Princeton responds to the Department of Education’s letter

In a letter to Princeton’s president Christopher Eisgruber, the U.S. Department of Education has asked Princeton to explain how Eisgruber’s admissions of systemic, embedded, and damaging racism at the university can be reconciled with the university’s duty under federal law not to discriminate, and with its many past statements to the government and others that it doesn’t discriminate. I wrote about this development here.

Yesterday, Princeton issued a statement about the Department of Education’s letter. Princeton stated:

The letter was the Department’s reaction to President Eisgruber’s update to the University community outlining the steps we are taking to address systemic racism at Princeton and beyond. Princeton has long been committed to creating and maintaining a community where all can thrive, and stands by its representations to the Department and the public that it complies with all laws and regulations governing equal opportunity, non-discrimination and harassment. This work is core to the University’s teaching and research mission, and we are vigilant in our pursuit of equity in every aspect of our programs and operations.

The University also stands by our statements about the prevalence of systemic racism and our commitment to reckon with its continued effects, including the racial injustice and race-based inequities that persist throughout American society. Attracting talent from every sector of society is crucial to our academic mission, and we will continue to lead on these issues.

The University will respond to the Department of Education’s letter in due course. It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law. The University disagrees and looks forward to furthering our educational mission by explaining why our statements and actions are consistent not only with the law, but also with the highest ideals and aspirations of this country.

(Emphasis added)

In effect, Princeton’s response amounts to asking: “What’s a poor university president to do?” Princeton is trapped in a systemically racist country. If it does nothing to combat the manifestations of this problem at Princeton, students will suffer. If it faces up to the problem, the Education Department will harass it.

Here is one thing poor president Eisgruber could have done. If racism really is embedded at Princeton, he could have undertaken the initiative he’s announcing now back in 2013 when he took charge of the university. In other words, he could have engaged in his “honest grappling” with “racism” at Princeton seven years ago, instead of waiting for protests to reach a fever pitch.

Here’s another. Instead of repeatedly telling the government and others that Princeton doesn’t discriminate — nothing to see here — he could have said, as he did his recent letter, that racism is embedded at Princeton and is causing damage there. He could then have enumerated the measures (if any) that Princeton was taking in response. This would have enabled the government to decide, based on Princeton’s honest (presumably) assessment of the situation, whether the university was, in fact, meeting its legal obligations.

Eisgruber did neither of these things.

As I said yesterday, Princeton will have to thread the needle between Eisgruber’s admissions of systemic, embedded, and damaging racism at the university on the one hand, and its legal obligation not to discriminate on the other. The University’s statement is not a promising beginning.

I’ll have more to say about this subject soon.