University President Christopher Eisgruber '83 discussed his first annual letter to the community at the Council of the Princeton University Community meeting on Monday.
Eisgruber began by addressing the broader political climate and its recent effects on the University community.
“I think that universities have an important role to play in a time like this, but the key to that important role is to be focused on the values that define us as an institution and to continue to move forward on those values,” he said. “Figuring out exactly what that means in political times that are characterized by a lot of anxiety, by division, by upheaval, is not an easy thing to do.”
Expanding on this, Eisgruber stated that he must take two major factors into consideration when debating whether to take action on political issues.
The first is whether the issue contradicts the University’s values, one of which is a commitment to providing a forum in which discussion on controversial topics can be conducted in a way that is academically stringent and supported.
“One of our responsibilities as a university is to be a place where contesting views can be heard and where those views can be elevated and made more rigorous, and where the contestation among views can lead us further in the pursuit of truth," Eisgruber said. “It is important that we stand for the importance of impartial debate, for the value of having forums where people of contending views come together, and where there’s a real contest between those things, and where the administration of the University is not seeking to settle those kinds of arguments or to stand as a referee in judgment about them."
Eisgruber recognized that the University must also commit to values that ensure such forums are possible, which is why he spoke out against President Donald Trump’s executive order regarding immigration and refugees. His opposition also aligns with another consideration regarding political issues, which is whether the matter directly affects the University.
“I thought, for example, the executive order on immigration does exactly that,” he said. “We are exceptionally international as a community, and we are exceptionally international by comparison to the rest of American society, which is a nation of immigrants.”
The University has also expressed support for a court challenge to the executive order through an amicus curiae brief.
According to Eisgruber, the University’s graduate student body is over 40 percent international and the faculty is over 30 percent international.
Besides the relevance of political issues to University values, Eisgruber stated that he considers whether he has sufficient academic or personal expertise to exercise judgment on a topic before forming a public stance.
“In the case of this executive order on immigration, I have spent much of my life as a scholar of religious freedom, and it mattered to me that this order was, in my judgment, a threat to religious freedom and a betrayal of principles that define this polity and should define this polity, and I thought I was able to speak to that,” he said. “I was also able to speak to it on the basis of my personal experience as the child of immigrants to this country.”
Eisgruber encouraged members of the University community to think about their individual values and their role in the political conversation.
“I think one of the things that defines great universities, and defines this university, is our obligation, each of us, to engage as citizens and persons and people in the world who are interested in the state of affairs,” he said.
Political tensions have resulted in increased demand among the student body and others that the University take action on certain issues. University students have engaged in direct political activism, most recently through the Day of Action led by the Princeton Advocates for Justice .
“Things arise on my docket pretty frequently right now,” Eisgruber said. “There’s probably not a day that goes by — there certainly hasn’t been a week that’s gone by — in the last couple of months where I don’t get some kind of request asking me to make a statement about something or another.”
Eisgruber then discussed one of the key highlights of his annual letter: the University’s rapid increase in socioeconomic diversity among the student body over the last four years.
“[The Class of 2020] is the most socioeconomically diverse class we have ever had at Princeton University, and over the last four years, basically, we have become more socioeconomically diverse at a rapid clip, in a way that I think is transformative,” Eisgruber said.
Eisgruber added that media reports of socioeconomic diversity at the University typically use data that is four years behind the current percentages, resulting in an inaccurate portrayal of statistics. He said that, while the University’s financial aid has traditionally been very strong, the University has struggled to reach students who would most benefit from it.
“We worked much harder on reaching those students, reaching out to them, finding ways to convince them to matriculate, and making sure we were considering their applications in ways that recognized the different circumstances that they were in,” he said.
Eisgruber then expanded on the ten major priorities listed in his letter: to achieve unsurpassed quality in all fields, emphasize service to the community, expand the undergraduate student body, enhance socioeconomic diversity, attract and support talented people from all groups and backgrounds, exercise visible leadership in the arts and humanities, provide outstanding research and teaching about world’s regions and cultures, undertake a bold interdisciplinary initiative centered on the environmental sciences, invest in engineering and information sciences, and improve Princeton’s connections to the innovation ecosystem.
He grouped these goals around three broad priorities: increasing access, maintaining the University’s commitments as a research institution and to the liberal arts, and making a difference for others.
“I think we recognize the idea that our mission, as a university, depends on the idea that we are giving back to society and making a difference through the teaching and research that we do,” Eisgruber said.
Eisgruber’s speech was followed by a question-and-answer session with students and community members.
In response to a question about measures the University is taking to alert media organizations of more accurate socioeconomic data, Eisgruber stated that the current financial data on the University’s student body is publicly available and that he is working to ensure the media takes note of it.
“We have to do a better job telling this story and I’m not satisfied about what we have done right now,” he said.
Another University student asked about methods the University uses to reach out to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“It was a portfolio of measures,” Eisgruber said. “How do we find applicants, first of all, who are qualified and can thrive here but might not put in an application?”
Eisgruber cited the QuestBridge and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America programs as examples of organizations the University works with to increase applications from disadvantaged students. He also described research demonstrating that sending packets which explicitly recognize the challenges low-income students face makes them more likely to apply. Finally, he spoke about the University’s move to offer a waiver for the application fee.
A graduate student asked how the University balances its reliance on its endowment with student requests for divestment from unethical investments.
Eisgruber responded that divestment is determined by a process through the CPUC Resources Committee which “requires that any initiative seeking restrictions on investments demonstrate sustained interest in the issue and endurable moral consensus in the community related to University values.”
“I think the bar is a high one and appropriately a high one,” he added.
Eisgruber said that the University is committed to improving the world through the education it provides and that it should be cautious about making statements with the money of others.
A graduate student asked about plans for graduate housing and similar support, particularly in response to a proposed additional undergraduate residential college.
“The graduate school is important to the mission on our campus, in terms of the teaching and research that we do, and it’s important in producing leaders for the world beyond our campus,” he said. “One of the things that came through loud and clear in our strategic planning process on several of our planning task forces … is the importance of providing the right kind of support to our graduate students.”
Eisgruber said the task forces recommended increasing stipend support in year six of a doctoral program. The Board of Trustees approved those recommendations and provided an annual increase of seven million dollars. He also said the University is looking to expand graduate housing without undertaking an unsustainable investment and hopes to utilize the space across Lake Carnegie.
Another attendee asked how the University plans to balance a tradition historically based on wealth and privilege with the changing makeup of the student body.
Eisgruber spoke about the Pre-rade, which was suggested by former Undergraduate Student Government president Matt Margolin '05 and has become a tradition, as one way the University is proactively changing. He also mentioned the change of the University’s motto, which now uses phrases from both Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879 and Sonia Sotomayor ’76.
A final question dealt with a topic on the agenda of the last CPUC meeting, the fundraising and hiring process for the Latin American and American Studies departments.
“There are faculty searches happening in English and African American studies,” Dean of the College Jill Dolan said. She added that faculty appointments will increase once the curriculum is fleshed out.
The Council of the Princeton University Community meeting was held on Feb. 20 at 4:30 p.m. in Friend Center 101.