September 9, 2020

PU President Eisgruber Promises to Increase Efforts to Combat Racism

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton University is ramping up its efforts to combat racism on a range of fronts, in both scholarly work and practical operations, according to a September 2 letter from Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber to the University community.

Eisgruber’s letter outlined the next steps the University, under the leadership of its senior academic and administrative officials, will take to address systemic racism at Princeton and beyond, including planning to extend a Princeton education to underserved populations in the area and significantly increasing the number of faculty members from underrepresented groups.

In June, as demonstrations throughout the country protested the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks, Eisgruber called on his cabinet of University leaders to develop plans to combat racism, asserting, “As a University, we must examine all aspects of this institution — from our scholarly work to our daily operations — with a critical eye and a bias toward action. This will be an ongoing process, one that depends on concrete and reasoned steps.”

On June 26, 2020 the Princeton University Board of Trustees voted to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International Affairs and from a residential college, because of Wilson’s “racist thinking and policies.”

In following up, on August 25 Eisgruber and his cabinet examined a range of proposals during a full-day session, and on September 2 Eisgruber issued his update.

“Princeton contributes to the world through teaching and research of unsurpassed quality,” he wrote, “and we must continue to find ways to bring that mission to bear against racism, and against all of the discrimination that damages the lives of people of color.”

Eisgruber cited “an impressive range of data-driven insights, recommendations, and questions for further study” generated over the past two months, in addition to changes and initiatives announced in June, which included new funding for teaching, research, and service projects related to racial justice and a new grant program, Princeton RISE, that provided
resources for undergraduate and graduate students engaging in work over the summer to address racial inequalities and injustices — in addition to the renaming of the residential college and the public policy school.

A top priority identified for the current year, Eisgruber wrote, is the challenge of extending Princeton University’s educational resources to disadvantaged populations in the area by “exploring the possibility of a new credit- or degree-granting program that would extend Princeton’s teaching to a new range of students from communities disproportionately affected by systemic racism and related forms of disadvantage.”

“Our growing experience with online learning adds to the tools we might use to enhance such a project,” Eisgruber wrote, pointing out that Princeton currently “has none of the degree-granting continuing education, general education, or related outreach programs that exist at almost all of our peers.”

Among other priorities for “collective, university-wide work beginning immediately” is the  recruitment of a faculty that “more closely reflects both the diverse makeup of the students we educate and the national pool of candidates,” specifically to “increase by 50 percent the number of tenured or tenure-track faculty members from underrepresented groups over the next five years.”

According to data from 2019 cited in The Daily Princetonian student newspaper, 8 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty members at Princeton are Black or Hispanic, compared to 18 percent of undergraduates and 32 percent of the U.S. population.

According to The Princetonian, Eisgruber’s letter received mixed reactions from student activists and faculty, some of whom had been involved in the consultation and discussion process so far.  Many called for more specifics, a clear timeline, or more concrete action to advance these “first steps.”

In his letter Eisgruber also stated that there would be opportunities arranged in the coming days and months for community input, dialogue, and discussion, including multiple town halls in September and October.

Emphasizing that Princeton University must address systemic racism in the world as well as within its own community, Eisgruber acknowledged that the University, even though it has committed itself to becoming more inclusive for at least the past 50 years, has, for most of its history,  “intentionally and systematically excluded people of color, women, Jews, and other minorities.” 

He went on to note how racism and its consequences “persist at Princeton as in our society,” as “race-based inequities in America’s health care, policing, education, and employment systems affect profoundly the lives of our staff, students, and faculty of color.”

As evidence of “racist assumptions from the past” that “remain embedded in the structures of the University itself” he pointed out, “Princeton inherits from earlier generations at least nine departments and programs organized around European languages and culture, but only a single, relatively small program in African studies.”