The letter is part of an intense national debate over the nation’s racial history and how that has shaped the present, with protests over racial injustices flaring up across the country in recent months and dueling efforts to reemphasize the contributions of the Founding Fathers or to more directly confront the impact of slavery.
This month, Princeton’s president wrote about efforts to combat systemic racism on campus and beyond, such as diversifying the school’s faculty and making Princeton a more welcoming place. Even though the university had committed itself for at least the past 50 years to become more inclusive, “racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society,” Christopher L. Eisgruber wrote.
Two weeks later, the Education Department sent the university a letter disclosing its investigation. “On September 2, 2020, you admitted Princeton’s educational program is and for decades has been racist,” Robert King, assistant secretary in the Office of Postsecondary Education, wrote.
King’s letter said that since 2013, when Eisgruber became president, the university had repeatedly maintained it was in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from discrimination. During that time, Princeton received more than $75 million in taxpayer funds, King wrote.
A spokesman for Princeton did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. Earlier this month, spokesman Ben Chang said in a statement that the university stands by its statements and will continue its important pursuit of equity in all of its programs.
Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, and Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College, decided to write a letter and asked other university presidents to sign on. “Across the nation, individuals, families, communities, businesses, corporations, and educational institutions are coming to grips with the country’s legacies of slavery and racial oppression,” they wrote.
They also wrote: “As presidents of colleges and universities, we, too, acknowledge the ways that racism has affected and continues to affect the country’s institutions, including our own.”
The presidents of more than 80 colleges, including the rest of the Ivy League, and other leading schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and Duke University, also signed on.
“Some presidents seemed worried about antagonizing an aggressive federal government,” Roth said. “Some people wanted to express puzzlement rather than rejection of this move.” But no one he spoke with supported the federal inquiry, he said. Institutions want to preserve their independence and their ability to improve themselves through critical thinking without that making them vulnerable to federal investigation, he said.
Asked about the presidents’ letter, Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, wrote in an email, “The allegations of current systemic racism at Princeton are deeply concerning. It’s doubly concerning that so many institution presidents would implore the department not to investigate these serious accusations."
The department is legally obligated to ensure that institutions receiving federal funds are in compliance with civil rights law, Morabito said. “We owe it to students to ensure that they are able to access an education free of racial discrimination,” she said.
Recent Princeton graduates Thomas Koenig and Shanon FitzGerald wrote this week in Law & Liberty that the Education Department “had no choice but to act on the investigative trolling opportunity of a lifetime.”
In an email to The Washington Post, the pair said they think highly of Eisgruber, but “we don’t think the way forward for America and its leading institutions, when it comes to matters of race, is to recite platitudes of the new anti-racist faith. Rather, we think they should double down on their commitments to facts and freedom of thought."
“We think that would lead President Eisgruber and other well-intentioned academic leaders to refrain from feigned, self-condemnatory statements about their own institutions,” they wrote, “and to direct more of their energy toward actually chipping away at the many racial injustices and inequalities — namely, those related to intergenerational Black poverty and lack of opportunity — that still plague American society.”
Roth and Martin said in a phone interview that they weren’t just troubled by the Education Department’s investigation, but other recent federal actions and rhetoric.
This month, the Office of Management and Budget said President Trump had directed agencies to cancel race-related training seen as “divisive” or “un-American.” And last week, Trump criticized what he called “left-wing indoctrination” about racism and slavery in schools and said that he would create a commission to promote a “curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.”
On Thursday, two educational associations issued a joint statement in favor of anti-racist education, citing the OMB directive, the Princeton inquiry and efforts to ban use of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which frames the consequences of slavery as central to the country’s history, to teach about race in schools. The American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education wrote that “we need educational systems that are not politicized and censored, but rather seek the truth by exploring even the most difficult truths.”
It was important for those in higher education to speak out, Martin said.
“They may be picking on Princeton today,” Roth said, “but we’re all trying to do similar things.”