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‘Committee, committee, committee’: After five years, Princeton’s approach to institutional reform hasn’t changed

<h5>University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and then-Trustee Brent Henry ’69 stand together at the dedication of “Double Sights” in Oct. 2019.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and then-Trustee Brent Henry ’69 stand together at the dedication of “Double Sights” in Oct. 2019.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

On Sept. 2, 2020, amid a national reckoning with racism, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 announced that his administration would “combat systemic racism at Princeton and beyond.” Factoring heavily into his plans were several committees, charged with priorities that ranged from inclusive hiring practices to campus iconography.

Eisgruber commended this administrative approach, writing, “Much of this work is unglamorous, focused not on flashy symbols but on the nuts and bolts of University management. That is essential: to care about eradicating systemic racism, one has to care about systems.”

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But 2020 is not the first time the University has turned to “systems” in the wake of student and nationwide anti-racist activism. In 2015, protests by the Black Justice League (BJL) precipitated over three years of committees, recommendations, and reports — seemingly the “unglamorous nuts and bolts of University management” that Eisgruber described.

According to Deputy University Spokesperson Mike Hotchkiss, “These committees included faculty, graduate students, undergraduates and staff, each of whom brought to the work their own expertise, experiences and opinions.” He added, “In this inclusive process, these committees represented a University made up of many constituencies holding a wide range of views.”

Former BJL members would later characterize the University’s response as “many fruitless conversations and hollow gestures that have not meaningfully addressed the lived experience of Black people on Princeton’s campus.”

“Charge a committee, convene a task force, draft solutions, adopt very little, rinse and repeat,” they wrote in June, after the University renamed the Woodrow Wilson School, now the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. The activists argued that the administration “unilaterally” removed Wilson’s name, pointing to Nassau Hall’s apparent haste as evidence of the “hollowness of such committees.”

To find out why the committee process that Eisgruber praised last month has left so many dissatisfied, The Daily Princetonian sat down with members of the now-disbanded Woodrow Wilson Legacy Review Committee and the Campus Iconography Committee, a product of the Review Committee’s recommendations. What started with simple questions and personal reflections became a convoluted story of college governance, of layers upon layers of committees, and of the difficulties that impede institutional change. 

Step One: The Woodrow Wilson Legacy Review Committee

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After sitting in Eisgruber’s office for 33 hours, student protesters led by the BJL exited Nassau Hall on the night of Nov. 23, 2015. They did so with a revised list of demands that Eisgruber had signed, documenting his promise to address the BJL’s demands for affinity housing, cultural competency training, a course requirement, and the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from the residential college and policy school. 

In the weeks that followed, Eisgruber met with a small group of leadership from the Board of Trustees, including then Vice-Chair of the Board Brent Henry ’69. They decided, Henry said, that “since some of the demands were in the purview of the Board” — rather than the administration — it was “appropriate” to form a Board Committee.

Once Henry agreed to chair the new Woodrow Wilson Legacy Review Committee, the focus turned to selecting the other members. The committee would ultimately furnish Eisgruber with a list of recommendations relating to inclusivity on campus. Chief among them would be answers to the tandem questions of how to remember Woodrow Wilson and what to do with the numerous buildings and programs that bore his name.

With respect to selecting other committee members, Henry said, “The good news is that we had people on the Board at the time who had some experience, both on the subject matter of Woodrow Wilson but also in running universities.”

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Among those experts was Ruth Simmons, a University Trustee and former President of Brown University, who had also served as Associate Dean of Faculty and Vice Provost at the University. Simmons currently serves as the President of Prairie View A&M, a historically Black university.

During her tenure at Brown, Simmons launched a two-year investigation into the Brown family’s historical connections with the transatlantic slave trade. The project yielded the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice

Both Henry and Simmons attest that this prior work made her an ideal candidate for the new committee. “I think that’s probably why I was asked to serve on the Committee actually,” Simmons said.

Henry’s background also commended him to the position. As a student at the University, he had participated in the occupation of New South, led by the Association of Black Collegians (ABC) in 1969. He and the rest of ABC did so in protest of the University’s investments in apartheid South Africa.

