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Princeton Open Campus Coalition reunites to oppose required anti-racist training and teaching

<p>“<em>Double Sights,</em>”<em> viewed across the Fountain of Freedom.</em></p>
<h6><em>Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</em></h6>

Double Sights, viewed across the Fountain of Freedom.

Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Twenty-two students have re-established the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), a group first founded in opposition to the Black Justice League (BJL) in 2015. In its latest iteration, the POCC advocates against unconscious bias training for faculty and objects to curriculum changes that would require students to learn about race and identity.

In Nov. 2015, the BJL occupied the Nassau Hall office of President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83, demanding that the University institute a “diversity distribution requirement” for all students, “compulsory competency training for faculty and staff,” and a rethinking of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, on campus. Six days later, the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC) formed in opposition of the BJL’s demands and “methods,” condemning the sit-in at Eisgruber’s office as an “invasion.”

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In addition to receiving a face-to-face meeting with Eisgruber in Dec. 2015, POCC garnered national attention. Members of the group were cited and interviewed by Fox News, The Washington Post, the National Review, and PBS, among other outlets. At the time, the group claimed that adding a course requirement focused on diversity and requiring anti-racist training would “stifle academic exploration.”

Days after the Board of Trustees voted to remove Wilson’s name from the campus institutions now known as the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and First College, POCC has been reinstated, after over two years of inactivity.

In an open letter sent to Eisgruber this week — since published in the Princeton Tory, the National Review, The Federalist, and the Washington Times — 22 signatories declared their opposition to recent demands submitted by the “Change WWS Now” campaign, which a majority of SPIA concentrators signed.

Update: The Princeton Tory has since removed the names of the 22 previously-listed signatories of the POCC’s open letter from their website.

Echoing many of the BJL’s demands, the SPIA students’ petitions call for the establishment of a core or prerequisite requirement within the policy school to address race, the hiring of more minority faculty members, and the creation of a semesterly anti-racist training program for faculty and staff within the School, among other demands. In a statement last week, University Spokesperson Ben Chang noted that SPIA administrators looked forward to meeting with the petitioners and listening to their demands.

In addition to deeming “‘unconscious bias’ training” an infringement of academic freedom, the POCC letter implies that student calls to increase the number of Black faculty members — who currently comprise four percent of the University’s faculty — do not concern race, but rather revolve around “ideology and power.”

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POCC members wrote that the SPIA petitioners’ advocacy “amounts to a concerted siege of free thought at Princeton, which they seek to effect by hijacking the University bureaucracy to create a monopoly for their beliefs on deeply controversial and contentious issues.”

To several Black students interviewed by The Daily Princetonian, the POCC’s claims were deeply troubling.

“The moment you say you’re anti anti-racist training — disregarding examples — that’s pro-racism. There’s not much wiggle room there,” said Camille Reeves ’23. “My friends were joking that [POCC members] flipped through a thesaurus and found as many five-syllable words as they could to really distract from the core of their message — which was, ‘racism is up for academic debate, rather than something that we should be stomping out in our society.’”

For Josiah Gouker ’22, the POCC letter seemed “a reflection of a desire to act against the forces of anti-racism, especially at a time when so many people are coming together to be anti-racist.”

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“It seems like a desperate attempt to recenter the narrative on white perspectives as the ones that are being victimized in this moment,” he said.

POCC member Akhil Rajasekar ’21 pushed against this characterization of his group’s efforts, telling the ‘Prince’ that he and fellow members “naturally agree that racism is a one-sided issue.”

“Contrary to the slander that is inevitably on its way, we are not defending racism but rather the idea that when we get into particulars, race and discussions of policies related to or touching on race (such as affirmative action, welfare policy, etc) can and should have multiple sides,” he said.

Opposing anti-racist requirements

The letter refers to “anti-racism” as a “vague and radically unhelpful term that will be filled in with question-begging conclusions by those who subscribe to the reigning orthodoxy on matters of race.” Pointing to examples such as affirmative action and heated debate around the historical accuracy of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, POCC members claimed, “to brand one side of these debates ‘racist,’ ‘offensive,’ or ‘harmful’ and seek the ‘training’ of those who hold alternative or ‘unacceptable’ views is to rig the game well before it has begun.”

Such steps, they continued, “weaponize the administrative apparatus of the University against those who would doubt, question, or challenge the reigning orthodoxy of the day and age.”

“You can call training whatever you want — anti-racist, anti-sexist, whatever the -ism is of the day,” Rajasekar said in an interview. “But the devil’s in the details, and it’s the particulars that matter, and we have a very strong presumption against an orthodoxy being imposed and being told what to do, or think, or say.”

On this point, Gouker pointed out that anti-racist thinkers also discuss the pros and cons of affirmative action, adding that he did not understand why POCC members assumed unconscious bias training would encompass the specific issues they cited. Such training would not be the “end all be all on all racial justice issues,” he said.

