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Department of Education to investigate University following Eisgruber’s letter on racism

<h4>U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).</h4>
<h6>Courtesy of Gage Skidmore / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/people/22007612@N05" target="_self">Flickr</a></h6>

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

Courtesy of Gage Skidmore / Flickr

In an open letter outlining the University’s efforts to combat racism early this month, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 wrote, “Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton” and racist assumptions “remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE), which considers those statements to have “admitted racism,” has launched an investigation into whether the University has discriminated on the basis of race since Eisgruber took office in 2013.

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In a message to Eisgruber on Wednesday, Assistant Secretary in the Office of Postsecondary Education Robert King wrote that the University president “admitted Princeton’s educational program is and for decades has been racist” in his early-September message — prompting concerns that the University has been violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for decades. 

The University has received over $75 million in federal funds since 2013. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may take “action to recover funds” or “consider measures against Princeton,” but will bear in mind the challenges of COVID-19.

In a statement to The Daily Princetonian, University Spokesperson Ben Chang wrote that the University “stands by its representations to the Department and the public that it complies with all laws and regulations governing equal opportunity, non-discrimination and harassment.” The University also stands by its previous statements about the prevalence of systemic racism.

“It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law,” Chang wrote. “The University disagrees and looks forward to furthering our educational mission by explaining why our statements and actions are consistent not only with the law, but also with the highest ideals and aspirations of this country.”

According to Chang, the University plans to respond to the letter in due course. 

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Several community members have denounced the DOE’s actions. Chair of the African American Studies Department Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. GS ’97 referred to the investigation as “Ridiculous.” In a tweet this afternoon, Assistant Professor of African American Studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote, “It’s amazing how the federal government is just a tool of the Trump thugs to harass and intimidate.”

Ceon Sun ’23 similarly told the ‘Prince,’ “It just sounds like a thinly veiled attempt to make an example of Princeton so other colleges are too intimidated to talk about systemic racism and the Trump administration can keep pretending that racism doesn’t exist.” 

A number of prominent conservative pundits have tweeted in support of the investigation. Talk show host Ben Shapiro deemed the DOE’s actions “absolutely spectacular,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham described the investigation as a “brilliant idea,” and National Review Editor Rich Lowry remarked, “Perhaps the best thing that the Department of Education has ever done.”

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The Department has requested all records, from word document drafts to social media posts, used for Eisgruber’s letter, which led to the DOE’s determination that the University is racist, as well as a “spreadsheet identifying each person who has, on the ground of race, color, or national origin” been discriminated against.

The Department will also interview Eisgruber and a “designated corporate representative” under oath, in addition to requesting he respond to several written questions. Specifically, Eisgruber has been asked to provide statistics on how many individuals were subject to discrimination since 2015 and whether this number is “evidence of systemic or embedded racism.” The University has also been instructed to provide the number of “public nondiscrimination and equal opportunity representations” they have made since 2015, “measured by website page visits.”

The DOE has given the University until Oct. 7 to produce written responses and records and until Oct. 14 to make Eisgruber and another representative available for an under-oath interview.

In his Sept. 2 letter, Eisgruber announced new goals to diversify University faculty, hoping to “increase by 50 percent the number of tenured or tenure-track faculty members from underrepresented groups over the next five years” and “undertake enhanced efforts to expand diversity of the faculty pipeline.” According to data from 2019, 8 percent of tenure and tenure-track faculty members are Black or Hispanic compared to 18 percent of undergraduates and 32 percent of the U.S. population. His letter also mentioned exploring a new credit or degree-granting program to extend Princeton’s teaching to students disproportionately affected by systematic racism. 

Several students told the ‘Prince’ that they felt the letter lacked specifics and hoped more concrete action would follow. Other community members, including Professor of Mathematics Sergiu Klainerman, criticized Eisgruber for using the word “racist” in describing Princeton. 

Administrators are set to discuss the University’s efforts on Monday during a Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) Meeting.

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