On Thursday, the Department of Education (ED) opened an investigation into Princeton University after the school’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, admitted to his institution’s “systemic racism,” reports The Washington Examiner. This comes in response to President Eisgruber’s September 2 open letter to the Princeton community, in which he announced “plans to combat systemic racism at Princeton and beyond.”
Indeed, Eigruber writes “We must ask how Princeton can address systemic racism in the world, and we must also ask how to address it within our own community.” How exactly is the “systemic racism” within Princeton made manifest? He continues:
Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our 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. …
Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself. For example, 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. [emphasis added]
These are serious claims and should be met with an equally serious response. If it is true that racism “persists” at and is “embedded” in Princeton as a whole, a federal investigation is indeed warranted. The Education Department said just as much in its letter to President Eisgruber:
Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education (“Department”) is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false. The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew, or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made. Finally, the Department is further concerned Princeton’s many nondiscrimination and equal opportunity claims to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates may have been false, misleading, and actionable substantial misrepresentations ... Therefore, the Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education, in consultation with the Department’s Office of the General Counsel, is opening this investigation. [emphasis added]
Princeton leadership isn’t thrilled. In a statement responding to ED’s investigation, University Spokesperson Ben Chang writes “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.”
And what is existing racial discrimination law? Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Surely the ever-present force of “systemic racism” would constitute discrimination based on race. Is that not the very definition of racism?
Chang’s statement falls flat and blatantly contradicts itself. It doesn’t matter if Princeton tries to create and maintain “a community where all can thrive”—if the claims of Chang and Eisgruber are true, then Princeton has clearly failed to do so and is still racist to the core, if it ever was.
Other critics of ED’s probe include Assistant Professor of African American Studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who tweeted “It’s amazing how the federal government is just a tool of the Trump thugs to harass and intimidate. The White Power presidency goes all in on culture war and the rest of us pay the price. This week led by the erroneously named Dept of ‘Education’. [sic]” The Daily Princetonian also quotes current student Ceon Sun, who says “It [the investigation] just sounds like a thinly veiled attempt to make an example of Princeton so other colleges are too intimidated to talk about systemic racism and the Trump administration can keep pretending that racism doesn’t exist.”
None of these criticisms makes sense. If those in the Princeton community actually care about fighting the systemic racism that supposedly “persists” at their institution, shouldn’t they welcome this investigation? How can this probe possibly be characterized as “thugs” seeking to “harass and intimidate” or “pretending that racism does not exist”? The logic is simply self-refuting.
Unless, of course, Princeton doesn’t take its own claims of systemic racism seriously.
Most recently after the death of George Floyd (but certainly many times before that as well), college and universities presidents issued statements in an almost desperate effort to proclaim their supreme awareness of “systemic/institutional/structural” racism, as well as their newfound commitment to “combat” it within their institutions. NAS counts over 300 such statements, nearly all of which contain remarkably similar rhetoric and buzzwords.
The overwhelmingly generic language found in these statements leads me to believe that many college and university presidents simply want to appease the angry mob of students, faculty, and administrators within their institutions. Higher ed leaders may say foolish things, but they aren’t stupid—they know that a simple PR stunt in the form of an melodramatic proclamation against racism will do the trick (at least for now).
The possibility of a federal investigation will force any college or university that has admitted to “perpetuating systemic racism” to choose between two options: (1) stand by the original admission of wrongdoing and comply with efforts to investigate it or (2) walk back the confession, admit to lying, and, potentially, avoid a probe. Princeton leadership has attempted to create a fallacious third option: remain committed to the original admission of guilt and also condemn ED’s investigation. By choosing this option, President Eisgruber and company do nothing more than dig in their heels and avoid tangible accountability.
Some who are in favor of the investigation, such as The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, have called ED’s investigation “trolling.” While one may certainly find humor—and even trollery—within the launch of the probe, we must also ask: who’s the real troll? The Education Department, or the countless higher education leaders who claim with a straight face that racism is still “embedded” in every aspect of their institutions?
The National Association of Scholars will continue to cover this investigation as it unfolds, as well as how other colleges and universities respond to the sudden possibility of a federal probe. If systemic racism in American higher education is real, let’s ferret it out and deal with it. If it’s not, then end the tired charade.
John David is Communications & Administrative Associate at the National Association of Scholars.
Image: popejon2, Public Domain