How Princeton Opened Itself to the Ultimate Troll

Why the left and the right are exaggerating the racism of the Ivy League institution.

An illustration of the Princeton name with letters scratched out to spell "Racist."
The Atlantic

The president of Princeton is in a pickle. This summer, Christopher L. Eisgruber received a letter from more than 300 faculty members at the university asserting “indifference to the effects of racism on this campus.” They called on him “to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive” there and “to block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations.”

Princeton graduate students made similar claims. At the architecture school, an open letter asserted the existence of “ongoing anti-Black racism” and “white supremacy.” At the public-affairs school, a different open letter said, “The presence of an overwhelmingly white faculty creates an environment where instances of racism within the classroom often go unaddressed.”

In response, President Eisgruber directed university leaders to spend the summer compiling reports on how to identify and combat “systemic racism.” And he declared in early September that while the institution long ago committed to being more inclusive, “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.” He added, “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”

Those words arguably met the faculty letter’s demand to publicly acknowledge anti-Black racism at Princeton. But the same language was then cited by the Trump administration as justification for a Department of Education probe into whether the university has violated federal law.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 declares that at institutions that receive federal funds, no person shall be subject to discrimination or denied the benefits of any activity on the basis of race.

Princeton administrators have long affirmed that their institution is complying with those requirements. Given Eisgruber’s claims that racism persists at Princeton, that racist assumptions are embedded in its structures, and that systemic racism there damages the lives of Black people, the Department of Education says it wants to know if the university has been lying.

The government’s letter concludes with intrusive demands to interview Princeton employees under oath and generate sensitive documents, including a list of each Princetonian who has been discriminated against on the basis of race since 2015, as well as records related to Eisgruber’s claims about “systemic” or “embedded” racism.

The investigation is absurd. Princeton is highly sought after by Black applicants. In admissions it uses the race of minority applicants, who are admitted at higher rates, as a “plus” to achieve greater diversity in a way that very likely benefits Black applicants. It spends lavishly on “inclusion” efforts, holds events to celebrate (and name a building after) Black alumni, and dedicates resources to recruiting and hiring Black faculty and staff. No reasonable person deciding where federal officials should look for anti-Black civil-rights violations would probe the Ivy League University. But trolls waging a culture war against critical race theory might.

As far as I can tell, the strategy is to force Princeton to either admit to serious anti-Black discrimination, risking devastating financial penalties, or else mount an affirmative case that the institution is not guilty of “systemic” anti-Black discrimination, exposing the racism claims of many administrators, faculty, and students as hyperbole. In its absurdity, then, the probe exposes the performative nature of some anti-racist rhetoric at Princeton and other elite universities.

Defenders of the investigation see it that way too. In City Journal, Seth Barron characterized it as a maneuver that could neutralize the systemic-racism narrative. “If racism is institutionally embedded somewhere, the United States has a juggernaut of laws, courts, investigators, and prosecutors that can tear the offending institution into shreds and pulverize its racism,” he wrote. “So bring out your systemic racism, Princeton—let’s see it. Because if it isn’t documented or identifiable somewhere, or if it lurks below the level of consciousness as implicit bias, then it’s like phlogiston or aether, and just a form of juju or magical thinking.”

So far, Princeton is denying any contradiction in its claims. On the one hand, it “stands by its representations to the Department and the public that it complies with all laws and regulations governing equal opportunity, non-discrimination and harassment.” On the other hand, “the University also stands by our statements about the prevalence of systemic racism and our commitment to reckon with its continued effects, including the racial injustice and race-based inequities that persist throughout American society.” Princeton declares, “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.”

But the Trump administration, for all its cynicism, likely does not believe that Princeton is grappling “honestly” with “systemic racism.” It likely believes that progressives at Princeton and elsewhere are overstating racism as a result of moral panic or to advance an identitarian agenda. Some skeptics of what’s come to be known as critical race theory suspect that because an overwhelming majority of Americans properly regard anti-Black racism as abhorrent, ideologues invoke racism promiscuously as a sort of shortcut to getting what they want.

