In a stirring recent address to the students of the startup University of Austin, Bari Weiss described the ideology that has taken over America’s institutions of higher education: “Forgiveness is replaced with punishment. Debate is replaced with dis-invitation and de-platforming. Diversity is replaced with homogeneity of thought. Inclusion with exclusion. Excellence with equity.” To change this calamitous development requires nothing less than a revolution.
All successful revolutions start with local rebellions, and one has been taking place over the last year at Princeton University—the prestigious institution where I have taught mathematics and made my home for the last 35 years, but which is being destroyed from within by an administration committed to the ideology that Weiss accurately identified.
The saga has been well documented in these pages: In July 2020, tenured classics professor Joshua Katz published an article criticizing several illiberal demands made by a large number of Princeton faculty members to correct the university’s alleged “systemic racism,” including the creation of a “committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty ...” For his criticism of these demands, and for referring to a by-then-defunct student organization, the Black Justice League (BJL), as “a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the students (including the many Black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands,” Katz was smeared as a racist by the university in its own freshman orientation program, then fired earlier this year on what is recognized by every sane observer as a pretext: a disputed accusation from a former student with whom Katz had a consensual sexual affair in 2006-07—for which he was already punished in 2018—that Katz had discouraged her from seeking mental health care.
The university maintains that the decision to fire Katz had nothing to do with his criticism of illiberal faculty and students in 2020, nor anything to do with the student affair for which he’d already been suspended without pay for a year. Despite the obvious appearance of cracking down on the protected speech of a tenured faculty member and subjecting him to double jeopardy, Princeton claims that Katz’s firing had only to do with an unproven allegation from a recently aggrieved former lover.
Even the most generous and sympathetic interpretation of the university’s actions can no longer avoid the conclusion that it is, quite simply, lying through its teeth. And so, in the interest of shedding more light on the character of this administration, and of bolstering the principles of free speech, transparency, and academic integrity which have been compromised at Princeton under the watch of President Christopher Eisgruber, I have decided to publish the email correspondence I conducted with him between October 2021 and July 2022. The full exchange, which is too long to reprint here, can be viewed on the website of Princetonians for Free Speech. But I will draw the attention of interested readers to a few key points:
When seven colleagues and I filed a formal complaint with the university’s grievance system about the defamation of Katz in last fall’s freshman orientation program, “To Be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University,” it was dismissed in a report by Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter and Vice President of Human Resources Lianne Sullivan-Crowley on grounds that, to take one grotesque example, Katz’s speech was not a “protected characteristic” such as “race, creed, color, sex, gender identity.” When we requested reconsideration from Eisgruber, he referred the matter to the new dean of the faculty, Gene Jarrett, who declined to question the judgments of Minter and Sullivan-Crowley, but noted our right to appeal the matter to the Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal (CCFA).
We did just that, and on April 19, 2022, the CCFA issued a judgment: first, agreeing that our complaint should not have been dismissed; second, ruling unanimously against Minter and Sullivan-Crowley on the points we raised; and third, recommending a full, independent investigation into the smearing of Katz—which we believed to be a case of deliberate, targeted harassment by the administration to retaliate against his use of protected speech. In the words of the ruling:
The CCFA unanimously recommends that Prof. Klainerman’s complaint receive a full investigation. We are sending the complaint back to the Vice Provost Minter for further consideration. In light of Prof. Klainerman’s concerns about potential conflict of interest, we believe it would strengthen any final determinations of the investigation if an office or offices outside of Vice Provost Minter’s participates in further deliberations of this complaint ...
Immediately after I received the CCFA judgment, I wrote to Eisgruber reiterating our demand for the appointment of an independent investigator. He replied on April 22: “As always, the University will carefully evaluate and consider the CCFA’s advisory opinion and will engage with the committee on the matter if and as appropriate.” After more than two months, on July 8, and after many fruitless personal attempts to find out what action, if any, would be taken on the CCFA report (I had, for example, written to members of Princeton’s Board of Trustees), I received the following in an email from Eisgruber:
I am writing with regard to the University’s response to the CCFA’s report of April 19, 2022, concerning your appeal related to some of the reference and teaching materials included in the To Be Known and Heard virtual gallery. As I recently advised the CCFA, the University, after receiving the committee’s advisory opinion, conducted another review of this matter that included additional fact-finding. This additional review confirmed that none of the exceptions enumerated in the Statement on Freedom of Expression apply to the materials at issue. Because the website and its authors enjoy the full protection of that statement, no disciplinary action against the staff involved in the website’s creation is warranted or permissible under University policy.
