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Princeton establishes professorship of Indigenous Studies with $5 million gift from Wendy and Eric Schmidt ’76

<h5>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h5>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The University has established a new professorship in Indigenous Studies, in recognition of students’ “strong and growing interest” in Native American and Indigenous Studies, according to a Dec. 3 announcement.

While the University has recently offered courses centered on Native American history, literature, and languages, the endowed professorship will be the first permanent faculty position explicitly focused on Indigenous Studies.

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The professorship is endowed by a $5 million gift from Wendy Schmidt and Eric Schmidt ’76. The couple have previously funded numerous projects at the University.

Wendy Schmidt is president of The Schmidt Family Foundation, which promotes environmental sustainability and funds Native-led nonprofits such as the First Nations Development Institute. She served as an executive producer of the 2020 documentary “Gather,” which follows the growing movement for food sovereignty among Native Americans. 

Eric Schmidt is the former CEO of Google and former executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., as well as a prominent philanthropist.

Natives at Princeton, a group of Native and Indigenous students and allies at the University, celebrated the news in an Instagram post, while continuing calls for a certificate program.

“Huge thank you to the Schmidt’s and the Native American Alumni at Princeton for making this happen,” the group wrote. “With a professor, now seems like a good time to establish a Native American and Indigenous Studies Certificate at Princeton, what do you think?” 

To A-dae Romero-Briones ’03, Director of Programs at the First Nations Development Institute, which has received funding from the Schmidt Family Foundation, the professorship represents a critical resource for Native students. 

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Romero-Briones met the Schmidts through their philanthropic work and said she noted their love for Princeton. When Romero-Briones felt she could not convince the University to heed her ideas on Native representation, she turned to Wendy for advice — which initiated conversations about the Eric and Wendy Schmidt professorship.

“The University has a lot more work to do to ensure that we are a foundational part of this community. But it took Eric and Wendy to really be supportive of these plights in order for us to get some air time unfortunately,” she said.

An interdisciplinary position

The scholar appointed to the professorship will be “free to teach and co-teach subjects that cross department boundaries, advise undergraduate and graduate students working on a wide range of interdisciplinary topics, and host conferences and talks on campus that bring scholars together from inside and outside Princeton who are experts in indigenous studies,” according to Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss.

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“An interdisciplinary search committee will be created to identify the inaugural Eric and Wendy Schmidt Professor of Indigenous Studies,” Hotchkiss added.

He stressed that the professor “could be based in a number of departments and programs,” including most departments in the humanities or social sciences, as well as the Program in American Studies, the Center for Human Values, or the School of Public and International Affairs.

University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 expressed his gratitude for the Schmidts’ contribution in the press release.

“At a time when people around the globe are giving new and much needed attention to the multiple strands that compose national histories, the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Professor of Indigenous Studies will strengthen a crucial field of teaching and scholarship at Princeton,” he said. 

“Their timely gift will enhance understanding of Indigenous peoples, and the issues confronting them, in the United States and beyond,” Eisgruber added.

In honor of the Schmidts’ contribution, Peter Wendell ’72 and Lynn Wendell ’77 recently gave an additional contribution to establish a “new permanent fund at Princeton to support research, teaching, or programmatic support for enrolled students, relating to Indigenous groups.”

“Wendy and Eric have been our close friends for years. Lynn and I admire their philanthropy to Princeton and the rest of the world, and we just wanted to honor that,” Peter Wendell told the ‘Prince’ when asked about the couple’s contribution.

In the press release, Wendy Schmidt said that she and her husband seek to cultivate talent from students of all backgrounds and identities.

“The thoughtful study of Indigenous cultures is an essential component of society’s reckoning with our own history,” she said. “It’s our hope that this professorship will play a vital role in advancing that complex conversation and will extend and complement Princeton’s academic and co-curricular activities, including those that engage and amplify the voices of faculty, students, and alumni from Indigenous backgrounds.”

The Schmidts are also funding the extensive renovations of Guyot Hall — soon to be Eric and Wendy Schmidt Hall — that will house the Department of Computer Science. They previously established the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund in 2009 and the Schmidt DataX Fund earlier this year. 

Student activists call for sustained action

Keely Toledo ’22 and Jessica Lambert ’22, co-presidents of Natives at Princeton and citizens of the Navajo Nation and Choctaw Nation, respectively, have been critical of the lack of an Indigenous Studies certificate program at the University.

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Lambert applauded the new professorship, but stressed that the University must do more.

She said that the new professorship addressed a need for permanent faculty in Indigenous Studies, as opposed to visiting faculty who she usually sees teaching in Indigenous Studies. 

Lambert also said that she was glad the University did not specify a department for the professorship.

“Indigenous Studies is inherently interdisciplinary,” she noted.

She hopes the professor can focus on areas of Indigenous Studies, such as tribal politics or STEM courses, that have not gained as much attention at the University. Lambert also hoped the professor would focus on Indigenous Studies in the United States, both given the Princeton’s location within the U.S. and the University’s comparatively robust Indigenous Studies curricula in other regions.

Furthermore, Lambert expressed hope that if a Native professor fills the position, they would serve as a role model for Indigenous students.

“We need to make sure that Native students — to make sure that they want to come here and feel comfortable here, have those role models, have the people they can talk to who understand the experience of navigating academia, as a Native person,” Lambert said.

She emphasized the importance of “just portraying to the rest of the University community that we are capable and we are smart, and we can do all these things and become professors.”

‘This is the invitation’

Professors have joined with student advocates to uplift Indigenous Studies on campus. On Oct. 12, Professor of English Sarah Rivett, American studies administrator Sarah Malone, and graduate student Isabel Lockhart launched the Indigenous Studies Website with the goal of creating a hub for Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton (NAISIP).

NAISIP “fosters a cross-disciplinary dialogue among faculty, students, staff, and community members whose research and teaching interests focus on Indigenous peoples,” according to the site. 

Rivett celebrated the news of the professorship.

“It’s exactly what we need right now in terms of program building,” she said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’  “There’s a lot of interest; the field is really getting momentum across campus, in different departments and across students with different concentrations. And we really need an anchor faculty member to represent the field and to pull different departments and different research methodologies and courses together into a kind of centrally organized program.”

“I definitely think it’s reflective of what students have been advocating for,” Rivett added.

The announcement noted that “adding a new faculty member is a critical part of the University’s growing focus on indigeneity-related issues such as disparities in health and policy, environmental challenges, language and culture, law and sovereignty, and race and opportunity.”

Though she celebrated the Schmidt gift, Lambert emphasized what she sees as a Catch-22 that Native student-activists face. She believes Nassau Hall has not done enough for Indigenous students in large part because so few enter Princeton. The reason for that small number, she said, is that the University does not provide sufficient resources for Native students.

“By systematically excluding Native students by not supporting them, you’re just ensuring that they’re not going to want to come here,” she said. “The University needs to take initiative and invest funding and resources and not just wait for donors.”

Expressing that appreciation for the Schmidts’ gift, Lambert, Toledo, and Romero-Briones emphasized that much work remains to be done.

“This is the beginning of the invitation,” Romero-Briones said. “This is the invitation for the community to really understand and start talking about how Indigenous students and people and communities contribute to not only scholarship in the U.S., but to Princeton itself as an institution.”

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