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Eisgruber defends free speech policy, discusses mental health crisis in annual alumni address

The president also discussed fossil fuel divestment and financial aid at Princeton.

<h5>President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 speaks at his annual alumni address at Reunions.</h5>
<h6>Katherine Dailey / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 speaks at his annual alumni address at Reunions.
Katherine Dailey / The Daily Princetonian

In an annual address delivered to around 300 alumni, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 referenced press coverage of recent controversy surrounding classics professor Joshua Katz, taking the opportunity to reiterate the University’s free speech policy and allude to the possibility of a future statement from the University to “correct the record” on the matter. Eisgruber also discussed what he called a “chronic epidemic of mental illness” nationwide, views on climate change action and fossil fuel dissociation, and the future of financial aid at Princeton.

Recently, Eisgruber reportedly recommended the firing of Katz, a tenured professor, to the University’s Board of Trustees in a letter dated May 10. The letter cited an investigation led by Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett which found Katz violated University policy, in part during an earlier University investigation into a sexual relationship Katz had with an undergraduate student, according to copies of the letter and the report obtained by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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In 2018, Katz was assigned a year-long administrative leave following the first investigation. According to the Times, the report made by the dean of the faculty found that Katz had misled investigators during the 2018 investigation and pressured the former student with whom he had been in a relationship not to cooperate with it. The Times also reported that Jarrett’s office’s investigation found that Katz “discouraged the woman from seeking mental health treatment while they were together, for fear of disclosing their relationship.”

The investigation by Jarrett’s office was initiated after the alumna came forward to the University with allegations in spring 2021, according to an individual who was interviewed by University investigators during the course of their inquiry.

In his address, Eisgruber explained that as University president, he could not comment on pending personnel matters.

“But what I can do,” he continued, “is say some things about what our policies are that pertain to cases like the ones that are being described in the press, without making specific reference to that particular case.”

Praising the University’s adoption of the Chicago Principles for free expression, Eisgruber pointed out instances when the University has “vigorously” enforced freedom of speech.

“You cannot discipline people on the basis of their speech, even when that speech is speech people profoundly disagree with, even when the speech is offensive,” he said.

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“We believe that a faculty member is bound by [certain] obligations,” Eisgruber continued at the talk. “Regardless of how distinguished they may be, and regardless of what their political views may be.”

Katz has become a “cause célèbre” in some conservative circles, according to the Times. The Washington Free Beacon, among other outlets, has cited claims that Eisgruber’s recommendation for firing Katz stems from some of the professor’s political statements, specifically a column he penned in July 2020, in which Katz called a former Black student activist group, the Black Justice League, a “small local terrorist organization.” Students, colleagues, and Eisgruber himself denounced that characterization at the time, even as the president affirmed that University policies protect “Katz’s freedom to say what he did.”

Katz’s attorney, Samantha Harris ’99, in a comment to the ‘Prince’ about Eisgruber’s letter said that the “successful effort to destroy Professor Katz” will “have a profound chilling effect on free expression at Princeton and beyond.”

In the talk, Eisgruber emphasized that “political views aren't a reason to investigate anybody — also not a defense for investigating anybody.”

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Eisgruber also alluded to a possible future statement from the University on the Katz controversy. Thus far, the University Office of Communications has declined all requests for comment on the matter, with a spokesperson saying only that “Princeton generally does not comment on personnel matters.” 

Some universities have offered gag orders — or non-disclosure agreements — “for a solution where somebody finally walks away,” Eisgruber said. “One thing that Princeton University has not done,” he continued, “in any of the years that I’ve been associated with it, is to accept such a gag order — we're not going to do that.”

“So it [is] possible,” Eisgruber explained, “although I cannot speak to you about a pending personnel matter now — that there will be opportunities in the future to correct the record as it is appropriate and consistent with our responsibilities.”

Eisgruber also discussed the University’s COVID-19 policies from Spring 2021 and current campus construction — including at Lake Campus and the new Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences buildings.

He also mentioned the ongoing mental health crisis. “Unfortunately I have to mention one other epidemic at this point: I do believe there is a chronic epidemic of mental illness in this country right now,” he said, as he finished describing the University’s COVID-19 response.

“And it is very serious — we are grieving right now, at Princeton, the two students who we have lost over the past week,” he continued.

Two Princeton students, Jazz Chang ’23, and Justin Lim ’25, died over the past week, according to emails from Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan. Undergraduate students were notified on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 18, of the passing of Lim the day prior. The email came five days after Chang was found deceased near Lake Carnegie on campus on Friday, May 13.

Deignan’s emails stated that Chang’s “cause of death is under investigation by the county medical examiner, but no foul play is suspected,” and that Lim “lost his life to mental illness at home in Chicago.” 

“I look at those numbers,” Eisgruber said, “and realize we haven't lost a student to COVID[-19] during this entire pandemic — we have lost students to mental illness, and it is something that we are going to have to be very attentive to.”

During the question and answer session that followed the formal address, an alumnus asked a question about financial aid. In response, Eisgruber suggested that some changes to financial aid may be announced in the next year.

“You can expect to see announcements in the coming year about additional improvements to undergraduate financial aid — Princeton is going to move the envelope one more time,” he added.

Another alumnus asked if he could “have hope that the administration and the trustees will begin to exhibit a greater sense of urgency in speaking to the condition of climate?”

In response, Eisgruber said that he “feel[s] great urgency in speaking to the condition of the planet and to climate,” and “think[s] this university is taking leadership steps and steps that matter to the world on those issues.”

He emphasized that research across departments was one of the University’s biggest contributions to fighting climate change. 

“The most important part of what we do,” he said, “is always around our teaching and research — and it's going to have the biggest impact over the longer term.”

Referencing the University’s plan to be net carbon neutral by 2046, the president said that “hundreds of millions” of dollars are being spent to create geo-exchange systems to make Princeton less dependent on steam energy.

Eisgruber reiterated the University’s commitment to dissociation — an action broader than divestment, he claimed — from companies that do not align with Princeton’s values, including those which are involved in the coal and tar sand industries, he stated. “Not only should we not be purchasing their stocks and profiting off of them, we shouldn't be purchasing their products, either. And we shouldn't be taking gifts from that kind of a company,” he explained.

In May 2021, following a recommendation to the Board of Trustees from the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC), the University created a committee and faculty panel to guide dissociation from fossil fuel companies which meet specific criteria. 

Leadership of Divest Princeton, a student and alumni group that has advocated for complete University divestment from the fossil fuel industry, have argued that the current dissociation policy “hasn’t led to any substantial action regarding divestment,“ and that the University has put up “countless bureaucratic obstacles,” to full divestment.

During the talk, Eisgruber said that, “divestment does not take a molecule of carbon out of the atmosphere,” reiterating the importance of campus research through the implementation of the geo-exchange system.

The annual address to alumni, “A Conversation with President Eisgruber,“ was held at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 21 in Richardson Auditorium during Reunions 2022.

Head News Editor Katherine Dailey contributed reporting.

Hope Perry is the Head Podcast Editor at the ‘Prince’ who has covered USG, U.S. politics, and student activism. She can be reached at hperry@princeton.edu or on Twitter @hopemperry.

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