Should Princeton Exist?

Each year, top universities shower resources on a privileged few. Christopher Eisgruber, the president of Princeton, defends elite education.

Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber on a solid yellow background
Sarah Blesener for The Atlantic

One recent fall morning at a coffee shop in Princeton, I overheard two students chatting about upcoming deadlines for the Rhodes, the Marshall, and the Mitchell—three prestigious postgraduate scholarships so coveted that they’ve become mononymous on elite campuses.

“I don’t love the Rhodes dude from the 1800s,” one student confessed to the other. “Wasn’t he, like, racist?”

Indeed. This is the puzzle of Princeton: How can an institution designed to serve the aspirations of an elite few authentically wrestle with issues of inequality and racism in society? Princeton hosts about 8,200 students on its campus, with more than $3.2 million in its endowment for each of them—the highest ratio of any college in the country.

Christopher Eisgruber, Princeton’s president, has addressed some aspects of the university’s role in making America unequal: After the death of George Floyd last summer, he supported removing the name of Woodrow Wilson, a past Princeton president, from the School of Public and International Affairs, citing Wilson’s racist thinking and policies. But at some level, the very fact of Princeton is itself an enduring legacy of inequality, rooted in a deeply racist past.

I wanted to better understand how Eisgruber thinks about this tension, so I asked him about it. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Emma Green: I promise my first question isn’t facetious. Why should Princeton exist?

Christopher Eisgruber: Universities are places that invest in human talent, often in audacious ways. The idea of a place like Princeton is that you can identify young people who have extraordinary talent and will benefit from an intensive academic experience. Over the space of years and decades, they will blossom in ways we can’t even predict, and they will be able to address problems that matter.

Examples range from James Madison, who takes his impractical education in political theory and becomes the principal author of the Constitution of the United States, to Alan Turing, who comes here as a graduate student and works on stuff that legislators love to parody, like what it means to have an answerable mathematical question. How impractical is that? Except it saves millions of lives in World War II because he breaks the Enigma code. Sonia Sotomayor came here as this place was evolving in the 1970s. She forthrightly says that she’s a beneficiary of affirmative action. Now she is one of the alumni of whom we are proudest.

It makes sense to have these intense places where researchers and students are colliding with other people of talent and passion and imagination, focusing on producing things that matter to our society and our world in a whole variety of unpredictable ways. In order to do that, you have to be willing to bet on excellence.

So my answer to your question is: Yes, Princeton should exist.

Green: The theory of change I hear in your answer is that society depends, in part, on people who have had the privilege of a great education—people who do extraordinary things like becoming a Supreme Court justice or writing the Constitution or serving their country as one of history’s greatest mathematicians.

But there’s a different way of thinking about the raison d’être of college education. I pulled some stats on the City University of New York system—CUNY—which is obviously a very different academic institution from Princeton. CUNY typically serves roughly 240,000 part-time and full-time undergraduate students, along with 30,000 graduate students. CUNY ranks consistently higher than other universities on measures of social mobility—the ability to lift kids out of poverty and help them surpass their parents, economically speaking.

Princeton doesn’t do so well on this metric. I wonder if you think an investment in the elite few is ultimately a less robust vision of justice—of doing good in the world, of trying to make society more equal—than an investment in a broad swath of young people from diverse backgrounds who are trying to fundamentally shift their status in society.

Eisgruber: We need to be investing in a diversified portfolio, if you will, of educational institutions. I don’t want to say James Madison, Alan Turing, and Sonia Sotomayor are our typical graduates. But they exemplify what it can mean for a place to say, “We really believe that human talent is such an extraordinary thing that we are going to invest in it very aggressively and believe in that return on investment over the long term.”

One of the questions I ask myself pretty much every day is “How do we get more low- and middle-income students to and through college at Princeton and across the country?” Fifteen years or so ago, we were a laggard among selective institutions in terms of Pell students and first-generation students—around 7 percent Pell. We’re now over 20 percent in the entering class. Do we have the scale to do what CUNY is doing, or what the UC system is doing? No. But it matters that we are bringing students here who have the ability to benefit from the extraordinary education we provide.

