As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to spark debate and action across the country, Princeton’s administration has been playing on both sides of the issue with its recent announcements and public messages to students. About a month ago, the University removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs, with President Eisgruber stating in a letter to all students, “Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people.”
While many have seen this as a great step forward in the University’s battle against racism, it seems that in the weeks since, the University and members of the campus community have only taken several steps back.
Joshua Katz, a professor in the classics department, released his own statement, in which he referred to the Black Justice League — a group of student activists who fought from 2014–16 for the name change as well as other systemic changes — as a “small local terrorist organization.” Faculty aren’t the only ones to have spewed such hateful and anti-Black speech. In an email sent to nearly all students, entitled “The Conundrum of Change,” a rising sophomore shared his opinions on the name change, condemning the University for its “hypocrisy of revisionism” and for attempting to erase its history in such a hasty manner.
Around the same time, 21 undergraduate students signed and published a four-page letter they had fashioned for the administration in which they opposed the demands of 274 student activists who had called for the University to take anti-racist action, saying that these demands were violations of “free speech, free thought, and bold and fearless truth-seeking,” and stated that siding with anti-racism would “rig the game.” They have enough privilege to title this country’s vast history of racism and the death of countless Black lives a “game,” yet also in the same breath seek to defend themselves when labeled racist by their peers.
One student, Tyler Eddy ’21, took to social media to discuss his ideas of free speech when he used the n-word on his public Facebook account. This time, however, the backlash was not simply a few angry replies; I created a Change.org petition entitled “Discrimination Hearing for Princeton Student Tyler Eddy on Use of N-Word on Social Media,” which has since amassed almost 1,500 signatures and multiple shares and comments, including those from Princeton alumni who have pledged to withhold their donations until action is taken. Not only has Eddy shown no remorse or released any apologies, but he mocked the petition early in its development, reposting it with the caption, “Should I sign it?” It is unknown whether Eddy has faced a discrimination hearing or any disciplinary action.
Though Princeton administrators have responded to these incidents, every single response has been more disappointing than the last. Whether it be the student emails, Professor Katz’s mislabeling of the Black Justice League, or Eddy’s usage of racial slurs on his public social media, the response has not led to nor promised any meaningful action on the part of the University. These responses calling for “mutual respect” and emphasizing the University’s lack of tolerance for hateful speech and harassment of students can best be summed up in one sentence from the University-wide statement sent out by Vice President of Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun:
“... even if certain instances of the use of offensive language — including racial, ethnic, gender, or other slurs — may be protected by our policies, depending on the context, they are upsetting, damaging, and unconstructive, and do not match the values of our community. Indeed, such language is contrary to Princeton’s commitment to stand for inclusivity and against racism.”
This statement not only left many students with feelings of shock, betrayal, and anger, but it also left them with one burning question: how can the University’s administration commit to fighting for inclusivity and anti-racism in the same breath that they quite literally defended the usage of racial slurs and hate speech? This message leaves a powerful precedent for incoming students, and not in a positive manner: Black students and students of color are essentially left unprotected from hate speech so long as it is not directed towards a particular student, and Princeton itself seems to condone hate speech by its students on social media so long as that hate speech is not directed at a particular student.
If Princeton is truly determined to combat racism and reflect inclusivity for all, then I suggest they begin on one of the many paths graciously laid out for them by others. Whether it be the demands from the “Change Princeton Now” campaign led by the School of Public and International Affairs student activists or those from the Faculty Letter with over 450 signatures from faculty, students, and alumni alike, Princeton administrators have the stepping stones to become the institution that they believe they already are. These demands range from more anti-racism readings and classes to fostering more diversity in the selection of faculty and administration, and all are great places to begin, so long as University administrators take the initiative. Not to mention the most important piece of these reforms, which is to have actual disciplinary consequences for students like Eddy and faculty like Katz. Princeton will never truly be the institution of inclusivity and respect that it boasts about until it protects all of its students, whether that be from mislabeling or racial slurs. Princeton, do better.
To President Eisgruber and the University administration, I have a question for you: how long can you hide behind your own hypocrisy? How long will you play both sides of this “game,” as some of your students have named it? When will you take responsibility for your students just as you have committed yourselves to taking responsibility for the racist past of this University? You are actively excusing, ignoring, and disregarding the very racism which you, President Eisgruber, have said that Princeton should no longer condone. It’s time to start backing up your words with action, starting with the University’s unofficial motto: “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.” There is nothing more in the nation’s service and the service of humanity than the fight against racism.
Sarah Elkordy is a senior in the School of Public and International Affairs with a certificate in African American Studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.