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“In the Nation’s Service and in the Service of Humanity.” This is the Princeton motto that inspires many who have had the privilege of studying at Old Nassau to apply our scholarship in national service. The latter part of the phrase was added after I graduated, and around the time the Iranian regime imprisoned a graduate student, Xiyue Wang. In November of 2021, Wang and his wife Hua Qu GS ’21 filed a lawsuit against Princeton alleging “grossly negligent acts,” including refusing to advocate on his behalf.
Today, Princeton has a chance to redeem itself: the Israeli government announced on July 5 that another graduate student, Elizabeth Tsurkov, has been in the custody of the Iran-backed militia operating in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, since March. Israeli media has reported that Iran, through Russia’s mediation, is reportedly pressuring Israel to release one of their detainees in exchange for Tsurkov.
Not only do these kidnappings raise questions about the approval of field research in places like Iran and Iraq, but they also raise bigger questions about the role of Princeton (and other universities) in the arena of American diplomacy. How should they understand their responsibility on the world stage? At universities like Princeton, where some faculty members are leading advocates for policies that put the interests of our adversaries over this country’s, the question is actually very complicated. This much should be obvious: A position of neutrality seems untenable, and Princeton must actively work to help in the release and repatriation of its students.
When hostile actors take American student hostages while faculty provides platforms for our adversaries’ apologists to create an anti-American environment, universities have an obligation to respond.
Princeton did release a brief statement on Twitter, which was pitiful, reading: “Elizabeth is a valued member of the Princeton University community. We are deeply concerned for her safety and wellbeing, and we are eager for her to be able to rejoin her family and resume her studies.”
From that statement, one would think she was out with the flu.
There are concrete diplomatic steps Princeton can and should be taking now.
Firstly, the University must lead the efforts to bring back any student who is wrongfully detained abroad. Repatriation of Americans is difficult and not always successful, but making it a top priority should not be up for debate. I have had some experience in this regard, helping Senator Orrin Hatch bring home Joshua Holt from prison in Venezuela. Through that experience, I’ve come to understand that much depends on trusted interlocutors. Universities are unique in this regard—their international reputations and the prestige their attention conveys make them trusted, and much coveted, convening forums. In other words, Princeton could be a valuable player in negotiations.
Princeton can also help mend bridges between the Biden Administration and the Israeli government by helping them work together to bring Elizabeth home, while making conditions more difficult for the Iranian regime to get its way in nuclear negotiations. It can help accomplish the latter through convening “track 2” (non-government) and “track 1.5” (hybrid government and non-government) diplomatic settings between America’s allies around the world to isolate the regime over its nuclear ambitions and record of sponsorship of terrorism.
Then there’s the situation on campus.
In recent years, Princeton has become a prominent home for pro-regime voices, to the point of serving as a platform where adversaries can appear to laugh about threats to U.S. officials. The university needs to remember its core values and mission and stop encouraging our adversaries’ mouthpieces to poison the integrity of the community it promised to serve.
Princeton can create a coalition of the willing among American universities that refuse to tolerate foreign adversaries’ propaganda. University leaders should not suppress faculty speech, but they can respond to it when it creates a threatening environment for students and faculty. For example, when Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to campus, President Lee Bollinger introduced him by critiquing his outrageous views (such as his claim that the Holocaust did not occur). That kind of leadership at Princeton would set an example for others, like Oberlin College, where Mohammad Jafar Mahallati dismisses the regime’s killing of civilians as “little details.”
As universities take these steps to curb adversaries’ influence on campus and advocate more assertively for their students’ education and safety, they can also help the U.S. government in curtailing Iranian espionage activities in the United States.
Now is the time for Princeton to demonstrate that it is living up to its mission, to educate in the nation’s service, and for others to follow its lead.
Jacob Olidort received his Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Olidort served as an advisor to two U.S. Senators and in the Office of the Vice President of the United States, among other positions in the U.S. Government. He current works at the America First Policy Institute, a right leaning think tank. This piece represents his views alone.
Editor’s Note: The University has since disputed the claims in Xiyue Wang’s lawsuit, with spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss writing in an email to the The Daily Princetonian in January 2022, “We are surprised and disappointed by this complaint and believe it is without merit.”