Green: I’m glad you brought up Pell Grants. In the fall of 2020, 53 percent of undergraduates at CUNY were on Pell grants. That number was roughly 22 percent in Princeton’s class of 2025. And 61 percent of families at Princeton receive financial aid. That includes students with families making up to $180,000 a year, which in many places in America is a really nice family income. That means that four in 10 Princeton students come from families that can pay sticker price—about $77,000 a year.

One could look at those stats and say, “Okay. You’re better than you were 15 years ago, but Princeton is still a place for rich kids.” Does that fundamentally corrupt the mission of Princeton?

Eisgruber: I don’t accept the premise. We have taken up our financial-aid population from around 40 percent in 2001 to over 60 percent today. Among universities that are private and selective, that 20 percent Pell number is higher than most. If we can get both publics and privates up into the category that Princeton is right now, that would be a transformative difference for the country.

People can throw around words describing how well-off particular families are. There are differences, though, between what it means to simply be able to write that check and making sacrifices to be able to do that. I’m proud of every student we’ve got on this campus. They bring extraordinary talent, and they can make extraordinary differences in the world.

Green: I’ve noticed that, in conversations about racial inequities or legacies of racism, the discussion often starts and ends in the realm of symbols—so, for example, taking Woodrow Wilson’s name off of the School of Public and International Affairs.

It’s not that those things aren’t important. But one could argue that they take up oxygen, because people have strongly held feelings. I wonder what you see as the best way to not just debate about names on buildings, but actually address Princeton’s role in perpetuating systems of racism.

Eisgruber: We can get very focused on symbols, and we can get very focused on ourselves. But I have to say, when these issues first came up, I was like, “Why are we talking about symbols?” One of the things that really changed my mind was this book by Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi. It is about stereotype threat—a puzzle he has spent his career working on—which is why talented people seem to internalize negative stereotypes. I assigned this book to the entire incoming freshman class. We brought Claude Steele out. I’m driving him back to his hotel, and I say to him, “Claude, you know, we’re having all these discussions around these symbols. Shouldn’t we be caring about these other things that are more material?” And Claude says, “You know, Chris, one of the things that really makes a difference is those symbols, and the signals they send to people.” Symbols might make students feel less like this campus is a place where I really count.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to yield every time somebody says something along those lines. But I do think we have to care.

Green: These can definitely be legitimate debates. But are there other things you think Princeton has an obligation to do about its legacy of racism—simply the fact of it being an elite institution that largely served, for much of its history, white men?

Eisgruber: We have to be willing to say what we have done in the past and be clear about the values we care about for the future. We’ve got to care about the diversity of the professoriat. We’ve spun our wheels a lot, because the pipeline of diverse candidates would go from looking like this [widens hands] at the undergraduate level to looking like this [narrows hands] in most fields at the Ph.D. level. We didn’t invest a lot of effort in diversifying our graduate schools, which guaranteed failure at the faculty level.

If we want to run a place where we can take talent from all sectors and make audacious bets on human beings, everybody, regardless of their background, needs to be able to say, “I feel fully embraced here.” That requires people to see themselves in the university.

Green: In a buzzword, what you’re describing is inclusivity.

Eisgruber: Yes.

Green: I want to press on that. You have carved out a position on academic speech and freedom that is a little countercultural. In a recent speech at Penn, you brought up a Princeton professor who, during a class, used a racial slur. Several students stood up and said it was offensive. They walked out. You make a lot of subtle distinctions in that speech about the difference between his right to say the slur, which you immediately asserted, versus whether it was a good idea or good pedagogy.

I think we’re living in a time when your position is contested. There are many people—including, I’m sure, on this campus—who believe that those kinds of words should never be permitted in an academic context, because they essentially rule out the full participation of people with marginalized identities. Why is it worth it to defend the use of these kinds of words?

Eisgruber: I care passionately about the position you just described. You said it is countercultural; in a way, it is. Right now, everybody insists on dividing free speech and inclusivity from one another. They insist on a version of the free-speech ideal that is just about unconstrained expression. But we are not here just to have unfettered expression. We are a part of a truth-seeking enterprise. We try to make a difference in the world by, among other things, distinguishing better and worse arguments. We should want people not only talking at one another, hurling insults, and never learning a thing. That would be fully consistent with the demands of free speech, but it would not do anything in terms of what this university seeks to achieve. We need people communicating in ways that respect one another and learn from one another across differences, both of opinion and background.