Once all selections for the Committee were made, the next step was soliciting feedback — a lot of it, according to Simmons and Henry.

“There was a good deal of data gathering and outreach to constituents at the outset, which took a fair amount of time,” Simmons said. “There was pretty wide solicitation of opinion from stakeholders, and a fair degree of interest in it, so people did write in comments, and so forth.”

After months of gathering opinions from students, alumni, community members, and historians, the Committee began meeting regularly to discuss the comments and shape their recommendations to the University. 

“Any committee of that kind necessarily has members with very strong and hopefully informed views,” Simmons said. “No one is shy about representing their opinion about it. And so naturally, the discussions were quite robust.” 

The Committee’s final report, released in April 2016, reflected these “robust discussions,” acknowledging a lack of unanimity as to whether Woodrow Wilson’s name should remain. As the report states, however, “in the end our collective judgement was that the names should not be changed.”

While the report included a number of proposals, the Committee’s recommendation to keep Woodrow Wilson’s name would become both its best-known and most controversial.

Both former trustees dispute the importance retroactively placed on removing the name itself.

“The Wilson decision was really in my view, frankly, not one of the most important recommendations of the report,” Henry said. “In my view, the most important recommendations were the formation of the Diversity Committee [named in the report as the Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion] and the creation of what is now known as the Presidential Scholars Program.”

According to Henry, the Princeton Presidential Scholars Program — a University commitment to expanding graduate school opportunities for students of color — will allow the University to start diversifying its faculty by working to “prime the pump with candidates coming out of Ph.D. programs.” 

Additionally, Henry believed that the creation of a Trustee Committee focused on diversity would allow the University to live by the old adage: “What gets measured gets done.”

“If you have a Trustee committee that is focused on diversity, then clearly the administration will be more diligent in what it has to report to the board,” he said.

Simmons agreed with Henry that while the Legacy Review Committee was initially tasked with examining Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on campus, “other things arose in that discussion.”

“It was very clear from the outset that what gave rise to that subject was a concern among some that the University was insufficiently inclusive, and that there were certain impediments to that inclusivity. One being iconic images or iconic histories, images, narratives, and so forth that did not work well with a vision of inclusivity.”

And, while there was a lack of unanimity around preserving Woodrow Wilson’s name on University buildings and academic programs, there was agreement about approving the final Committee report.

“When we had to make a decision about approving the report, the report as a whole is what got approved. We didn’t necessarily go recommendation by recommendation and say, you know, a plus or minus on the name, plus or minus on this recommendation or that recommendation,” Henry said.

Simmons similarly spoke of the remaining disagreements, but also of the important “points of agreement” that the report included.

“And absolutely a point of agreement with the committee was, you have to tell the truth about Wilson’s legacy,” Simmons said. 

Simmons had been thinking a lot about “truth” and “transparency” outside of her work on the committee. She recalled being asked to speak with BJL members during their occupation of Eisgruber’s office. There, she told them that they had “a central tenet that was unimpeachable.”

“And that was that the University should tell the truth,” she said. 

“If you don’t tell the truth about your own history,” Simmons added, “why should anybody think you’re telling the truth about anything else?” 

To her, the committee’s recommendations concerning Woodrow Wilson — which fell short of removing his name — were still significant in many ways. Because of them, Eisgruber “came out afterwards powerfully and said, ‘Woodrow Wilson was a racist.’”

“That had never been voiced by the University before,” she said.

In seeking to “tell the truth” about Wilson, the University unveiled “Double Sights,” a towering campus installation that acknowledges Wilson’s “complicated legacy,” in Oct. 2019. The ceremony occurred a little over two years after the Legacy Review Committee released its final report. 

Despite the trustees’ conviction in adding context to Wilson’s name, the ceremony did not proceed smoothly. During a Q&A period, alumni and students criticized the University for not going further, while student protestors gathered outside. After several pointed exchanges, Henry rose to defend the Committee’s ultimate decision to keep Woodrow Wilson’s name on the School of Public and International Affairs and eponymous residential college. 

“There’s a whole couple generations of us students who survived on this campus with the Wilson name,” he said. “And we think, based on looking at this group today, the students here may feel some pain, but they’re doing a whole hell of a lot better than we did.”

