September 30, 2020

Wide Support for PU In Countering DOE Charges of Racism

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton University has received widespread support in its recent clash with the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) over its announced investigation of “systemic racism” at the University.

More than 80 college and university leaders signed onto a September 24 letter urging the DOE to drop its civil rights investigation into Princeton University.

The University received a letter on September 16 from the DOE reacting to President Christopher Eisgruber’s September 2 letter to the Princeton community in which he outlined steps the University was taking to address racism at Princeton and beyond, including plans to increase the diversity of the faculty and to make Princeton more welcoming to students of color and other marginalized groups.

The DOE letter alleged that, “based on its admitted racism,” Princeton University had violated federal civil rights law and may have received more than $75 million in federal funding under false pretenses since 2013 when Eisgruber became president. “You admitted Princeton’s educational program is and for decades has been racist,” the DOE wrote.

In his September 2 update to the Princeton community — in the national context of the killings of African Americans by police officers and Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country —Eisgruber pointed out that despite efforts to eradicate it, racism does continue to exist at Princeton and in the larger society, “sometimes by conscious intention, but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies.”

In a September 17 statement, Princeton University said that it would respond to the DOE in due course, but “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 statement asserted that the University “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 … 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.”

Last week’s letter from college and university leaders, co-authored by Amherst College President Biddy Martin and Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, urged that the investigation be dropped and it criticized the DOE for “using our country’s resources to investigate an institution that is committed to becoming more inclusive by reckoning with the impact in the present of our shared legacies of racism.”

The DOE letter demanded that the University submit a wide assortment of records and written responses and make Eisgruber and another University representative available for a transcribed interview under oath by October 14.

Princeton’s African American Studies Department Chair Eddie S. Glaude Jr. referred to the DOE investigation as “a frivolous act by small-minded people.” He went on to describe the DOE’s action as “part of the ongoing effort of certain segments of our society to refuse to confront our past, to maintain their hold on the lie.”

Princeton University Assistant Professor of African American Studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote on Twitter, “It’s amazing how the federal government is just a tool of the Trump thugs to harass and intimidate.”

In a September 22 statement, Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) decried the “impressive lack of reasoning” and the wastefulness of the DOE initiative. “President Eisgruber rightly acknowledged that Princeton, like countless institutions that laid the groundwork for our day-to-day experiences in this country, was built on systemic racism,” she wrote. “He went on to lay out strategies for mitigating the enduring effects of systemic racism. For those thoughtful notes on inclusion, the Trump administration has opened an investigation into racist practices by the school.”

She continued, “It is dumbfounding. Mindboggling. It is utter stupidity, and a waste of taxpayer resources to investigate racism and threaten to claw back over $75 million from a school that has just said it will do everything it can to address its racist past.”