I agree strongly with Justice [Louis] Brandeis—and I do regard the educational and constitutional traditions as wedded here—that the remedy for bad speech is more speech. If you put censors like me in charge, you get a worse situation than if you have people with the freedom to speak up.

Green: That was a good law professor’s brief. But speaking honestly: Do you ever feel generationally out of step with the students on campus on this problem?

Eisgruber: No, I do not. I often feel generationally out of step with the students on this campus. I don’t have a TikTok account. I don’t have a Facebook account. I don’t follow Twitter. I’m old-school. But am I generationally out of step on this issue? I don’t think so.

Here’s where I think the real generational divide comes into play. Students are living in a social-media environment that’s different than mine, and that’s leading them to ask some hard questions. What does free speech mean when people’s lives can be rapidly destroyed by a cruel, viral firestorm of comments? How do we think about free speech, given what we’re seeing about the influence of social media on presidential elections? What I see is a set of students wrestling with those questions.

Green: You’ve also talked about your concern about the shrinking space for conservative ideas on campus. He’s going to laugh, because I keep bringing him up in interviews, but Robert George is an example of someone you’ve praised publicly, who has deeply held, well-considered viewpoints that I think would be hard for some students to countenance—his stance on LGBTQ and transgender identity chief among them. I wonder why you think it’s worth it to have a professor like him on campus.

Eisgruber: It is clearly worth it. I think Robby George is somebody who makes reasoned arguments on behalf of positions with which, in many cases, I disagree. He does it in a way that is respectful of his interlocutors and his students and forces people to think about why they hold the positions that they do. I hadn’t read John Stuart Mill in a very long time, so I went back and reread Mill over the past month. Robby exemplifies many of the things that Mill says about why free speech matters. You have to answer the reasons that are being offered by somebody who is thoughtful and disagrees.

In some ways, I feel like Robby is an easy case. However profoundly I may disagree with him, he’s really good about being respectful to other people in arguments and welcoming these engagements. I could imagine somebody who was much more of a polemicist, and I would still defend the value of having them on a campus. Robby is scrupulously fair, not only to students but to arguments. Why would you not want a person like that on your faculty?

Green: We’ve talked a lot about the way in which identity, and the deeply felt sense of marginalization that many people feel, has come to shape these big questions of free speech and academic freedom.

You found out as an adult that your mother, who was an immigrant from Germany, had hidden her identity as a Jew. How did finding out about your Jewish heritage change your views? What was it like to take on the burdens and obligations of a historically marginalized identity?

Eisgruber: It’s enriched my perspective in some marvelous ways. I’ve had the experience in later life of connecting to a large family of wonderful people who knew my mother at various stages of her life. Getting to know them has enriched my life at a personal level. It has also forced me to ask a whole bunch of questions about identity.

My sisters do not identify as Jewish. I do, partly because it does help me understand who I am. I grew up with a sense of being non-Christian, even though my mother tried to utterly suppress the Jewish part of her identity. I now think, wow, if the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton had been here when I was a student, maybe I would have discovered earlier that I was Jewish, just because there are things that resonate that weren’t intuitively true for, say, eating clubs on campus for me.

This is little different and may seem odd, but in my recent opening-exercises remarks, I talked about the brain tumor I have. When I told my provost, she said something about disclosing a potentially stigmatizing identity that was more revelatory for me than discovering I am Jewish. I had to closet part of my identity for five years. I thought about it virtually every day, because the tumor produces a ringing in the ears called tinnitus. If I’m in a quiet space and I hear it, it’s just a reminder that I’ve got this tumor and it could change everything about my life. When I think about people on campus who were gay and closeted, now or in earlier parts of Princeton’s history, or people who come to this place now and feel they have to code-switch in some way because they can’t show who they really are—the tumor gave me a better appreciation of what the costs are of doing that than anything else I’ve been through.

Green: I find that helpful for understanding how you come at this, not just from an intellectual and professional and academic perspective, but also as a person.

Eisgruber: David Brooks had something in The New York Times about how we don’t know why we do what we do. And that’s one of the things that’s hard about these questions—like, “How has this changed your opinions?” I’m often just not sure.

Green: We’re all muddled. We’re all messy, confused beings.

Eisgruber: We’re all muddled. Yes, we are.