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Princeton’s Mixed-Up President Discards Free Speech and Demonizes Its Defenders

Christopher Eisgruber’s attachment to contradictory high principles is turning academic life on his Ivy League campus into a farce

Sergiu Klainerman
April 12, 2022
AP Photo/Mel Evans
President of Princeton University Christopher EisgruberAP Photo/Mel Evans
AP Photo/Mel Evans
President of Princeton University Christopher EisgruberAP Photo/Mel Evans

Say what you want about Christopher Eisgruber, the president of Princeton University—he is a principled man. The problem is that he holds principles that are in serious conflict with one another. In this, he is not alone: Most people hold contradictory views on complicated matters. But because Eisgruber is the leader of one of the top universities in the world, where I have taught mathematics for 35 years, his confusion has real consequences.

To his credit, Eisgruber sincerely believes in academic freedom, a fact that explains why Princeton was the first educational institution, after the University of Chicago, to adopt the so-called Chicago Principles of free expression. However, he also quite sincerely holds the belief, consistent with the progressive view, that a main goal of the university is to advance “social justice”—a principle whose advocates proclaim it to be of urgent and totalizing importance. In holding these two beliefs together at the same time, Eisgruber may be demonstrating the power of a first-rate intelligence, which, as Princeton dropout F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, shows the “ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” He is perhaps also in danger of becoming a comic opera character in the middle of an unfolding tragedy that threatens the foundations of higher education in the United States.

Social justice sounds appealing and may well be worth pursuing in a variety of institutional settings, universities included—provided we all agree on what social justice means and that bringing it about is not incompatible with the more obvious, traditional goals of academia, namely the creation, preservation, and transmission of truth and beauty. This is the true telos of a university, and it is inconceivable in the absence of free speech.

But social justice is another matter altogether. By definition, social justice implies something quite different from impartial justice. All modern ideologies that invoke social justice, including the kind embraced by Eisgruber, appear to envision societies in which group inequalities are not to be tolerated. Of course, achieving anything close to uniformity requires strong, top-down measures of redistribution and reeducation—that is to say, indoctrination—as well as the punishment of dissent and marginalization of dissenters. All of these “socially just” practices are naturally incompatible with free speech.

Ignoring the disappointing, and often tragic, lessons of past historical experiments with social justice imposed by heavy-handed bureaucratic means in places like the former Soviet Union, my native communist Romania, or contemporary China, Princeton’s president believes that the university can have it all: social justice, free speech, and an academic commitment to excellence in the search of knowledge. Possibly this scheme might work if Princeton’s president had a more nuanced view of social justice; as things stand, however, this principle is in obvious contradiction to the other two.

Unfortunately, Eisgruber’s view of social justice seems to be the off-the-shelf version promoted by “progressive” ideologues who see the redistribution of jobs and honors on the basis of skin color and self-assigned identity groupings—and the overt censorship of anyone who disagrees with them or opposes their drive for institutional power—as central to their conception of “justice.” Foundational to this approach are the tenets of critical race theory, which mandate a framework in which the United States as a whole and Princeton University in particular must be understood to be systemically racist. According to CRT, denying this framework is prima facie evidence of systemic racism.

What to do? Well, to cure Princeton of racism, we need, of course, a large and energetic group of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucrats whose main functions are to monitor every possible manifestation of racism and other -isms, however small or unlikely, and, more importantly, to reeducate students, faculty, and fellow administrators through a battery of invasive anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-colonialist, and anti-Western programs, turning the long-standing ideal of the university as a sheltering home for free inquiry on its head in order to produce something more like a very expensive reeducation camp for the children of American elites, and for the people whose job it is to cure them. (A few years ago, it should be said, Eisgruber promised not to impose mandatory DEI training programs. A DEI-infused orientation is now mandatory for all freshmen, but we still hope he will otherwise keep his promise.)

The idea that Princeton is systemically racist is nonsense: As I have argued elsewhere, it is one of the least racist institutions in the world. Nevertheless, Eisgruber’s repeated assertions over these past two years that he heads a racist institution, including a letter addressed to the university community in the fall of 2020, informs Princeton’s whole DEI agenda—and, indeed, seems on most days to be driving the mission of the entire university.

