On Wednesday, a group of Princeton University students took over the university president’s office as part of a protest. The protest ended Thursday night with the signing of what looks like a contract between the university administration and the protesters. In the contract, the administrators agreed in writing to take several specific steps in the direction of the student demands. In return, the students agreed to end the takeover of the university president’s office.
It’s pretty different from what happened 20 years ago, when Princeton students also took over the university president’s office with a list of demands. The 1995 protest began in a similar way:
A little past 11 a.m. yesterday, 17 Princeton University students strode purposefully into Nassau Hall to the president’s outer office, pushed aside a secretary, plopped down, and started singing and chanting.
This is a takeover, they announced. And they had no intention of leaving until president Harold F. Shapiro made a good-faith effort to listen to their requests for faculty and courses in Asian American and Latino studies.
But in 1995, this was the university president’s response:
Shapiro called the students’ actions “deeply offensive.”
In a statement, Shapiro said he had authorized “a number of steps in recent years to increase commitment” in ethnic studies, and “a number of additional steps are currently in process.”
“But,” Shapiro added, “I am not willing to discuss these or any other issues while this inexcusable occupation of University office space continues.”
Fast forward to Wednesday, when a group of Princeton students took over the president’s office with a list of demands:
Student protesters filled Princeton’s historic Nassau Hall Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the university president’s office and refusing to leave until their demands to improve the social and academic experiences of black students on campus are met. . . .
The group demanded that the name of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, a segregationist who some believe supported the ideas of the Ku Klux Klan, be removed from a residential college, from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, and any other buildings — and that his mural be scrubbed from the dining hall.
It demanded “cultural competency training” for all faculty and staff, including discussion of “the true role of freedom of speech and freedom of intellectual thought in a way that does not reinforce anti-Blackness and xenophobia.”
The organizers demanded that classes on “marginalized peoples” be added to the university’s required courses. “Learning about marginalized groups, their cultures, and structures of privilege is just as important as any science or quantitative reasoning course,” the group wrote in its demands.
And it demanded a space for black students on campus. The document ends with a request that President Christopher Eisgruber sign it.
The Daily Princetonian adds:
Asanni York ’17, one of the organizers of the protest, explained the group would not leave until Eisgruber signed the document listing the demands.
“We are tired of talking to people. It’s conversation, conversation, conversation. We try and protest; we meet with the administration every other week,” York said. “We’re done talking. We’re going to be here until he signs this paper. We’re going to be here until things are met.”
On Wednesday, the university president’s initial response was to meet with the students and begin a discussion over their demands. Again, from the Daily Princetonian:
Eisgruber explained that he had an hour-long discussion with the student protesters about their demands and the current racial climate at the University.
He described the conversation as very engaged, adding that it was very important for him to hear exactly what their concerns were and why they had chosen to act in this way.
“I think that it is harder to be a black student on our campus than it is to be a white student. We should be aiming for a campus in which all students feel equally welcomed,” Eisgruber said.
He added that he agrees with some of the students’ points, saying that Wilson was a racist and that the University should talk candidly about his legacy, including both its good and bad parts. . . .
The request for a space specific to black students is reasonable and desirable, Eisgruber said, adding that he and his colleagues will work on creating such a location on campus as quickly as possible.
“We have to figure out what’s feasible and we have to recognize if we do that, we can’t do this for black students and not also do it for, for example, students from Latinx, who are also very interested in having a dedicated space,” he explained.
(In case you’re wondering, a student poll suggests that most Princeton students took a relatively dim view of the protests.)
On Thursday afternoon, the university administration met again with the protesters (who were still in the president’s office) and negotiated with them for two hours. After several hours of stalemate, both sides agreed to a list of specific steps that the university administration had to promise to take for the students to call off the protest. The signed agreement includes one of the last important demands of the protesters, that they be given complete amnesty for violating university rules in the course of the protest.
The University Press Club has covered the protest in extraordinary detail, and it has posted a copy of the written document. The text has also been posted on the university Web site, and it reads as follows:
November 19th, 2015
This meeting was attended by the Black Justice League (BJL) and President Eisgruber, Vice President (VP) Calhoun and Dean Dolan. By signing below, I agree to have verbalized the following during the Thursday afternoon meeting with the BJL:
On the first demand concerning the legacy of Woodrow Wilson on this campus:
* Write to Professor Cadava tonight to initiate the process to consider removal of Wilson’s mural, which will express President Eisgruber’s personal view that the mural should be removed from the Wilcox Dining Hall. Dean Gonzalez will be CC’d on this email exchange. This promise was verbalized by President Eisgruber.
* Write an email to Katie Hall, the chair of the Board of Trustees, to initiate conversations concerning the present legacy of Woodrow Wilson on this campus, including Black Justice League’s request to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name. This promise was verbalized by President Eisgruber.
* The Board of Trustees will collect information on the campus community’s opinion on Woodrow Wilson School name and then make a decision regarding the name. This promise was verbalized by President Eisgruber.
* Commitment to working toward greater ethnic diversity of memorialized artwork on campus. This commitment was verbalized by President Eisgruber.
On the second demand concerning the creation of Affinity Housing:
*Immediately designate four rooms in the Carl A. Fields Center that will be used by Cultural Affinity Groups. This promise was verbalized by VP Calhoun.
*BJL members will be involved in a working group with the staff of the Residential Colleges to begin discussions on the viability of the formation of Affinity Housing for those interested in black culture. This promise was verbalized by Dean Dolan.
On the third demand concerning the implementation of Cultural Competency Training and a Diversity Requirement:
*Work in conjunction with Executive Director John Kolligian to enhance cultural competency training for CPS staff. This promise was verbalized by VP Calhoun.
*Email Dean Prentice to arrange an introduction with BJL concerning the possibility of cultural competency training. This promise was verbalized by President Eisgruber.
*Arrange a presentation by BJL to the FACP. This promise was verbalized by President Eisgruber.
Dean Gonzalez will work with the BJL to invite two members to attend the meeting on December 8th to discuss with the General Education Task Force the possibility of a diversity requirement. This promise was verbalized by Dean Dolan.
On the final demand concerning amnesty from disciplinary action for those who remained in President Eisgruber’s office overnight on November 18th, 2015.
*No formal disciplinary action has been nor will be initiated if students peacefully leave President Eisgruber’s office tonight. This promise was verbalized by VP Calhoun.
*In the future, information in regards to processes concerning disciplinary action, protests and Rights, Rules and Responsibilities will be clearly given from administration to students in writing. This promise was verbalized by VP Calhoun.
*Inclusion At Princeton website is updated by the Vice Provost of Diversity and Inclusion. Dean Gonzalez is the point person for checking in on the progress concerning the aforementioned issues. This promise was verbalized by Dean Dolan.
In a statement posted on the university’s Web site, Eisgruber thanked the protesters: “We appreciate the willingness of the students to work with us to find a way forward for them, for us and for our community.”
Maybe what happened at Princeton isn’t representative of a shift in student demands and university responses over the past 20 years. After all, it’s just one contrast at one school. Still, I thought the difference between 1995 and 2015, at least at Princeton, is pretty remarkable.