Higher education is entering a new time, explained President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. This new era requires him to be more vocal than has been common for university presidents in the past.
“I do think we’ve entered a time,” he said, “when it’s becoming increasingly important for university presidents to speak to the mission of higher education and to the principles and values that underlie higher education.”
For Eisgruber, immigration is just one of these issues — along with higher education for low-income students and free speech — about which he feels “we need to be talking about what it is” that universities are doing.
In December 2017, Eisgruber became a founding member of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, which is “dedicated to increasing public understanding of how immigration policies and practices impact our students, campuses and communities.”
Since he became University president, Eisgruber has issued 27 letters and statements that have been listed on the Office of the President website. Ten of them have addressed or mentioned immigration. Seven of those 10 have come in the past 10 months alone, which doesn’t include the six amicus briefs that the University has helped file regarding immigration or the immigration case in which the University was a litigant.
These statements addressed the Trump administration’s proposals to bar the entry of individuals from targeted countries into the United States, to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and to terminate the Temporary Protected Status program for individuals from selected countries.
Samuel Vilchez Santiago ’19, advocacy chair of Princeton Latinos y Amigos, said he welcomes the University’s efforts to take “advocacy to a greater level” by challenging federal immigration policy.
“It speaks to a lot to [the University’s] commitment to supporting undocumented students not only within the University, but also outside of the University’s reach, which is, of course, positive for the country and the institution,” he explained.
Eisgruber told the ‘Prince’ that the decision to issue a letter or a statement comes down to two main criteria: whether the issue at hand directly and especially affects the University or whether the topic falls into his areas of scholarly expertise, constitutional law and religious freedom.
Immigration policy, explained Eisgruber, falls into the first category.
“We as a University are a very international place, and we depend on the free flow of talents and ideas to support our mission,” he said.
The decision to file an amicus brief, in particular, relies mainly on that first criterion.
“It has to bear a direct connection to the University’s mission, and obviously we’re going to make a careful assessment under those circumstances of the pros and cons as a pragmatic matter of going forward,” Eisgruber said.
In the past two years, the University helped file six immigration-related amicus briefs: five against President Trump’s proposed bans on immigration and travel from several countries and one that concerns DACA.
The most recent amicus brief, which was filed along with 30 other colleges and universities, favored the state of Hawaii’s case against the travel ban — echoing the same argument made in previous briefs. It emphasizes that the Trump administration’s proposal “threatens the universities’ ability to continue to attract the most talented people from around the globe.”
According to a statement released by the University, the University currently has 50 students and employees from the six countries affected in that particular case, including Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen.
Despite praising the University’s leadership on immigration issues, Vilchez Santiago finds that the University’s argument, supporting immigrants on the basis that they contribute to the University or academia, is somewhat precarious. This argument can help create a narrative where there are “good immigrants” who have value and “bad immigrants” who do not, explained Vilchez Santiago.
“We should be supporting immigrants because they’re human, not necessarily because they add value to our university or academia in general,” he said.
When deciding to speak out on an issue, the University is “always thinking” about the University’s different constituencies but doesn’t necessarily view student input or public opinion as major factors, Eisgruber explained.
“We take into account that kind of opinion insofar that it supplies reasons that are relevant to our judgement about advancing the mission [of the University],” he said.
Eisgruber emphasized that his responsibility as University President is to look at what is in the University’s best interests and what is most consistent with University values.
“It is not appropriate for me to be making judgments of this kind on the basis of which way public opinion stands in either the student body or the alumni body,” he explained.
In 2016 Eisgruber faced criticism from the student body for his refusal to declare the University a “sanctuary campus,” a decision that he still stands by.
“I don’t think we have legal authority to declare ourselves as a sanctuary campus, and I think the term is misleading to students who rely on it,” he said.
Eisgruber had previously told the ‘Prince’ in November 2016 that the term “may wrongly suggest that somehow universities can insulate themselves from or exempt themselves from the application of law.”
Even though the University may not carry the “sanctuary campus” designation, Eisgruber pointed out that the University will try to do everything within its legal authority to protect the rights of undocumented students.
He referenced the University’s recent victory in a court case that was brought on by the University, Maria De La Cruz Perales Sanchez ’18, and Microsoft Corporation as an example of the University’s willingness. The three parties alleged that the “termination of DACA violated both the United States Constitution and federal law.” On April 24, a federal judge ruled in favor of the University, Perales Sanchez, and Microsoft. The ruling requires the U.S. government to continue the program and reopen it to new applicants.
At the time of publication, Perales Sanchez has not yet responded to repeated requests for comment.
Unlike other legal challenges involving the University, the University was a plaintiff in this case. According to Eisgruber, the University felt that it could contribute effectively as a plaintiff and could make marked arguments alongside Microsoft.
“We make decisions about when we believe that it’s appropriate to go forward in light of our principles and in light of pragmatic considerations,” he explained. “And we go forward in the best way we can.”
For Eisgruber, the best way forward for the University may mean signing an amicus brief along with a group of universities, becoming a plaintiff in an immigration-related case, or writing a letter to President Trump. Nevertheless, he hopes that it will include “taking a stand” that will inspire others “to take similar stands” and helping to obtain legislation and rulings that advance “the cause of education and … the cause of freedom for these hard-working and talented people.”
“Sometimes that will be with allies,” Eisgruber said, “and sometimes that means going at it alone and doing something ourselves.”