On Tuesday, I had the privilege of watching several of my close friends in the Class of 2023 don their caps and gowns and take part in Princeton’s annual Commencement. It was an idyllic day for the occasion — the weather could not have been better, and a joyful, festive feeling filled the air as the ceremony began. All around me, parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends beamed with pride for their graduates and eagerly awaited inspiring and uplifting remarks from the individuals slated to speak at the ceremony.
For the most part, the audience encountered just that: encouraging and engaging speeches well-suited to the spirit of Commencement. Annabelle Duval ’23, the Latin salutatorian, provided some lighthearted reflections on her class’s four years at Princeton. Aleksa Milojević ’23, the valedictorian, gave a powerful and moving oration that focused on the importance of “active love.” Quoting Fyodor Dostoevsky, Milojević urged his classmates to pursue joy and interior fulfillment in their future endeavors instead of reducing their life choices to purely utilitarian calculations.
Then came University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83. While Eisgruber began his remarks by proposing to offer graduates “a few words about your time here,” what followed was an invective tirade delivered with the fervor of a preacher’s sermon, excoriating the sins of those who would dare to disagree with his views on a wide array of highly contestable topics.
“There are people who claim, for example, that when colleges and universities endorse the value of diversity and inclusivity or teach about racism and sexism, they are ‘indoctrinating students’ or in some other way endangering free speech,” Eisgruber proclaimed. “That is wrong.” Princeton graduates, Eisgruber preached, “must stand up and speak up together for the values of free expression and full inclusivity for people of all identities.”
Skeptical of Eisgruber’s positions on gender and sexuality? You are an enemy of equality and diversity — a tired and shameful relic of an oppressive past who must be defeated in “pursuit of a better world.” Concerned about the chilling effect that Princeton’s sprawling Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion apparatus has on campus speech? You, not Eisgruber or the DEI bureaucrats, are the real threat to free speech and academic freedom. Dissenting from the infallible dogmas of social progressivism means accusations of supporting speech censorship and comparisons to Jim Crow-era segregationists. Oh, don’t forget: you must vociferously oppose the censoring bigots governing Florida, lest you threaten the very existence of LGBT people and thus anathematize yourself from the shared “values” that bind the Princeton community.
Any reasonable person observing Eisgruber’s sermon would conclude that its content has no place in the President’s Commencement address. It was a grave mistake for Eisgruber to offer such ideological and divisive remarks at Commencement — purportedly under the moralizing banner of inclusivity, but in reality with the express aim of excluding, marginalizing, and suppressing the voices of those who dispute his particular account of social justice. Indeed, the imagery associated with his sermon was highly disquieting; offered while dressed in official University regalia, at a podium bearing the University’s name and shield, and at one of the University’s highest-profile annual events with faculty assembled behind him, an observer would be forgiven for conflating the highly ideological views expressed in Eisgruber’s sermon with the official institutional positions of Princeton University.
Sadly, President Eisgruber’s Commencement sermon could hardly have come at a worse time for the University. The unsettling effects of Eisgruber’s fallacious interpretation of the value of free speech (as outlined in his sermon) — and the University’s institutional commitment to it — have become more visible in recent months. The Daily Princetonian’s annual Senior Survey showed that most conservative students are uncomfortable openly expressing their beliefs on campus, and another recent survey by the alumni group Princetonians for Free Speech found that worryingly high percentages of Princeton students favor censorship, shout-downs, and institutional action against views or speakers that they disagree with.
While large numbers of ideologues here increasingly take issue with Princeton’s stated support for freedom of speech — namely, the University’s “fundamental commitment” to “the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed” — Eisgruber uses his Commencement address to fan the flames of this discontent.
Perhaps such a campus environment — where anyone critical of social progressivism finds themselves excluded from University life, and free speech is only good as a tool for the promotion of the right kind of social justice — is President Eisgruber’s true vision for Princeton. But if that’s not the case, then his ideologically-tainted polemics debasing the real value of free speech must cease — particularly in situations in which he is (implicitly or explicitly) representing the University.
Next year, when I (God willing) attend my own Commencement ceremony, it is my sincere hope that President Eisgruber will change his tune. I, for one, would like to hear a proper Commencement address rather than a partisan sermon. Is that too much to expect?
Matthew Wilson is a rising senior in the Department of Politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.