President Eisgruber argued earlier this year that “petitions emphasize conformity” because “their logic suggests that since so many have signed, nobody should think otherwise.” He expressed reticence about taking stands on the University’s behalf that could “chill discussions that it is our responsibility to promote.” 

In light of the administration’s typical aversion to taking any kind of stand — even when it comes to “issues such as climate change, white nationalism, the rights of transgendered [sic] people and immigrants” — Eisgruber’s defense of “discussion” against “conformity” was unsurprising. However, only a month after these words were published, Eisgruber made a 180-degree public turn away from such cautionary sentiments. 

In September, Amazon announced its plans to establish a second headquarters (in addition to its base in Seattle) and local officials across North America to submit proposals explaining why Amazon should come to their cities and regions. Since then, 238 cities and regions have competed to offer the biggest tax breaks and other benefits in what some commentators have called a “race to the bottom.” In the midst of this scramble, Eisgruber has publicly weighed in in with a letter to two Amazon executives urging the company to locate its second headquarters in New Jersey. In this letter, Eisgruber exemplifies the stifling logic of conformity as he enthusiastically places the University at Amazon’s disposal. “My colleagues and I are prepared to help in any way we can,” he generously promises.

What is most troubling is that Eisgruber’s optimistic endorsement of the “innovation ecosystem of New Jersey” precludes the possibility that some members of the University community might object to such rosy visions of corporate “synergies.” Eisgruber seems unable or unwilling to recognize that some individuals on campus may disagree with his implicit suggestion that what is best for Amazon is best for New Jersey’s people. And in putting his support so solidly behind Amazon, Eisgruber hypocritically “chills discussions” around the issue. 

Is Eisgruber aware of the probability that Amazon’s presence would significantly gentrify a New Jersey city, in the same way that the company’s original headquarter complex has in Seattle? Does he consider the dangerous precedent set by this nation-wide competition to offer bigger and bigger tax breaks —especially given the degree to which these corporate incentives undermine social spending on schools and infrastructure and the extent to which federal, state and local governments already cater to corporate interests? Might Eisgruber be concerned about the implications of such a public display of unconditional support for a private company’s endeavors — a company which, by the way, is known for its poor environmental record, toxic work culture and destructive impact on independent publishers and shipping rates?

These are all undeniably valid and important questions, regardless of one’s individual sympathies. Inevitably, negotiations over Amazon’s next headquarters involve controversial political as well as economic concerns. Eisgruber’s reference to the “innovation ecosystem of New Jersey” does not include specifics; however, Amazon’s Request-for-Proposal refers to “cultural” factors as well as corporate benefits like tax credits/exemptions and public-private real estate partnerships. Tax codes and real estate policies are highly political issues, as battles against corporate tax havens and gentrification illustrate. Meanwhile, a word like “innovation ecosystem” provides a convenient euphemism for these trends, a sort of wink and nod at the promise of lower taxes and techie-friendly neighborhoods. 

When Eisgruber endorses the possibility of an Amazon New Jersey headquarters, he sides by default with the political agenda of those who place corporate special interests over the public good. That is to say, Eisgruber further emboldens the self-serving corporate executives and powerful government officials who, if given their way, would force tax-payers to subsidize corporate expansions and replace long-time city residents with highly-paid tech workers. 

Ultimately, any form of University support for Amazon’s activities implicates political sympathies — even if expressed implicitly — alongside economic considerations. Such support must therefore be subject to serious discussion among the University community. Unfortunately, Eisgruber’s letter explicitly speaks on behalf of Princeton University and thus does much to “chill discussions that it is our responsibility to promote.” After reading Eisgruber’s letter, it would not be unreasonable for a scholar researching the harmful social impacts of corporate tax benefits or urban gentrification to feel out of step with the University as an institution.

In isolation, Eisgruber’s letter might not be shocking in itself. Undoubtedly, a large part of Eisgruber's job entails contact with ultra-wealthy alumni like Jeff Bezos, and a congratulatory tone can’t hurt the flow of donations. However, Eisgruber’s public letter to Amazon conspicuously contradicts his own dogged rebuttals to student concerns about University associations with private companies. 

Over the past few years, students and faculty have called attention to a wide range of unethical business practices, and have challenged the University to reconsider its associations with the companies in question. Whether the companies targeted are responsible for fueling climate change, servicing an illegal occupation, or perpetrating human rights abuses against immigrants and incarcerated individuals, Eisgruber has responded time and time again that the University as an institution cannot publicly criticize such business practices without compromising its political neutrality.

So why do critiques of business practices constitute political statements, but enthusiastic endorsements are considered apolitical? It would be one thing if Eisgruber conceded that business practices with large-scale social consequences (such as corporate welfare or gentrification) may be inherently political, or if he clearly defined the difference between a political statement and an evaluation of a company’s ethical strengths and weaknesses. It’s the inconsistency that is most troubling. 

Max Grear is a Spanish and Portuguese major from Wakefield, R.I. He can be reached at mgrear@princeton.edu.

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