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Princeton’s President on Free Speech on Campus

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One recent fall morning at a coffee shop in Princeton, I overheard two students chatting about upcoming deadlines for the Rhodes, the Marshall, and the Mitchell—three prestigious postgraduate scholarships so coveted that they’ve become mononymous on elite campuses.

“I don’t love the Rhodes dude from the 1800s,” one student confessed to the other. “Wasn’t he, like, racist?”

Indeed. This is the puzzle of Princeton: How can an institution designed to serve the aspirations of an elite few authentically wrestle with issues of inequality and racism in society? Princeton hosts about 8,200 students on its campus, with more than $3.2 million in its endowment for each of them—the highest ratio of any college in the country.

Christopher Eisgruber, Princeton’s president, has addressed some aspects of the university’s role in making America unequal: After the death of George Floyd last summer, he supported removing the name of Woodrow Wilson, a past Princeton president, from the School of Public and International Affairs, citing Wilson’s racist thinking and policies. But at some level, the very fact of Princeton is itself an enduring legacy of inequality, rooted in a deeply racist past.

I wanted to better understand how Eisgruber thinks about this tension, so I asked him about it. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Emma Green: I promise my first question isn’t facetious. Why should Princeton exist?

Christopher Eisgruber: Universities are places that invest in human talent, often in audacious ways. The idea of a place like Princeton is that you can identify young people who have extraordinary talent and will benefit from an intensive academic experience. Over the space of years and decades, they will blossom in ways we can’t even predict, and they will be able to address problems that matter.

Examples range from James Madison, who takes his impractical education in political theory and becomes the principal author of the Constitution of the United States, to Alan Turing, who comes here as a graduate student and works on stuff that legislators love to parody, like what it means to have an answerable mathematical question. How impractical is that? Except it saves millions of lives in World War II because he breaks the Enigma code. Sonia Sotomayor came here as this place was evolving in the 1970s. She forthrightly says that she’s a beneficiary of affirmative action. Now she is one of the alumni of whom we are proudest.

It makes sense to have these intense places where researchers and students are colliding with other people of talent and passion and imagination, focusing on producing things that matter to our society and our world in a whole variety of unpredictable ways. In order to do that, you have to be willing to bet on excellence.

So my answer to your question is: Yes, Princeton should exist.

Green: The theory of change I hear in your answer is that society depends, in part, on people who have had the privilege of a great education—people who do extraordinary things like becoming a Supreme Court justice or writing the Constitution or serving their country as one of history’s greatest mathematicians.

But there’s a different way of thinking about the raison d’être of college education. I pulled some stats on the City University of New York system—CUNY—which is obviously a very different academic institution from Princeton. CUNY typically serves roughly 240,000 part-time and full-time undergraduate students, along with 30,000 graduate students. CUNY ranks consistently higher than other universities on measures of social mobility—the ability to lift kids out of poverty and help them surpass their parents, economically speaking.

Princeton doesn’t do so well on this metric. I wonder if you think an investment in the elite few is ultimately a less robust vision of justice—of doing good in the world, of trying to make society more equal—than an investment in a broad swath of young people from diverse backgrounds who are trying to fundamentally shift their status in society.

Eisgruber: We need to be investing in a diversified portfolio, if you will, of educational institutions. I don’t want to say James Madison, Alan Turing, and Sonia Sotomayor are our typical graduates. But they exemplify what it can mean for a place to say, “We really believe that human talent is such an extraordinary thing that we are going to invest in it very aggressively and believe in that return on investment over the long term.”

One of the questions I ask myself pretty much every day is “How do we get more low- and middle-income students to and through college at Princeton and across the country?” Fifteen years or so ago, we were a laggard among selective institutions in terms of Pell students and first-generation students—around 7 percent Pell. We’re now over 20 percent in the entering class. Do we have the scale to do what CUNY is doing, or what the UC system is doing? No. But it matters that we are bringing students here who have the ability to benefit from the extraordinary education we provide.

Green: I’m glad you brought up Pell Grants. In the fall of 2020, 53 percent of undergraduates at CUNY were on Pell grants. That number was roughly 22 percent in Princeton’s class of 2025. And 61 percent of families at Princeton receive financial aid. That includes students with families making up to $180,000 a year, which in many places in America is a really nice family income. That means that four in 10 Princeton students come from families that can pay sticker price—about $77,000 a year.

One could look at those stats and say, “Okay. You’re better than you were 15 years ago, but Princeton is still a place for rich kids.” Does that fundamentally corrupt the mission of Princeton?

Eisgruber: I don’t accept the premise. We have taken up our financial-aid population from around 40 percent in 2001 to over 60 percent today. Among universities that are private and selective, that 20 percent Pell number is higher than most. If we can get both publics and privates up into the category that Princeton is right now, that would be a transformative difference for the country.

People can throw around words describing how well-off particular families are. There are differences, though, between what it means to simply be able to write that check and making sacrifices to be able to do that. I’m proud of every student we’ve got on this campus. They bring extraordinary talent, and they can make extraordinary differences in the world.

Green: I’ve noticed that, in conversations about racial inequities or legacies of racism, the discussion often starts and ends in the realm of symbols—so, for example, taking Woodrow Wilson’s name off of the School of Public and International Affairs.

It’s not that those…

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