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Department of Education drops investigation into Princeton

<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

On Feb. 4, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 announced in the 2021 State of the University letter that the Department of Education (ED) has closed its investigation of the University.

According to an ED spokesperson, the Department’s Office of the General Counsel closed the investigation on Jan. 13, 2021.

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The ED began its investigation in mid-September last year after Eisgruber wrote an open letter outlining steps the University will take to address systemic racism.

In the letter, he acknowledged that despite the current University community’s celebration of diversity, the University has for most of its history been exclusive.

“Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies,” Eisgruber wrote in the letter.

“Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself,” he continued.

The ED interpreted this statement as a confession of noncompliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance.

In a September message to Eisgruber, 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.”

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The investigation received widespread attention last fall, including from many who disagreed with its premise.

In a September email, University spokesperson Ben Chang wrote that the University did not think Eisgruber’s statement warranted investigation.

“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.”

By mid-October, in addition to support from legislators and professional organizations, over 90 university presidents — including those from the seven other Ivy League universities — signed a letter calling for the ED to end its investigation of the University.

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Despite these efforts, the ED instructed the University to present the requested documents and have Eisgruber set aside time for an under-oath interview in October.

Though it is unclear whether the University had complied at the time, in his State of the University letter, Eisgruber commented that “the Department of Education took no substantial action on its bogus ‘investigation’ except to close it.”

Chang wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian this week that the University responded to the investigation by expressing its disapproval.

“The University disagreed with the premise of the Department’s argument and explained why our statements and actions were consistent not only with the law but also with the highest ideals and aspirations of this country,” Chang wrote.

Eisgruber reinforced that notion in his letter, writing, “Princeton University is in full compliance with all anti-discrimination laws” and that he believes “even the Trump administration’s lawyers knew” the investigation was “pure baloney.”

He added that he will make sure the University continues its “initiatives to fight systemic racism” and “effort[s] to go above and beyond what the law requires.”

“We take pride in our University’s energetic commitment to equality and inclusivity,” Eisgruber wrote.

Associate News Editor Naomi Hess contributed reporting.

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