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Rep. Watson Coleman, 90 college presidents condemn DOE investigation, as community weighs in

<p>President Donald Trump speaks during an event at Joint Base Andrews, MD on Dec. 20, 2019. U.S. Air Force photo by Andy Morataya.</p>

President Donald Trump speaks during an event at Joint Base Andrews, MD on Dec. 20, 2019. U.S. Air Force photo by Andy Morataya.

On Sept. 22, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.-12) condemned the Department of Education’s (DOE) investigation into the University after President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 “admitted racism” in written remarks. Watson Coleman’s comments come as college administrators across the nation similarly denounce the investigation.

The investigation was sparked by an open letter Eisgruber wrote earlier this month, in which he outlined the next steps the University would take to address systemic racism on campus. Eisgruber wrote, “[r]acism 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 DOE has taken this language as an admission of past racism and noncompliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

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Watson Coleman characterized the DOE’s reaction as “dumbfounding. Mindboggling. It is utter stupidity.” The congresswoman went on to write that Eisgruber’s letter included “thoughtful notes on inclusion” and deemed the investigation a “waste of taxpayer resources.”

Upon reading the release, Amanda Eisenhour ’21, a senior in the African American Studies department and co-president of Students for Prison Education, Abolition, and Reform (SPEAR), agreed that Watson Coleman was “right in thinking about the resources put towards this investigation in terms of opportunity cost.”

“It’s a question of ‘could our resources be used better somewhere else?’ I think here the clear answer is yes, because we know the motivations behind this investigation when it comes from this administration,” she said. “This administration has no real interest in actually promoting equality and racial justice in this country.”

On Sept. 24, 90 college and university presidents released an open letter to the DOE, which expressed similar criticisms. Penned by Michael Roth and Biddy Martin, presidents of Wesleyan University and Amherst College, respectively, the letter urges the DOE to “abandon its ill-considered investigation of Princeton University.”

Other signatories include the presidents of MIT, Mercer County Community College, HBCU Prairie View A&M University, and all seven other Ivy League universities. The presidents of the Association of American Colleges & Universities and Phi Beta Kappa Society also signed.

Some of the signatories, including Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons, Brown University President Christina Paxson, and University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann previously taught or held administrative positions at the University.

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On his blog, Roth detailed the reasoning behind authoring the letter, writing that those in “higher education have a duty to call out such harassment and hypocrisy.”

“It is outrageous that the Department of Education is using our country’s resources to investigate an institution that is committed to becoming more inclusive by reckoning with the impact in the present of our shared legacies of racism,” the letter states.

The DOE did not comment on the investigation itself, and an Education Department spokesperson said they could not comment on open investigations.

DOE press secretary Angela Morabito, however, told the ‘Prince’ Roth and Martin’s letter concerned her.

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“The allegations of current systemic racism at Princeton are deeply concerning,” she wrote in a statement. “It’s doubly concerning that so many institution presidents would implore the Department not to investigate these serious accusations.”

Depending on the investigation’s results, the DOE may take action to recover $75 million in federal funds Princeton has received since 2013.

Sydney Johnson ’24 said that the DOE’s potential removal of funding hinders “the progress not just of Princeton, but the progress of a nation and other colleges, in particular public universities who depend on federal funding but want to commit to anti-racist teachings.”

“If the government is able to control teaching — in this instance, anti-racist — then what does our college education even mean anymore?” Johnson added.

Watson Coleman, Roth, and Martin’s remarks come a little over a month after the Department of Justice accused Yale University of racial discrimination against white and Asian American applicants. These remarks also come on the heels of the Trump administration’s investigation into whether the “1619 Project,” a New York Times collection reframing America’s founding with the consequences of slavery, was taught in public schools.

President Donald Trump, himself a University of Pennsylvania graduate, has also threatened to rescind funding from universities and schools systems he believes are “about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education.”

The Washington Examiner previously reported that multiple people familiar with the DOE’s letter to Nassau Hall assert that the investigation is not political. Similarly, Morbito wrote that the Department “is legally obligated to ensure that institutions receiving federal funds are in compliance with civil rights law.”

“We owe it to students to ensure that they are able to access an education free of racial discrimination,” she wrote to the ‘Prince.’

Matthew Wilson ’24, who published an op-ed on the topic in the Examiner earlier this week, believes student opinions on whether or not the University is racist are “irrelevant to the context of the DOE investigation.” 

“By President Eisgruber’s admission that ‘systemic racism’ plagues Princeton, and that racist assumptions from the past remain embedded in structures of the University itself, the Department of Education was obligated to examine whether Princeton’s self-admitted racism violated the Civil Rights Act and other federal discrimination protections,” he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

“Racist institutions can’t receive funding from the federal government. That’s the law, and it’s really that simple,” Wilson continued.

Wilson sees two options for responding to the investigation.

“President Eisgruber should either retract his statement or comply with DOE’s investigation into the University, because we can’t have it both ways. We’re either racist, or we’re not,” he wrote.

On whether the University could emerge as an anti-racist leader in higher education, Marc Schorin ’22, editor-in-chief of the Princeton Progressive, expressed skepticism.

“I’m not sure I would qualify Princeton as a leader,” Schorin explained. “I’m not sure I would qualify any university administration as a leader when students have been fighting for equal rights for decades. It’s ironic that only now that Princeton’s hand is forced, they are suddenly a protagonist in the story.”

Natalia Zorrilla ’23, however, said the University’s response to the DOE left her “somewhat heartened.”

“Princeton could do more [when it comes to combating racism] but it seems as a result of this investigation, they aren’t going to do less,” Zorrilla added.

The University has stood by its previous statements about the prevalence of systemic racism, noting in a statement, “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.”

Jailany Thiaw ’22, a student activist who was involved in creating and presenting a climate report that detailed on-campus experiences of students of color to the University’s administration, expressed frustration at the country’s response to racism.

He said he was “taking a step back” from following the DOE’s investigation and “trying to catch [his] breath.”

“There is something to be said about being really tired as a person at this school and a person of color in this country asking, protesting, writing letters, trying to create some kind of change and constantly feeling like that is deprioritized,” he said.

“It’s necessary for all of us to admit there is an issue before we can solve it,” Thiaw continued. “In a way I am at least grateful that the University has owned up to its history in this current situation. My hope going forward is that we can turn this moment into concrete change.”

Editor’s Note: As of 10 p.m. EDT on Sept .30, this article was updated to note that some signatories to Roth and Martin’s letter were previously affiliated with the University.

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