Several students interviewed felt that anti-racist training could foster open discourse about controversial topics — and force students to critically examine their own beliefs.

“I think if anything it gives us a space where all perspectives are equally represented — because I think right now students of color are already feeling squeezed in where they can express their academic opinions,” Reeves said.

Gouker expressed disappointment with the letter’s characterization of anti-racism as “vague and radically unhelpful,” calling such language “insulting to an entire scholarly body of work that talks about the injustices and harms that are done to people of color and those at the margins.” In his view, the POCC’s opposition stems from a desire for “their ignorance to be protected.”

“They want to talk about productive discourse, yet when they reject the idea of needing to take a class that centers on racial issues, they refuse to give those issues any actual educational value,” said Gouker. “They want to make sure they can stay within their comfort zone the entire time they’re being educated at Princeton.”

For Rajasekar, the dispute comes from the requirement itself: while he says he has taken classes with professors with whom he disagrees — and POCC encourages students to do so — he objects to the demand’s mandatory nature.

For proponents of the change, however, mandating a race-related class, especially for students of public policy, is vital.

“I think for the University to mandate it would be a way of saying ... ‘we’re committed to improving ourselves as people, and we’re committed to creating people that are self-aware enough to be in the service of humanity,’” Reeves said.

If such a requirement were to skew campus culture, Reeves said it would reflect the extent to which students considered race in new ways — which she thinks POCC should encourage if its members support academic freedom. For her, “academic freedom means being able to handle the dark, ugly, gross truths.”

Of the 28 courses that fulfill SPIA core requirements, the open letter for anti-racist action notes that only two specifically focus on race, power, and identity, and that “every core course offered by the School of Public and International Affairs presents overwhelmingly white and male authors, prioritizing Western liberal thought and market-based economics at the expense of non-Western and more critical approaches to race, capitalism, and colonialism which have shaped our world today.”

Pulling a four-word quote from this section of the letter, the POCC claims that the signatories demand “the institution of required courses in line with their professed beliefs on ‘race, capitalism, and colonialism.’” They also refer to this requirement as a “politicization of the curriculum by requiring courses that reflect a certain ideological commitment.”

Organizers of the SPIA letter deny this characterization.

“On the contrary, students in the School of Public and International Affairs are asking to learn more diverse perspectives and to open up broader conversations,” noted Ananya Malhotra ’20, a student who helped draft the “Change WWS Now” letter.

The letter links to a list of courses that students felt examine race and identity critically, which could be required to take until the School develops its own curriculum. The 25 suggestions include “History of U.S. Foreign Relations,” “History of International Order,” “Modern Caribbean History,” “Becoming Latino in the U.S.,” and “African American Studies and the Philosophy of Race.”

Malhotra told the ‘Prince’ that the organizers proposed these and other existing classes from other departments be integrated into the SPIA curriculum so that policy students “can enter the world as critical thinkers.”

“Our demands are actually entirely consistent with what the Open Campus Coalition claims they are in favor of: to ‘expose students to novel thought,’” she added. “Along those lines, we reiterate our call for the school to teach students to ‘think critically and imaginatively; to seek solutions that have not been envisioned in the past; and to feel equipped to confront the status quo at its roots.’”

Rajasekar clarified that the POCC does not necessarily oppose a policy-school requirement of “race and identity” courses “because that sounds innocuous enough as a general category.” Additionally, Rajasekar said that the group believes “if there are instances in which particular ideas and intellectual traditions are being preferred over others, that is a situation that ought to be corrected, regardless of what the traditions are,” an argument seemingly in line with the SPIA signatories’ reasoning.

“Preferring and protecting capitalism is just as much of a problem as preferring and protecting socialism,” Rajasekar added. “What we suspect is that these courses will be designed to skew in favor of views of particular ideological commitments.”

Some SPIA letter signatories felt that the POCC’s insistence that such courses would be inherently “one-sided” was not only troubling in and of itself, but also underscored the need for such training and courses.

“The POCC is a clear example of how necessary our demands are,” Valeria Torres-Olivares ’22, a SPIA letter signatory, wrote to the ‘Prince.’

“Our demands expand the concept of free speech within our academic community to include other voices that have been predominantly silenced throughout our history.”

Faculty diversity and ‘fringe groups’

The POCC also questioned the motives behind recent calls for increasing diversity among the University’s faculty. While considering the demand for the hiring of more Black faculty inoffensive — and saying he would promote doing so himself — Rajasekar believes that the demand is “not at its core about racial diversity.”

POCC members write that they suspect the students calling for faculty diversity “would be far from pleased [...] if the racially diverse members of the faculty did not subscribe to their ideological commitments.” In the letter, they question whether conservative economist Thomas Sowell would be as well-received as progressive author Ta-Nehisi Coates and whether students would celebrate speaking invitations to Clarence Thomas, Ben Carson, and several other notable Black conservatives.

“These questions virtually answer themselves,” they wrote, “revealing that this effort is a move to consolidate ideological power masquerading as a campaign for racial justice.”