One example of how Princeton is mishandling things: At the mandatory freshman orientation last August, all members of the incoming undergraduate class of 2025 were subjected to an unbalanced presentation of the racist past and supposedly systemically racist present of their new home, which they were called upon to bravely dismantle.

In the long list of famous Princeton figures of the past who were and are denounced as racists in the virtual gallery titled “To Be Known and Heard” is my colleague Joshua Katz. A distinguished “white” professor in the Classics department, his mentorship of a prominent Black classicist is a matter of public record. Indeed, the only visible blemish on Katz’s otherwise perfectly non-racist history is a brief comment he made in July 2020 in an article he penned in response to an actually racist petition—a now-infamous July 4th faculty letter signed by hundreds of our colleagues. Here is what Katz wrote:

The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.

In order to damage Katz’s reputation as much as possible, the creators of Princeton’s rogues’ gallery of racists, an official document that bears the copyright of the university’s Board of Trustees, omitted the parenthetical words “(including the many black students).” Keep in mind that any student who had doctored a quotation, especially intentionally and with malice, would likely have been suspended.

The gallery also quotes Katz from the same article, as follows:

Recently I watched an “Instagram Live” of one of its alumni leaders, who—emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood—presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.

The gallery omits any mention of Katz’s response when he was asked by The Daily Princetonian to clarify what he meant by “terrorist” and “Struggle Session,” or what he has said about these matters elsewhere. This is what Katz wrote:

... the BJL went after one fellow black student with particular vigor, verbally vilifying her in public at every possible opportunity, calling her all sorts of unsavory epithets and accusing her of “performing white supremacy.” Other students, as well as faculty and administrators, were accused, without evidence, of being “racists” and “white supremacists.”

A distinguished colleague who knows the facts and watched the video confirms that the university was aware of the abusive activities of the BJL and that Katz’s description of the “Struggle Session” was accurate.

The gallery also omits any mention of the outpouring of support that Katz has received in a host of student, media, and academic venues. Instead, it quotes from the official denunciation promulgated by Katz’s department and, using bold font, provides outrageous quotations from two other members of the Princeton faculty. One of them, who has now moved to Harvard, accuses Katz of “race-baiting, disguised as free speech”; the other, who holds a University Professorship (the highest faculty rank), states that “Professor Katz … seems to not regard people like me as essential features, or persons, of Princeton.”

In short, the gallery vilifies Joshua Katz as a racist when there is no evidence for this assertion. In order to make the accusation seem plausible to incoming students, it fails to present any of the abundant positive evidence to the contrary. It is hard to describe this kind of nakedly slanderous and provocative treatment of one of Princeton’s own faculty as anything other than the deliberate public abuse of an individual by an institution in the hopes of compelling silence from any other would-be dissenters from an increasingly rigid and compulsory orthodoxy of the type that we do not generally associate with universities, but rather with the medieval church.

It is the deliberate public abuse of an individual by an institution in the hopes of compelling silence from any other would-be dissenters.

For a detailed account of Princeton’s actions against Katz, see the recent RealClearPolitics article by the founders of Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), Edward Yingling and the well-known legal journalist Stuart Taylor Jr.

The treatment of Katz in the mandatory freshmen orientation has generated a lot of criticism, most notably from the three most prestigious American organizations dedicated to academic freedom: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA). (I am a founding member of the AFA, as is Katz.) In his letter to Eisgruber, Keith Whittington, the chair of the academic committee of the AFA and a professor of Politics at Princeton, writes, “We are not aware of any other example of a university systematically denouncing a sitting member of its own faculty in such a way. … We call on the university to refrain from using its administrative resources to target Professor Katz or other members of the faculty in its official activities and programming.”

The university has not yet responded to the accusations—the latter two of which are especially broad—of FIRE, ACTA, or PFS. Eisgruber did, however, reply speedily to Whittington, feigning concern that what the AFA is asking for is contrary to academic freedom and amounts to censorship.

“Are you asking that I censor the website?” Eisgruber inquired. “If so, I find that request” (which is similar to the requests of FIRE, ACTA, and PFS) ”troubling, and I would need to understand better how you reconcile it with the principles of academic freedom and free speech that you champion. I am certain that you would agree that, on a University campus, censorship, including via the compelled removal of information from a website, is a strongly disfavored response to controversial speech.”