While “Double Sights” most directly addressed the Committee’s recommendation that Wilson’s legacy on campus be contextualized, it also responded to the conclusion that Nassau Hall should rethink campus iconography more broadly.

Simmons remembered discussing with other committee members that “the University upheld individuals like Wilson, but found no room for pointing to the extraordinary commitment of others in the history of the University, such as Blacks and women.”

The Legacy Review Committee recommended a “concerted effort” on the University’s part to diversify campus art and iconography.

“When you walk into the faculty room at Nassau Hall, all you see is portraits of white men and one white woman,” Henry said. “And while that may not change for a while, because they are Princeton presidential portraits, we thought it was important for there to be a more active portraiture project, and a more active project of dedicating spaces to recognize that people of color had a more specific hand in shaping the University.”

And so the Legacy Review Committee recommended the University charter another committee, this time focused on campus iconography and public spaces. 

Beyond Woodrow Wilson: The Campus Iconography Committee

Soon after the Wilson Legacy Review Committee published its final report in April 2016, the University assembled a Campus Iconography Committee (CIC), chaired by Executive Vice President Treby Williams ’84, in pursuit of the Trustees’ recommendation to “diversify campus art and iconography.” The CIC’s website, which was recently removed, stated, “the Committee seeks to identify, facilitate, and support opportunities to provide visual cues on campus that represent altered and nuanced interpretations of Princeton’s history.”

While some students applied to sit on the committee, Chase Hommeyer ’19 was directly invited to join in spring 2016. She believed she was chosen due to her prior relationship with administrators, a rapport she had built by proposing that Frist Campus Center feature a digital wall display of Princeton’s history.

Describing herself as “deferential” and “palatable to the administration” as a “young, friendly-looking white girl,” she said, “there was no transparency as to how [she] was picked.”

“I wish I had declined,” she said. “I was not the right person to be making decisions about how to support students of color at the school.”

While a key aspect of the committee was its inclusion of faculty, students, alumni, and administrators, for Hommeyer, long-standing power dynamics were not so easily overcome. 

As a sophomore, Hommeyer found the meetings “very intimidating,” and would feel uncomfortable speaking up, fearing that she might disrespect faculty committee members with whom she disagreed.

“I think part of what makes the committee so insidious,” she said, “is not that there’s any one person who’s evil and advocating against the demands of the students, openly. It’s that every single person on the committee feels disempowered to make change.” 

She described the meetings as “country club” affairs held at Prospect House, where members sat at tables decorated with “white tablecloths and fancy food on fancy plates.” As the waiting staff served food, committee members were “rolling the dice like gods and deciding the fate of people [they] were completely disconnected from.” 

Shortly after it convened in fall 2016, the Committee split into three working groups: Portraiture, History, and Public Spaces.

While the other working groups made policy recommendations, the Portraiture subcommittee was tasked with researching the University’s portraiture collection, including what standards were historically in place to govern portrait commissions, and how those standards could be altered to include subjects who were not white men. 

To that end, the University appointed history professor Martha Sandweiss to lead the Portraiture group.  Sandweiss had helped disclose the University’s complicity in American slavery through the Princeton and Slavery Project, which she founded in the spring of 2013.

Sandweiss discovered that the portrait collection had always grown haphazardly, without standards.

“Things just came as gifts, people donated things,” she said. “The only portraits that were commissioned, at least in recent years, were of the president, I believe, and the dean of the graduate school and the dean of the engineering school.”

Sandweiss’s subcommittee issued its report, detailing the history of Princeton’s portraiture, as well as challenges the University might face as it sought to diversify its collection. In order to further pursue the ideas raised by the subcommittee, the Administration commissioned the Portraiture Nominations Committee (PNC) in the fall of 2017.

Amina Simon ’18, who sat on both the Portraiture working group and the PNC that followed, told the ‘Prince’ that the PNC’s mission was to recommend 10 portrait subjects, whose presence would diversify the collection.