I replied on July 10 asking for a copy of the review on which Eisgruber had based his decision. I also requested that we, the group of eight complainants, be given an opportunity to present our case in person to the Board of Trustees or the appropriate committee of the board at its next meeting. In his response four days later, Eisgruber dismissed my requests with the claim that “we generally do not disclose details about internal matters involving University employees absent a compelling need to do so.” He also wrote: “The Board’s role, however, does not include hearing appeals from individual faculty members who are disappointed in the University’s decision not to pursue discipline against other employees.” In conclusion, he said, “this matter has been adjudicated by the University and is now closed.”
There are two points to note in this exchange. First, Eisgruber came to the extraordinary conclusion that the free speech protections denied to a faculty member nevertheless extended to administrators who used university resources to smear and harass a member of the academic community to a captive audience of incoming students with no possibility of rebuttal. These smears, it’s worth noting, included the deliberate doctoring of a quotation from Katz’s 2020 article and statements such as, “[Katz] seems not to regard people like me [a Black professor] as essential features, or persons, of Princeton” and “[Katz’s views are] fundamentally incompatible with our mission and values as educators.” I believe that Eisgruber is the first university president in America to impose what might be called the Joseph McCarthy interpretation of the First Amendment.
Second, Eisgruber’s claim that he has the ability and indeed the obligation to deny the official complainants the right to know how the university reached its decision to ignore the CCFA judgment has no justification in Princeton’s rules and regulations, and raises suspicions of a possible cover-up—an unavoidable impression Eisgruber evidently felt comfortable conveying. The unsupported claim of “additional fact-finding” is likewise impossible to understand. If additional facts were found, why is no one—neither the complainants nor the CCFA—permitted to see them or even know what they are?
These are not issues of “individual faculty members who are disappointed in the University’s decision not to pursue discipline against other employees,” as Eisgruber dismissively stated, but of free speech, academic freedom, fairness, and accountability. By empowering university bureaucrats to decide which members of the campus community are racist, which acts qualify as racism, what punishments are necessary, and which decisions cannot be appealed, Eisgruber appears to have one-upped the repugnant faculty letter of July 2020 demanding a committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” He has indeed constituted such a committee: not under the aegis of faculty itself, but under the menacing administrative Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity.
Eisgruber is the first university president in America to impose what might be called the Joseph McCarthy interpretation of the First Amendment.
It is painfully obvious by now that Katz’s only real crime was his criticism of the 2020 faculty letter, which made him the first member of the Princeton community who publicly objected to Eisgruber’s attempts to replace freedom of thought, speech, inquiry, and association with fashionable woke fanaticism. Katz had to be punished as an example to the rest of us not to interfere with the university’s plans to remake itself as a factory of partisan ideology.
In any case, the main issue is no longer the firing of Katz but rather the abuse of power and likely cover-up for which we, the small group of faculty members, complainants, and CCFA members, are powerless to redress. I therefore call on the Princeton alumni to take up their responsibility as the real trustees of their beloved university, and to help expand our little faculty mutiny into a true revolution. If alumni do not raise their voices and place conditions on their wallets, there is indeed no hope, and Princeton’s erstwhile status as the envy of the academic world will be lost forever. If, however, alumni demand reform by making clear that their continued public and financial support will be tied to the revival of real education and scholarship at the expense of the “social justice” bureaucracy, our cherished institution will have a future.
Indeed, this kind of action is incumbent on alumni of all American institutions of higher learning that are suffering from a similar disease. Elaborating on her Austin speech, Weiss charged that alumni spend their time “privately complaining about the status quo—while writing yearly checks to their alma mater so their children have a chance of getting in.” Such a state of affairs will only be overturned when alumni decide that they care more about the quality of education that their children and grandchildren receive than the empty prestige that universities will confer on them in exchange for more money. As someone educated in communist Romania and who has spent his entire professional life around students, please trust me when I say that freedom of speech, diversity of thought, and academic excellence are far more valuable for your beloved son or daughter than the alleged prestige of a top degree.
Responsibility of course, also lies with faculty. My colleagues and I have for too long relegated our most basic academic responsibilities to an ever-growing and menacingly overreaching bureaucracy. But there are ways we can fight it together: We can create informal, nonpolitical groups of faculty dedicated to the traditional academic standards of research and teaching, as well as to fighting the activist administrators and complicit colleagues when they attempt to compromise these standards. At the very least, these common statements of purpose will signal to serious students which classes can be trusted to be free of ideology.
Together, alumni and faculty can pressure college and university administrators to make legally binding commitments to the Chicago Principles of Free Speech, the Kalven report for institutional neutrality, and the Shils report for hiring and promotion based on academic merit.
We can also insist on ways to actually help disadvantaged children: not by hiring an exploding number of administrators or by destroying traditional standards of excellence, but by growing the number of students we’re willing to educate for free and expanding the services we offer to families and schools in local underprivileged communities.
Together, we can fight against the efforts of political partisans to destroy American universities, and preserve their old status as sacred places where students and teachers come together in search of knowledge.
Sergiu Klainerman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987.