Response to Rep. Gottheimer about Academic Freedom and Course Materials

Sept. 13, 2023

The Honorable Josh Gottheimer
United States House of Representatives
203 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Congressman Gottheimer:

Thank you for your letter of September 10 questioning whether a professor at this University may assign and teach Dr. Jasbir Puar’s controversial book, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability.

I appreciate, and share, your concern for the well-being of Jewish students at Princeton University and, indeed, at colleges and universities more broadly.  This University is fully committed to ensuring that Jewish students thrive here.  For me, that commitment is deeply personal:  I am Princeton’s second Jewish president and its first Jewish undergraduate alumnus to serve in that role; I am the son of a Holocaust refugee; I am a scholar of religious freedom; and my last scholarly publication before accepting the presidency was a defense of Zionism.[1]

Princeton’s commitments to inclusivity coexist with equally vigorous commitments to free speech and academic freedom.  Though people today sometimes seek to drive a wedge between free speech and equality, they are both fundamental to America’s constitutional tradition and they are essential to the aims of a great university.  We can achieve our mission, as a polity or a university, only if people of all backgrounds feel welcome, respected, and free to express their opinions.  At Princeton, and at other great colleges and universities, we promote inclusivity and belonging in many ways, but never by censoring speech, syllabi, or courses.

As you know, Princeton maintains exceptionally high academic standards throughout its curriculum.  Our personnel process and our curricular requirements are well tailored to sustain the rigor and quality for which the University is known.  We use peer-reviewed processes to ensure that we hire, retain, and promote faculty members who are among the world’s leading experts in their field.  Under the Rules and Procedures of the Faculty, individual academic units have primary responsibility for superintending their curriculum.  All proposals to add courses to the permanent curriculum, delete courses from the permanent curriculum, or make substantive changes to existing courses or departmental programs of study are reviewed by the University‑wide Committee on the Course of Study.  Proposals which receive positive committee recommendations are presented for a vote at the monthly meetings of the University faculty.

When faculty members teach a course within our curriculum, academic freedom protects their right to decide what texts they will assign and how best to cover the subject matter.  Princeton University Professor Keith Whittington, who serves on the Academic Committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance, observes that “the right of university professors to assign their preferred books to a class without interference from university administrators is one of the fundamental features of academic freedom in the United States. … If a book is relevant to the subject matter, it is up to the professional judgment of the faculty member as to whether it should be used.”[2]

Like Princeton’s commitment to free speech, the principle of academic freedom sweeps broadly, encompassing even books that may be deemed “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong‑headed” by students, faculty, the University administration, or others, including elected office holders.[3]  Those who disagree with a book, or a syllabus, are free to criticize it but not to censor it.  Such arguments are the lifeblood of a great university, where controversies must be addressed through deliberation and debate, not administrative fiat.

Your letter concludes by asserting that colleges “must protect all students, including Jewish students” from being “made to feel unsafe by curricula.”  That assertion misunderstands the role of a university, where students inevitably encounter controversial and sometimes disturbing ideas.  As I said earlier, Princeton will work vigorously to ensure that all students can thrive here, but not by censoring our curriculum.

Your assertion also underestimates the strength and resilience of Princeton students.  Indeed, many of our students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have spoken up for the importance of academic freedom and defended the right of Professor Larson to assign Dr. Puar’s book. [4]  I have no doubt that they have the intelligence and independence to interrogate, challenge, and learn from texts with which they disagree.  This University will continue to foster those discussions inside and outside the classroom, and we will adhere steadfastly to the principles of free speech and academic freedom that are essential to our mission.

Thank you again for your letter, and for all that you do to support research and education in New Jersey and our country.

With warm best wishes,

Christopher L. Eisgruber


[1] Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager, “Equal Membership, Religious Freedom, and the Idea of a Homeland,” in Hanoch Dagan, Shafar Lifshitz, and Yedidia Z. Stern, eds., Religion and the Discourse of Human Rights (Israel: Israel Democracy Institute, 2014), 25-67.

[2] Keith Whittington, “The Freedom to Assign Controversial Books,” Reason (August 29, 2023).

[3] Princeton University, Rights, Rules, Responsibilities, Section 1.1.3, “Statement on Freedom of Expression.”

[4] Benjamin Woodard, Rebecca Roth, Danielle Shapiro, and Marie Riddle, “We Need Academic Freedom for the Pursuit of Truth,” Daily Princetonian (August 18, 2023); “An Open Letter in Solidarity with Satyel Larson and in Support of Academic Freedom,” Daily Princetonian (August 18, 2023).