Speak Up for Princeton and for Higher Education

March 1, 2024

"Speak Up for Princeton and for Higher Education" was first published in the March issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Photo: Denise Applewhite

Seven years ago, I began writing annual letters on the state of the University, its progress toward strategic goals, and major issues relevant to our mission and higher education more broadly. You can read this year’s letter in its entirety on the princeton.edu home page and University social media channels. This excerpt is adapted from the introduction.

When I talk with Princetonians today, one of the most frequent questions I hear is, “what can I do to help the University?” Here is my answer: be an ambassador for Princeton and for higher education. Tell the story of how Princeton mattered in your life, about the excellence that you see, and about the shared and distinctive mission of colleges and universities in our republic.

As you know, Princeton and its peers confront a challenging political landscape that demands the attention of anyone who cares about higher education. During the past year, we have seen increasingly virulent threats to academic freedom and institutional autonomy, two core principles that have made America’s universities the envy of the world.

Antagonism toward higher education has been especially intense in recent months. In the days immediately after October 7, 2023, some students and faculty members on some campuses made awful statements excusing or endorsing Hamas’s brutal and indefensible terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. The public outrage was understandable and intense.

The campus climate at Princeton has been healthier than at many of our peers. That is a credit to faculty, students, and staff who have searched for ways to communicate civilly about sensitive issues, to support one another, and to comply fully with Princeton’s policies that facilitate free speech in ways consistent with the functioning of the University. I am grateful to all of them.

People are right to insist that colleges and universities stand firmly against antisemitism. Antisemitism is an ugly and vicious form of hatred that has produced horrific suffering and injustice throughout history. It is always unacceptable.

So too are anti-Arab and Islamophobic hatred, which get less attention from the public or Congress even though they are as deplorable as antisemitism and are also rising rapidly.

Attacks on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Some people, however, have seized upon public outrage about antisemitism as a stalking horse for other agendas, including, most notably, attacks upon the efforts that we and others make to ensure that colleges and universities are places where students, faculty, researchers, and staff from all backgrounds can thrive.

These attacks are wrong. America’s leading universities are driven by a dedication to scholarly excellence, and our commitment to inclusivity is essential to that excellence. Of course, scholars, students, journalists, and citizens can and, indeed, should raise questions about how best to pursue excellence and inclusivity. Disagreements are natural and essential to improving scholarly and civic communities. In this crucial moment, however, when our colleges and universities are being wrongly and sometimes dishonestly attacked, those of us who care deeply about higher education must also transcend our differences. We must speak up for what we do and for our extraordinary institutions, which are so valuable to learning, to research, and to the future of our nation and the world.

“At a Slight Angle to the World”

My predecessor William G. Bowen described research universities as existing “at a slight angle to the world.” A great university will inevitably generate ideas that agitate the society around it. It will challenge orthodoxies. It will call out gaps between our aspirations and our achievements. It is a place for radical ideas, ideas that can change the world.

American universities are engines of creativity, and their contributions have been essential to our nation’s prosperity, security, culture, and growth. They have for generations attracted talented people from around the globe. Sustaining these extraordinary institutions requires a nation that is confident and strong.

At Princeton, fortunately, the culture required to support a great university remains healthy and intact, both on our campus and beyond it. That is very much a tribute to the good work of faculty members, students, and staff who work diligently to build strong relationships across differences of background and viewpoint, as well as to the trustees and alumni who support the University.

I look forward to working with all of you to tell that story and pursue this University’s mission energetically and affirmatively in these troubled and turbulent times.

With warmest best wishes,

Christopher L. Eisgruber