The committee sought recommendations for portrait subjects online, and then researched and voted on submissions. The committee ultimately created a list of subjects, including Nobel Laureate and University Professor Emerita Toni Morrison, Judge Denny Chin ’75, and former dean Carl A. Fields, the first Black administrator in the Ivy League.

Despite public participation and extensive committee deliberations, Simon perceived the process to be undemocratic.

“Eisgruber was still the end of the line situation,” Simon said. She alleged that he had “added a white guy to [the committee’s list], who was a straight athlete, and I think already has a statue of himself on campus.” 

This was William Bradley ’65, former NBA basketball player and N.J. State Senator, whose bronze statue has stood before Jadwin Gymnasium since 2014. 

“And I just remember it being ridiculous,” Simon said. “I and a few other committee members took turns saying, ‘that’s ridiculous,’ in different words.”

Bradley made it onto the final list of subjects.

Referring to “two other additions” to the list, Williams wrote in an email to the committee, “Chris [Eisgruber] agreed to use Presidential funds to create 8 to 10 portraits at this time. He has decided to support the upper bound ... and finalize the cohort to include the two additional subjects we discussed last week.”

The ‘Prince’ did not confirm whether Eisgruber personally assured Bradley’s inclusion. Bradley and cell biologist Dr. Elaine Fuchs, however, were the only subjects to make the final list that did not appear on the committee’s initial list of candidates to research or receive mention in other internal communications between members.

“I am comfortable that each individual in the cohort meets all of the criteria, including diversity broadly defined,” Williams continued, “and appreciate that no group was excluded from consideration for this very special honor (which reinforces the high honor of being a member of this cohort).”

While the efforts to diversify portraiture on campus progressed, a separate branch of the CIC, the History subcommittee, developed “innovative and nuanced ways to narrate, demonstrate and reflect the complexities of Princeton’s history, including through temporary and permanent exhibits.” 

Briana Payton ’17, a former BJL member, remembered the History subcommittee fondly, citing the enthusiasm of professor Wallace Best, who chaired the subcommittee, as well as the team’s diversity. 

“We were diverse racially, we were diverse in our class years, we were diverse in the disciplines that we came from,” she said. “And so, I think that different interests and different kinds of creative ideas emerged out of the diverse group that came together.”

When Hommeyer joined the History subcommittee, however, she found the methods in place less deliberate than she had expected.

“[W]e randomly threw out ideas for five minutes and voted on them,” she commented on the June 2020 statement by the Black Justice League. “The ‘Official Committee Recommendations’ that Princeton touts as gold standard were simply ‘off the cuff’ ideas from administrators and random uninformed students like me.”

The winning ideas were to make walking tours, to install historical markers about “firsts” at the University, and to make a historical booklet for first-year orientation. 

“Do I think that it produced as many outcomes as we wanted? No, absolutely not,” Payton said. “There were things that we would have suggested things that we wanted, that didn’t happen. It also caused things to happen that I believe matter.”

While both Hommeyer and Payton expressed appreciation for those projects, especially the walking tour dedicated to African American history, the committee’s lack of public feedback bothered Hommeyer.

“People often emphasize how important it is to start with the audience,” she said. “Start with the people who are affected, and ask them about their needs and create ideas based on those needs. And we did not discuss the students’ needs one bit.”

Monique Claiborne ’17, who sat on the Public Spaces working group, shared mixed feelings about her experience on the committee. She valued the creation of a small space where students, faculty, alumni, and administrators could collaborate. 

“Everybody was figuring it out together,” she said.

Claiborne was enthusiastic about the committee’s mission, especially as a former Orange Key tour guide. Used to watching awestruck tourists wander among Princeton’s famous Gothic spires, she wanted to help create a more inclusive atmosphere.

Yet, Claiborne did feel, like Hommeyer, that committee deliberations were “separated from student activism,” and not entirely transparent. The subcommittee’s mission was “very specific,” with a predetermined focus on Frist Campus Center, a hub of student activity, and the Trustee Reading Room, whose walls were once lined with “portraits of dead white men.”

“I don’t know who came up with that; that was just given to us,” Claiborne said. “So, I don’t think that necessarily was in response to the activism on campus at that time.”