Gouker disputes this contention.

“There are Black folks with conservative opinions in very high places. If they have something valuable to say then perhaps they should be brought in, and I think there probably are conservative Black folks on Princeton’s faculty,” Gouker said. “I think it’s a silly question to ask in the first place [...] I wouldn’t say conservative Black voices are particularly silenced, especially in the current political world.”

“What I do find insulting about that whole thought is that often these same people are very willing to listen to the voices of Black people who agree with them, but it seems they are unwilling to listen to the Black people who disagree with them,” he added.

Though the POCC letter does not take an explicit stance on the renaming of SPIA and First College, Rajasekar told Fox News viewers earlier this week, “The move to purge Wilson from campus is just a warm-up exercise. Because at the end of the day their goal is to control elite institutions and curtail academic freedom — and they hope to use racism, or any other -ism, as a pretext to curtail what people say, think, research, or write.”

Gouker described his biggest frustration with the POCC’s letter as a belief that such arguments overlook genuine feelings of pain among the student body. By claiming the argument is “not about race,“ Gouker feels that POCC members have ignored their peers’ experiences. 

“There are things that cause harm to living, breathing people that they go to school with. It doesn’t just come from being ‘snowflakes’ or being ‘too sensitive.’ It comes from a systemic disadvantage,” Gouker said. “That’s probably the most shameful part of all of this, is that they refuse in essence to listen to the actual experience of the people who they engage in argument with.”

Rajasekar also told Fox viewers that the decision to rename the School was “deeply problematic” and “rushed in the last few days without any input from the broader student body, alumni, faculty, or anybody except for a couple of fringe groups.” 

The decision came days after a majority of current SPIA concentrators and over three quarters of SPIA class of 2020 graduates called for the change; 450 graduate students signed a similar call. Furthermore, the renaming reflects years of activism from students, faculty, and alumni, including the BJL’s 2015 protests. Last week, at least one alumna and prominent donor called publicly for the School’s renaming.

In contrast, twenty-two total students have signed the POCC letter — comprising about 0.4 percent of the undergraduate student population. To Reeves, this number shows “that this is a vocal minority rather than a thoughtful majority.”

When asked about use of the term “fringe groups,” Rajasekar suggested that with letters such as the one submitted by SPIA students, some students sign on because they “may be scared not to [...] just because of how the cultural dominoes have fallen over the last couple of days, weeks, and months.”

The ‘Mob’ and MatheyMail

Recently, Larry Giberson ’23 — who signed the POCC letter after it was submitted to Eisgruber — sparked significant backlash after sending an over 1000-word letter, in which he explained his opposition to the University’s removal of Wilson’s name. Through residential college listservs, his open letter, later published in the Tory, reached almost all University students.

Giberson’s email received a number of reply-all responses — from point-by-point rebuttals to memes, to pleas for students to stop sending “unsolicited opinion pieces” to the entire student body.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Giberson expressed gratitude to students who replied with “genuinely thought provoking responses and rebuttals” and said he was glad to “get discussion moving on campus.” He said he was also disappointed to see many students “refuse to engage with the argument.”

Gouker, who sent a public response to Giberson’s email, noted that he felt the residential college listservs are “typically not the arena for these controversial discussions.” Reeves agreed, replying in the RockyWire listserv: “I want to see people selling their potted plants and BodyHype tickets, not white fragility.”

“One email is easy enough to ignore. Dozens upon dozens of responses, that I can understand being a bit frustrating,” Giberson noted. “To the extent that this debate continued on the listservs and disrupted students’ days, I apologize, but I will never be sorry for making my voice heard, and neither should anyone else.”

The POCC letter argues that recent events have “laid bare the volatility and constant threat under which” free speech, thought, and truth-seeking exist. They describe an “increasingly popular trend” of erasing dissenting viewpoints.

“This isn’t just a trend at Princeton,” Rajasekar said on Fox. “Campus Reform has documented just how rampant this movement is, and for a while it looked like Princeton was going to stand athwart this movement, and think for itself, and not sort of buckle under the mob’s pressure, but it looks like that’s what happened unfortunately.”

Gouker, however, does not see conservative students’ free speech as under siege from any sort of “mob,” saying, “The victim complex they’re trying to get at is not one that rests in reality.”

“Princeton as an institution has always protected these students’ free speech. They have always been able to speak, mostly without nearly the levels of threats from the institution, faculty members, and other students exhibited towards, say, members of the BJL,” he said.

“They are recentering the conversation around themselves as if they are going against this sort of ‘culture,’ or this movement that has an inordinate amount of power,” he added. “But the reality is that this movement has never had the overall power, or else maybe the Woodrow Wilson name would have been taken off of the School years ago.”

Editor’s Note: When initially published, this story contained testimony from two POCC members. The ‘Prince’ removed reference to the second individual on July 15 based on concerns involving their privacy and safety. 

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