Responding to complaints by members of the Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 defended a memo sent by Dean of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) Amaney Jamal.
The memo, addressed to members of the SPIA community, came in response to the not-guilty verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse on Nov. 19, 2021, the day of the verdict. The memo, in which Jamal urged recipients to consider the case in the context of their research and work, sparked controversy for some on campus — mostly notably, for the POCC, a student group that bills itself as “protecting diversity of thought” on campus.
In an email to The Daily Princetonian, Eisgruber wrote that it is sometimes incumbent upon administrators to speak up on controversial issues.
“Deans and other academic administrators cannot do their jobs without sometimes stating their opinions about controversial topics (indeed, I am doing that now),” he wrote. “Others remain free, of course, to disagree with what we say or with our decisions about when to speak up for what we believe.”
The Nov. 19 memo, titled ‘Our Moral Duty,’ discussed the relevance of the verdict to the SPIA community, urging students and faculty alike “to investigate our policies and practices within the justice system and beyond.”
“Rittenhouse is not a racial minority, and some would say this is another example of biases and leniencies embedded within the justice system. That may be true,” Jamal wrote in the letter. “What we do know without a doubt is there are racial inequities in nearly every strand of the American fabric.”
Jamal added that “it is our moral duty to support and advance public policy that makes the world better,” and presented support options for students to process the verdict with help from Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS).
Five days later, POCC President Myles McKnight ’23 and Abigail Anthony ’23 co-authored a letter addressed to Eisgruber to express concern about what they saw as a “violation of the institutional neutrality required for” ideals of “free speech, robust discourse, and viewpoint diversity to flourish.”
According to the letter, 60 other members of the POCC signed on as well, but their names were “redacted as a condition for the [letter’s] public release.”
The POCC letter argued that Jamal’s statement violated institutional neutrality by using “informal institutional behavior” to threaten free expression and lively discourse. The letter also argued that the principle of institutional neutrality itself restricts, or ought to restrict, University officials from speaking in their formal capacities on controversial issues.
In an op-ed in The National Review, McKnight and Anthony further argued that Jamal’s statement and the capacity in which it was released not only discourages students from holding separate beliefs but “stigmatizes [them] as moral outcasts in the eyes of a powerful leader.”
The op-ed also claims that “students who frequently dissent from campus orthodoxy” feel frustrated and alienated by Jamal’s statement and others like it.
In an email to the ‘Prince,’ McKnight said that some students “often refrain from [challenging certain views] lest they be branded as backwards, bigoted, or worthy of social reproach.”
“There’s a clear institutional-cultural double standard at play here,” he argued.
In responding to McKnight’s and other POCC students’ claims, Eisgruber defended Jamal, writing in a letter that he and his “academic colleagues need to make their own judgments about when it is appropriate for them to speak, and they retain their academic freedom to voice opinions about matters of public concern.”
Eisgruber also referenced some of his predecessors, most notably Robert Goheen ’40, and their tendency to voice their personal opinions, as long as those opinions can stand up for the “basic tenets” of the University, which include “commitments to racial equality and inclusivity.”
The president also emphasized that Jamal’s email framed all of her opinions as held by herself, rather than by any institution within the University.
“When she spoke about the obligations of the School and its members, she did so in terms fully consistent with the School’s mission,” Eisgruber wrote.
In response to McKnight and Anthony’s complaints about students dissenting from Jamal’s opinions, Eisgruber noted, “I know that Dean Jamal welcomes, as do I, constructive disagreement and argument in general, including about her own views or mine.”
Eisgruber also pushed back on the POCC’s claim that Jamal expressed her viewpoint on Rittenhouse’s verdict in a capacity that construed her view as one held by the University.
“As you will see, my letter nowhere uses the phrases ‘personal capacity’ or ‘official capacity,’ which I regard as vague and unhelpful in this context,” he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’. “What I said was that Dean Jamal ‘clearly stated that her views about the Rittenhouse verdict were her own opinions.’ For example, she twice prefaced her comments with the words, ‘I believe.’”
In a blog post published on the James Madison Program (JMP) website on Nov. 25, the program’s director Robert P. George wrote that he believes “[i]t is not the job of any professor, or of any unit of the University, or the University itself to tell [students] what to think.”
While George did not directly reference Jamal’s memo, he pointed out that Rittenhouse’s verdict is an issue of polarizing debate, of which “reasonable people of goodwill” may disagree.
George did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the ‘Prince’.
“A growing number of students are noticing the clear discourse-suffocating biases of this institution’s bureaucracy and broader student culture,” McKnight said in an email to the ‘Prince.’
(McKnight wrote that his organization granted the signatories of its letter anonymity based on the fact that signatories of a previous POCC letter in the summer of 2020 had “faced harassment online, were viciously maligned by their peers, and lost prestigious job offers.”)
When asked by both the Princeton Alumni Weekly and the ‘Prince’ to comment on the POCC and others’ response to her memo, Jamal made note of her leadership style and how it has been shaped by the nature of her position.
“I’m the type of dean who wants to be hands-on in terms of my communications to my constituents including my students,” she wrote. “Especially at policy schools, we will watch current events, we will see what’s happening in the world, and if I feel that this is a moment that warrants a response by me to my constituents so that we together can critically analyze the situation, we’re going to do it.”
She did not comment on any specific claims made by the POCC in their letter or in George’s statement on the JMP blog in response to an inquiry from the ‘Prince.’
Andrew Somerville is a Co-Head News Editor who has covered USG, University and COVID-related affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @andr3wsom.