In defending the shameful treatment of Katz though such scholastic gymnastics, Princeton’s president seems to be advancing the bizarre notion that somehow the free speech protections enshrined in the university’s rules and regulations extend to administrators in situations where they exercise their official power in order to denounce, harass, and otherwise discredit and threaten individual members of the academic community.

This is a bit like saying that, in denouncing would-be traitors of the Soviet Union on trumped-up charges, Andrey Vyshinsky, the main prosecutor of Stalin’s Moscow trials in the 1930s, was simply exercising his freedom of speech. Or that Joseph McCarthy was merely exercising his right to free speech when he launched his campaign in the 1950s to unearth hidden Communists in Hollywood. Or that the Cultural Revolutionaries in China who denounced their countrymen for imaginary crimes were free speech heroes.

In a similar vein, Eisgruber repulsively defends Princeton’s rogues’ gallery of racists as “teaching material.” Is it “teaching” to project to a captive audience of young, easily influenceable students an unbalanced view of the university’s past and present and to subject to false charges a professor who has no ability to defend himself? This is not teaching. It is indoctrination. I should surely know as much, as I got plenty of this type of indoctrination during my youth in communist Romania. (See Yingling and Stuart’s recent article, “Exposing the Attempt to Whitewash What Happened,” for a more in-depth analysis of Eisgruber’s letter.)

Astonishingly, Princeton’s orientation had absolutely nothing to say about the importance of free speech and did not even mention the legally binding defense of this fundamental democratic principle in the university’s own regulations. Instead, freshmen were informed by a professor that he “envision[s] a free speech and academic discourse that is flexed to one specific aim, and that aim is the promotion of social justice, and an anti-racist social justice at that.”

Last fall, together with seven colleagues, I filed a formal complaint with Princeton about Katz’s ill-treatment. Some time later, a reply arrived from Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter, who rejected our complaint outright and stated that her decision was not subject to appeal. Her arguments are absurd, including the claim that the “To Be Known and Heard” website is not an official university document and that Professor Katz’s views on the BJL, reprinted inaccurately on the website, are not a “protected characteristic,” which, according to Minter, is restricted to “race, creed, color, sex, gender identity.’” To be more precise, her letter asserts, “The policy of Discrimination and/or Harassment applies only to harassment which is directed at a person based on these protected characteristics.” “The [Minter] ruling,” as Yingling and Taylor point out, “retroactively reinterpreted the rule by lifting a definition of ‘harassment’ from a completely different rule and applying it to the free speech rule, with no justification for doing so from the language or intent of either rule.” (See also Yingling and Stuart’s analysis of the Minter ruling, “Princeton’s Free Speech Rule Deception.”)

In response, the eight signatories of the original complaint asked Princeton’s president to appoint a special counsel to review the case. Instead of doing so, Eisgruber bucked the appeal to the new dean of faculty, Gene Jarrett, who immediately confirmed the vice provost’s ruling. In his letter to Whittington, Eisgruber gives no indication that he has a problem with this ruling. It is now apparently Katz’s lot to be forever shamed as a racist in Princeton’s gallery of the damned before each new incoming class of freshmen.

It is hard not to be both appalled and puzzled by the senior administration’s fierce determination to punish Joshua Katz, who enjoyed an outstanding academic reputation on campus and beyond until, one day, he stepped publicly out of line. However inflammatory you consider Katz’s words about the BJL to be—and they are but a small part of his response to the July 4th faculty letter, which made a number of immoral and illegal demands—they pale in comparison to the defamatory language used by other members of the Princeton faculty, including on the “To Be Known and Heard” site. But these professors—one of whom describes the United States as irredeemably racist and calls, essentially, for the dismantling of our institutions—have not only received no censure whatsoever but are also the heroes of the presentation.

It seems clear to me that Katz is not being punished for his choice of words in his letter. Rather, he is being made an example of by Princeton, from its president on down. By criticizing the faculty letter, he was the first member of the university community who dared object to the new social justice regime that Eisgruber wants to implement. He had to be punished as an example to us all not to interfere with the university’s plans to remake itself as an ideological factory for the production of “anti-racist social justice.” Historically, that is not the mission of Princeton University nor any other great university. The longer Joshua Katz is silenced, the further the ideals of free speech and free inquiry that make academic life valuable and possible will recede from the institutional settings that once promised to protect those values, and from those of us who hold them dear.

Sergiu Klainerman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987.