After a year of sporadic meetings, the working group came up with two primary recommendations: the construction of a digital wall in Frist Campus Center that could show a more representative narrative of Princeton’s history and a redesign of the Trustee Reading Room. According to Claiborne, the portraits in the Trustee Reading Room were “dispersed throughout Firestone,” but she was unsure of what other actions arose from the working group’s recommendations.

Noting that the working group never solicited public feedback, Claiborne said, “it wasn’t rooted in any kind of evidence, really, qualitative or quantitative.”

Although she believed that committee members embarked on the project with enthusiasm, progress became slower and slower over time. The year’s end approached. 

The working group drafted a report of recommendations, which Claiborne characterized as “very abstract” and as “a framework for how the University would think about diversifying iconography moving forwards.” 

“I remembered feeling that ‘this report kind of sucks,’” Claiborne said. “Did we really do something that’s gonna launch Princeton into this new way of thinking about visual cues of campus? I didn’t really feel like that was true.”

“Moving forward, I’d love to see these committees be supplements to and not replacements of more disruptive activism,” she continued. “I think that’s where proper institutional change comes from, which we did not do.”

‘When you get to the table’

“Over the past decade, the University has made significant strides toward becoming more inclusive and honest about its history,” Hotchkiss, the University spokesperson, wrote. “This work has been advanced by a number of committees, and Princeton is a better place today because of their work.”

Computer science department chair Jennifer Rexford ’91, who sat on the Portraiture Nominations Committee, expressed a similar sentiment. She argued that the University’s committee process did not amount to “intentionally stonewalling” and remained optimistic that the University’s governance structure effected meaningful change.

“Princeton is a place that can be viewed as conservative or reticent, but I think the right way to think of it is deliberative,” she said. “It’s a way to make decisions in a principled way that can always be understood and explained.”

Simmons, too, gave a positive final assessment: “While it looks like it’s very obfuscating, very difficult, very negative, it isn’t at all.”

“Of course, I’m saying that as a university president,” she continued, “because I have been at this a long time, and I’ve seen the kind of progress that can be made in the universities that cannot be made outside of universities, precisely because universities are careful. They’re very deliberate. They take their time. And they can do incredibly bold things.”

“Such work is not easy and the outcomes rarely match any individual member's preferences,” Hotchkiss wrote. “But through careful thought and open dialogue, [a number of committees] brought forward valuable ideas and recommendations. Along with the leadership of the Board of Trustees and President Eisgruber, these committees have helped move the University forward.”

After sitting on several University committees, however, Simon maintained her concerns about the pace of change, lack of transparency, and power structure that underlay the process. She argued that as recommending bodies without the power to make decisions, the committees inherently faced constraints.

“Everyone’s boss needs to consult their boss, needs to consult their boss, needs to consult a committee of their bosses,” Simon said. “So, it makes it seem that the only way to create change is if the president wants to, or committee, committee, committee.”

Today, the University has promised to diversify its faculty and graduate students, to evaluate campus iconography, and to pursue a number of other anti-racist initiatives, including examining its benefits policy and expanding “educational opportunities.”

To do so, Nassau Hall plans to “reconceive” the Faculty Advisory Committee on Diversity and to “initiate” a committee “to recommend principles to govern changes in naming and other campus iconography” — a mandate that resembles what the Campus Iconography Committee was tasked with four years ago.

“As the University continues its work to combat systemic racism,” Hotchkiss wrote, “Princetonians from across the University will again be called to contribute because, as President Eisgruber has said, ‘success will require sustained effort and continued commitment from the entire University community.’”

When asked if she had any advice for current students facing another cycle of administrative change, Payton laughed, and gave a simple answer: “Join the committees.”

“When you get to the table,” she said, “assess where the power is and hold that power accountable.”

Hommeyer, however, added a few words of caution.

“Do not bargain with systems of people who are unwilling to change,” she said. “It’s a trap. Write your demands, be done with it, then build something with people who actually believe in your freedom.”

Editor’s Note: As of 10 p.m. EDT on Sept. 25, this piece has been updated to incorporate University comment, as well as email correspondence that Vice President Williams sent to members of the CIC.

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