Laura Moss / The New ​York Times / Redux

Princeton University is consumed from top to bottom with what seems to be the question of the moment: How should it reorder itself to fight racism?

The school’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, ordered 23 of the institution’s most senior academic and administrative leaders to focus on how to marshal Princeton’s teaching, research, operations, and partnerships in service of “eliminating racism” on and off campus. By August 21, they are to report on what specifically can be done “to identify, understand, and combat” it. The university is also giving $1,500 grants to students who want to fight racism, and has made available new funding for faculty to run scholarly projects or expand course offerings related to racism.

These efforts, though, don’t come close to satisfying the calls for change coming from within the Princeton community. Groups of students have variously described the composition of Princeton’s faculty and its “institutional culture” as “pillars of its oppressive past,” declared that their education failed to prepare them to vanquish racism, and urged a “comprehensive transformation” of curriculum, programming, and faculty.

More notable, roughly 350 faculty members and staff signed an open letter, published on July 4, that set forth nearly 50 demands. These were premised on the claims that anti-Black racism plays a powerful role at Princeton, that it has “a visible bearing” on Princeton’s makeup and hiring practices, and that “indifference to the effects of racism on this campus has allowed legitimate demands for institutional support and redress in the face of micro-aggression and outright racist incidents to go long unmet.”

Among the demands: Exponentially increase the number of faculty of color; elevate more faculty of color to leadership positions; use admissions as a tool of anti-racism; implement anti-racist training that “moves participants through stages of vulnerability, productive discomfort, and reflection”; pay faculty of color more and give them course relief and more time for sabbaticals than white faculty to reward “the invisible work” they do as “spokespersons” for diversity; create “a center specifically dedicated to racism and anti-racism”; reconsider the use of standardized tests like the SAT and GRE in admissions decisions; remove questions about misdemeanors and felony convictions from admissions applications; fund an indigenous-studies professorship “for a scholar who decenters white frames of reference”; and support efforts by departments and programs to identify and recruit postdoctoral scholars of color.

One demand in particular generated a great deal of attention in the media: “Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” The letter added that “what counts as racist” should be determined by the yet-to-be-formed faculty committee.

The prospect of a racism tribunal seems, to some outside observers, inherently incompatible with academic freedom. “Academic freedom is the application of free speech principles to the academic context, and academic freedom protects an enormous amount of free speech for faculty,” John K. Wilson wrote at the Academe blog. “If you punish all ‘racist’ or ‘bad’ research, it will inevitably have a chilling effect on professors who want to challenge the status quo. Even if the faculty evaluating these cases are thoughtful and reasonable, how many professors want to be brought up before the ‘racism’ committee and have their thoughts investigated for possible racism?”

Oddly enough, I learned that some signatories share these concerns. In fact, some don’t support the creation of a tribunal at all.

Princeton’s faculty seemed to answer that question in favor of truth-seeking when it voted in 2015 to adopt most of the University of Chicago’s statement on freedom of expression, including this passage:

The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

That “fundamental commitment” is in direct conflict with the demand signed by hundreds of faculty to define for the university “what counts as racist” and to investigate and discipline racist behavior and scholarship. At a moment when so many are calling for Princeton to fundamentally transform itself, and its president is urging leadership to explore how its resources might be directed to counter racism, was the faculty letter a call for anti-racism to prevail if and when it conflicts with speech or scholarship?

To better understand the intentions of the signatories, I emailed nearly all of them three questions (I couldn’t locate a working address for fewer than 10). Here are condensed versions of the first two questions:

1) If what counts as racism is as yet undefined, pending the work of a faculty committee composed of as-yet-unknown members, how can you be sure that after it is defined, you’ll agree with the definition and that discipline should be meted out in accordance with that definition?

2) Princeton has 950 full-time faculty members. I struggle to understand how any guidelines on what counts as racist “behavior, incidents, research, and publication” would square with all their beliefs. How can an institution simultaneously guarantee academic freedom and mete out discipline to faculty whose scholarship is deemed racist by a definition with which they disagree?

Just 17 signatories replied. Many were only willing to be quoted anonymously, as they feared that commenting publicly would be socially uncomfortable or professionally fraught. One chided me for my questions. “It is disappointing to me that in a fairly detailed and comprehensive letter concerning anti-racism, journalists such as yourself and others have seized on a single detail and created more discourse about it than about 97% of the rest of the letter,” the English professor Zahid Chaudhary emailed. “Unfortunately, unless your piece is prepared to engage the full scope of anti-racist pedagogy and institutional change that the faculty letter details, I am not prepared to assist in distorting or amplifying the most misunderstood part of the letter.” He wasn’t alone in characterizing my focus on that demand as somehow “distorting” its meaning.

That criticism made more sense to me when I learned that some signatories believe the demand has no chance of being met, and treat it as something only bad-faith critics would take seriously. Of course I don’t want that, more than one signatory told me, as if anyone with common sense would already know as much. In fact, multiple signatories are vehemently opposed to the demand beneath which they put their names. “I deeply regret signing that letter,” lamented a faculty member with extreme misgivings. “The reasons were personal and are not intellectually defensible. I regretted signing almost instantly, before the letter drew public attention, specifically because of the sentences you cite.” That faculty member assured me that if the measure came up for a faculty vote, they would oppose it.

More common were faculty members who didn’t regret signing, and favored many of the letter’s provisions, but did worry about or oppose the racism-committee concept. “Your concerns are also my concerns,” the sociology professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly emailed. “I abhor racism but bristle at the idea of curtailing freedom of exchanges in an academic environment. As we move forward, I believe we will find ways to ensure a balance between open debate and dialogue and a mindful attention to racial discrimination.”