Harvard’s Randall Kennedy, a scholar of race and the law, is an incisive critic of that strategic hyperbole. “How racist are universities, really?” he asked last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education, before the Department of Education announced its investigation. He found widespread hand-wringing. At Dartmouth, for example, the board of trustees recently stated, “We know there are no easy solutions to eradicate the oppression and racism Black and other students, faculty, and staff of color experience on our campus.” But no example of oppression was mentioned.

Kennedy cited Dartmouth’s statement while reviewing “the evasiveness, if not mendacity, of administrators” who “pander to protestors, issuing faux mea culpas that any but the most gullible observers recognize as mere public relations ruses aimed at pacification.” As he sees it, “whatever wrongs universities have perpetrated or neglected to rectify are compounded when university authorities speak thoughtlessly or insincerely about matters that cut so deeply.”

An allegation of systemic racism “is a serious charge,” Kennedy insisted. “If the allegation is substantiated, it ought to occasion protest and rectification commensurate with the wrong,” but if flimsy or baseless, that should be stated too. Kennedy warned that “minority students who take such indictments at face value—unaware of strategic hyperbole—become overwhelmed by unrealistic fears of encountering racist assessments that will unfairly limit their possibilities.”

Kennedy aimed that criticism at Princeton in particular. He graduated from the institution in 1973, and noted in his article that “the exploitation and exclusion of African Americans is, indeed, deeply embedded in Princeton’s history.” As for its present, however, he dissented from this summer’s faculty letter, with its claims such as “anti-Black racism has a visible bearing upon Princeton’s campus makeup and its hiring practices.” If Princeton’s racism “was as conspicuous as alleged, one would expect the ultimatum’s authors to be able to dash off some vivid, revealing examples,” Kennedy argued. He went on to call the claim of anti-Black racial exclusion implausible given various facts: prominent Black intellectuals who have made Princeton their academic home, scores of Black scholars who hold or recently held positions of academic leadership, and an African American dean of admissions. What’s more, he added, Princeton has a number of distinguished Black trustees. “These people, all Princeton alumni, are alert and capable and in demand,” he argued. “They are by no means needy. They could associate themselves with any number of prestigious enterprises. They would surely decline to contribute to or be involved with the sort of institution that the ultimatum depicts.”

Hyperbole about white supremacy at universities can obscure the true nature of real problems. For example, just 7 percent of faculty members at Princeton are Black, but citing that figure to prove that Princeton discriminates in hiring is misleading because, as Kennedy noted, African Americans in recent years earned only about 7 percent of all doctoral degrees. “The reasons behind the small numbers are familiar and heart-breaking,” he wrote. “They include a legacy of deprivation in education, housing, employment, and health care, not to mention increased vulnerability to crime and incarceration. The perpetuation of injuries from past discrimination as well as the imposition of new wrongs cut like scythes into the ranks of racial minorities, cruelly winnowing the number who are even in the running to teach at Princeton.” By blaming Princeton for a problem endemic to American society, activists risk misdirecting resources earmarked for diversity, equity, and inclusion to university elites rather than the people who need them most: less privileged outsiders hindered from advancement through no fault of the institution.

Academic stakeholders ought to eschew strategic hyperbole when doing the important work of diagnosing and remedying problems related to racial inequality on their campuses. If they keep inflating their claims, the term racism will lose whatever power it has to grab a community’s attention and prompt urgent remedies, even in the instances when racism is in fact operating.

So is Team Trump doing a good thing? Seth Barron thinks so. In that same City Journal article, he wrote, “For too long, false confessions of racial piety have been used as a cudgel to intimidate reasonable people and transform American institutions. The Trump administration is right to take the systemic racists at their word and make their contrition cost them something.”

I disagree. I object to the entire witch hunt of an investigation, which Republicans would recognize as a flagrant abuse of federal power were it aimed at Liberty University. No reasonable person could conclude that an onerous probe of Princeton for anti-Black racism is the best use, or even a good use, of scarce resources to safeguard civil rights. The decision to grapple with racism should not trigger a federal investigation, whether or not that grappling is totally honest.

The Trump administration’s action has drawn wider attention to real rhetorical excesses. But if it doesn’t really believe that civil rights are being violated, then it is violating the First Amendment by misusing investigative power to punish speech. A president who weaponizes the administrative state against private institutions because he dislikes their public profile is a danger to the country.