have been involved in this project for a very long time. Could that number be even higher? Yeah, it could be even higher, and it has been. I think what’s happening — as you say, nationally — is that people are getting charitable solicitations from lots of different sources and a growing range of charitable sources, and people are connecting to one another differently. We’re having to learn along with that. We were, I think, the first university to accept Annual Giving contributions through Venmo [a mobile-payment service], and we’re going to continue to be alert to the ways in which people communicate differently and networks operate differently. 

Is there anything specific you can tell us about the goals of the campaign and its timing? 

Right now, the main thing is continuing to push forward these critical priorities that you’ve heard me talk to alumni about on many occasions. The expansion of the undergraduate student body — I continue to be hopeful that five years from now, roughly speaking, in 2023, we can welcome an expanded class to the campus. We’re focused on reaching students from all sectors. We’re focused on service. And we’re focused on excellence in the 21st-century liberal-arts university.

I think it’s always worth emphasizing that at the end of the day, it all comes back to insisting that what we’re doing here needs to be teaching and research of the highest quality. We’re blessed with a faculty of an extraordinary capacity and with terrific students who can benefit from those faculty. Part of what continues to make this job a joy is simply nurturing the research initiatives that get exemplified in the work that our faculty does and the extraordinary teaching that takes place on this campus.

This interview has been condensed and edited.