The humanities professor and poet Paul Muldoon believes a great deal more can be done to redress the imbalances in our society but speculated that a racism committee probably wouldn’t fly:

For me, signing such a letter is an indication of my commitment to its broadest thrust while hoping to start a conversation in which the finer points will be debated. One point that will certainly be debated is the idea that a faculty committee might oversee “the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors …”

Such a committee is likely to be seen as smacking too much of a Star Chamber—probably benign and well-intentioned, but a Star Chamber nonetheless … It is likely to be seen as a threat to academic freedom, a concept we should honor while we still can. As you say, the definition of “racist” isn’t always clear-cut, particularly when a character in a play or a poem uses hate speech. I happen to believe that doesn’t necessarily mean the playwright or poet is racist any more than, in writing Macbeth, Shakespeare condones murder.

A professor in the physical sciences said:

Did I really sign to abolish academic freedom of speech? Of course not! I actually had to go look up the paragraph in question to make sure that was really what I signed because the letter had grown so much by the end everything/everyone was moving so quickly. We were told: here are our modifications. It was late, and so I thought, okay, it contains some points I want made and I’m not an identified author anyway. So no, there isn’t ever going to be a censorship committee. There is zero chance that anyone would create such a thing. That is unworkable and against everything we should want.

Now let’s talk about the spirit of what the letter says: it says we should not be racist. And we shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be sexist. We should have values that embrace diversity, access, and inclusion. We should promote African American faculty. We should look for indigenous colleagues. In the hypothetical scenario where I made the statement “all Jews are bad” I do expect the University president would come knock on my door and say, “Are you out of your mind?” I don’t expect to be fired for that––there is academic freedom. But I would be welcoming it if a president came to my door and said that that is not civil discourse.

Yet some signatories do favor a committee to define, investigate, and discipline racism, regarding it (reasonably enough) as utterly consistent with the spirit of the letter that demanded it.

The English professor Andrew Cole wrote in The Daily Princetonian, “We need to refine the current policy on research conduct so that there is clear systemic redress for misconduct against communities of color … At best, talk of academic freedom absent a thorough and honest account of ethical research conduct is grandstanding. At worst, it’s a tried and true way to sustain white privilege, uphold the culture of white supremacy, and remain comfortable while others take up the hard work of anti-racism.”

Another defense of the racism committee came from a professor who signed the petition “to publicly signal that I am an ally of the movement that produced the petition and that I support aggressive and urgent action to confront racial inequality and discrimination.” He was “not terribly worried” about a racism committee, because he sees Princeton as “a moderate to conservative place” that won’t change overnight. “This is yet another reason why I support the urgency of the petition,” he explained. “Princeton has longstanding conservative structures in place that have not been dislodged by meaningful reform efforts for decades. A committee would define ‘racism’ via the democracy of the committee, and the safeguards that such a committee would have to abide by, including an appeals process.”

Yet another defender of the anti-racism committee believes “cancel culture” takes hold when it is the only form of redress available to people who are wronged, and that “cancel culture” leads to injustice. “This was the intention behind my signature regarding the establishment of a university committee to oversee racist behavior,” the signatory explained. “It is a way to address persistent injustices in a manner that has real power, but would also provide due process for the accused. There is a danger that this could go too far in weakening academic freedom and the protections of tenure, but these are too often used to cover actions that have little if anything to do with academic freedom. We cannot let a fear of hypothetical excess that leads to injustice against the most powerful prevent us from addressing very real injustice against the least.” What a pretty hypothetical, in which a tribunal’s excesses wrong only the most powerful.

The faculty letter gives the impression that many Princeton professors believe their institution is rife with anti-Black racism and that the university must risk abandoning long-standing core values to be anti-racist. But most signatories who responded to my queries hold neither of those beliefs. Whether they are representative or unrepresentative of either their fellow signatories or their faculty colleagues is beyond the scope of my reporting. Nevertheless, the idea that merely signing the open letter reliably signals endorsement of its demands, as many observers assumed, is false. At minimum, fewer faculty than it initially appeared are abandoning academic freedom, and even fewer are confident that a racism tribunal would pass a faculty vote.

Outside observers should be sophisticated enough to understand that universities are socially and politically complex communities where faculty members don’t always say what they mean, especially when asked to sign on to a group letter with hundreds of their colleagues in a moment of national crisis. “Much as I’m averse to aspects of any letters signed by more than one person—chiefly that they represent a form of mostly benign and well-intentioned thuggery—I’m convinced we live in a moment where we have to be seen as being part of a solution to what is clearly a problem,” Muldoon told me elsewhere in his thoughtful email. “That means that, as in the case of the Princeton letter, some ideas may need to be overstated to be stated at all.”

Another professor wrote, “I can happily say that the letter has fed into a healthy and important discussion between the faculty and administration about the changes we need to make, as was our goal.”

Nevertheless, I am concerned that some faculty members are unwilling to publicly criticize a demand that they scoff at privately. Can they really be counted on to protect academic freedom in a faculty vote? And I wish more faculty members would say whatever they actually think with clarity and precision, rather than indulging in hyperbole that does more to muddy and polarize than to clarify.

Less abstraction and more specificity would add useful context to many contested matters. For instance, here is the third question that I sent to the signatories: Can you give any examples of ‘racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication’ at Princeton in, say, the last 15 years, that exemplify what you want to see disciplined? Answers would be clarifying. But I didn’t get any.

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