An open letter to the University president and the president’s response

In Response to: Princeton Athletics [6]

Editor’s note: The following open letter to President Eisgruber ’83 was sent to PAW April 13. It is followed by the president’s response, received April 14.

Dear President Eisgruber: 

Most importantly, we hope you and your family are well under the difficult circumstances in which we all find ourselves. And we want to thank you for your well-recognized and strong leadership of Princeton. As alums (and somewhat broken down old lacrosse players), we are deeply proud of the University, its preeminent place in higher education, and the unparalleled opportunities it afforded us.  

We hesitated to write you because we feel you’ve done an outstanding job leading the University, and with the gravity of the pandemic backdrop, because you obviously are facing many unforeseen and serious challenges every day. However, we feel compelled to reach out to you on this issue because we feel strongly that Princeton has made the wrong decision on not permitting its students to withdraw and come back next spring. We have never written an email like this to Princeton or even to our children’s schools when they had issues that we felt were unfair. Our attitude is basically that there is plenty of adversity that everyone must overcome on their own without paternalistic or gratuitous intervention from us. This pandemic certainly does put sports in perspective so we had to get over a high bar before writing this note and intruding on your day. 

But, we have to express our strong disagreement with the decision not to allow our athletes the opportunity to withdraw with eligibility to play their chosen sport next spring. We may be focused on lacrosse and the incredible promise the team and extraordinary players like Michael Sowers had this year, but the same certainly applies to the other spring sports. Indeed, there may be other special situations that warrant similar consideration — e.g., the biochemistry major who is working on her thesis in a specialized field and has her lab work disrupted by the pandemic. We submit that the numbers will be small, but the impact on the students affected is massive — and that the University’s reputation would only be enhanced by its compassionate and flexible actions. 

The rationale for the decision that we saw in the Princetonian — “the University’s strong belief that students should remain in school now more than ever” — rings incredibly hollow. Some of us have college students upstairs in their bedrooms as we write, taking remaining courses online but spending a lot of their time twiddling thumbs, playing with their cats or dogs, and catching up on Netflix shows they’ve missed at school. We believe athletes could withdraw, put their time out of school to good work interning or engaged in community service, continuing to work on their theses, and then return to finish their senior year with greater maturity, and filled with tremendous and appreciative resolve. This exception would still preserve the Ivy League’s historic disapproval of grad students playing undergrad sports (although it’s very likely some of our students will transfer outside the Ivies if the decision remains), and it is our understanding that allowing them to return would be consistent with what a Princeton athlete could do if they missed a season due to injury.  

This pandemic is an unforeseen, one-off, black-swan event in human history that calls for maximum flexibility in our society. There are myriad examples of industries and institutions making extraordinary decisions to accommodate the reality of this crisis in pragmatic and empathetic ways. For example, law students in many jurisdictions are being excused from the bar exam. Medical students are graduating early, skipping internships and immediately going to the front lines at hospitals. Law firms and companies like ours are making all sorts of allowances to preserve jobs and assist employees who are struggling to work from home and care for little kids. And Fed chair and Princeton alum Jay Powell is taking unprecedented actions to prop up our economy. And again, we realize we are talking about sports eligibility, an issue that pales in comparison to the draconian impacts of the virus on individuals, families and society. We feel a little petty even raising this issue under the circumstances but, as dedicated and loyal alums, we see the University’s position as rigid and disconnected from how the rest of the world is trying to mitigate the impact of this disaster, however it can. 

We appreciate your indulgence of our views and fervently hope you will reconsider the decision. The University could still emerge as empathetic to the impact on its students and a leader under these difficult circumstances. We can also represent that we speak for a large number of other Princeton lacrosse alums.

Our very best wishes to you, your family, and the Princeton community.

Wick Sollers ’77, Dave Tickner ’77, Tom Leyden ’77, Howard “Cookie” Krongard ’61, Ken McNaughton ’78, Steve Lang ’77, Gilles Carter ’78, Michael Butkus ’78, William G. Cronin ’74, Bill Mitchell ’78, Rob Brawner ’96, Boota deButts ’80, Sean O’Neil ’76, Kevin Lonnie ’76. Francis Smyth ’82, Peter Smyth ’12, James Fernandez ’82, Otey Marshall ’84, Tiger Joyce ’82, Bruce Gehrke ’83, Ben Griswold ’62, Rob Coughlin ’84, Mike Neary ’82, Brian McGovern ’84, Stewart Finney ’81, Tom Smyth ’81, Ren Scott ’78, Charlie Marshall ’79, Dana Seero ’75, Larry Rice ’83, Calvin Cobb ’80, and Bob Flippin ’83

Editor’s note: Here is President Eisgruber ’83’s response:

Dear friends,

Thank you for your thoughtful and compassionate letter. I appreciate your kind words, your support for the University, and your sense of perspective. This awful public health crisis is something that none of us wanted or expected. By now, nearly all of us know someone who has been seriously ill with the disease, died from it, or lost a job because of it. All of our lives have been disrupted. I hope that you and your families nevertheless remain healthy and well amidst this stress and upheaval.

I appreciate, too, your concern for our student-athletes, who have devoted so much time and energy to the pursuit of competitive excellence and who care so passionately about representing this University. I admire and support what Princeton’s athletic program does for the education of our students. I think we can be deeply proud of its values, of our students, and of the Ivy League approach at a time when much of intercollegiate athletics has become unmoored from the educational mission of colleges and universities. Princeton and the Ivy League rightly regard student-athletes first and foremost as students.

That principle, however, leads me to a conclusion different from the one you recommend. This public health crisis has required us to ask all Princeton undergraduates to do a difficult thing: to complete their semesters online, and, in the case of our seniors, to forgo experiences that they had anticipated throughout their time here. Many members of the Class of 2020 might wish that they could have a senior spring in residence next year. We could not accommodate that wish. We are all in this terrible ‘black swan’ of a year together, and we need all of our students—laboratory scientists, performing artists, student-athletes, and others—to persist and graduate if they can, even in these difficult circumstances.

I also believe that if they withdrew so late in the academic year, student-athletes would return in a way that differentiates them from other Princeton students. For example, their senior theses should be nearly complete already. You suggest in your letter that they might continue to work on them after withdrawing. Their theses would then be finished before the spring term began; unlike nearly every other senior on campus, they would not be doing that work, which is the defining capstone of a Princeton education, in their senior spring. And what of their classes, which are now 75 percent complete? Do they simply abandon that work? Or retake the same courses when they return? One of the things that makes me most proud of our student-athletes is that, unlike their counterparts at so many other universities, they compete while fully immersed in the standard curriculum and learning enterprise of the University. I do not believe I could say that about a group of star athletes who returned to repeat their spring semester after withdrawing so late in the year.

I have put these considerations in Princeton-specific terms, but they also reflect the position of the Ivy League. The unanimous view of Ivy League presidents is that “Consistent with core longstanding principles, Ivy League athletes are students first and foremost. No student-athlete should withdraw from the spring 2020 term for the sole purpose of preserving athletics eligibility.” The League’s members implement this guidance in ways consistent with their own, institutionally specific academic regulations and programs, but Harvard’s position is identical to ours, and Yale’s, while framed differently, has the same effect.

I understand the disappointment felt by our student-athletes and, indeed, by all of our students (especially our seniors) as a result of the disruption to their Princeton careers. I also understand why reasonable people might disagree with the decisions that I have made about athletic eligibility, or, for that matter, about any number of other hard choices that have arisen this semester and will arise in the months ahead. I continue to believe, however, that my decision reflects the policy most consistent with Princeton’s distinctive educational model and the role of athletics within it.

With best wishes,

Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83