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Princeton says kidnapped student was conducting research for ‘approved Ph.D. dissertation topic’

 Square photo of silhouette of building with four spires plus lots of clouds in front of a yellow sky. 
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

A new statement released by the University states, for the first time, that the kidnapping of doctoral candidate Elizabeth Tsurkov GS in Iraq last March occurred during travel related to research for her politics dissertation. The University originally confirmed that Tsurkov was missing in July and has since maintained that University-related travel to Iraq would not be approved for students. 

“Elizabeth was kidnapped while enrolled at the University and was in Iraq conducting research related to her approved Ph.D. dissertation topic,” wrote University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss in an emailed statement.


Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Tsurkov, has previously stated that Elizabeth’s dissertation committee, which was chaired by Dean of the School of Public and International Affairs Amaney Jamal, approved her prospectus. The ‘Prince’ has confirmed that a draft of her prospectus included plans to conduct field research in Iraq. While the statement issued by the University characterizes the research as approved, it does not note anything specific to University travel approval.

Hotchkiss, while not confirming details of the prospectus, citing student privacy, has previously told the ‘Prince’ that the prospectus approval process is “separate and distinct from other steps that may be required to carry out the proposed research, including in absentia enrollment, travel registration, and Institutional Review Board approval (if the proposed research involves human subjects).”

“At this time, the University is focused on Elizabeth’s safety and well-being. We have offered support to Elizabeth’s family and are in communication with government officials and experts for guidance on how the University can best help to bring Elizabeth home safely,” Hotchkiss told the ‘Prince’ on Oct. 3.

The University’s acknowledgement that Elizabeth’s travel to Iraq was related to dissertation research comes amidst an ongoing lobbying campaign, led by Tsurkov’s sister, Emma, aiming to galvanize support for her release. This effort has included conversations with government officials and running pieces on the kidnapping for several publications. Emma Tsurkov specifically critiqued the University for “trying to distance itself from any responsibility” in her sister’s kidnapping in an op-ed published by She also claimed in the op-ed that her requests for the University to release a public statement affirming that Elizabeth was in Baghdad for dissertation research were denied.

Emma Tsurkov visited the University in September to meet with Provost Jennifer Rexford ’91 and Joyce Rechtschaffen, Assistant Vice President of the Office of Government Affairs. According to Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW), Emma has claimed that in this conversation, Rexford confirmed Elizabeth “was doing approved dissertation research in Baghdad when she was kidnapped.”

The University did not comment on the conversation with Rexford. Emma Tsurkov did not provide documentation of the meeting.


In an interview with the ‘Prince’ on the day she met with Rexford, Emma said that her visit’s purpose was to get the U.S. government to put pressure on the Iraqi government to free Elizabeth. 

“It has been almost six months since my sister was kidnapped. I don’t have proof of life, I don’t know what the kidnappers want, and everyone is passing the buck,” Emma told the ‘Prince.’

Hotchkiss previously told reporters that the University stopped engaging with individual government officials at the request of the family, which came before knowledge of Elizabeth’s kidnapping became public. 

“Elizabeth’s family subsequently asked that the University not involve government officials in the interest of keeping the matter private,” he told the Associated Press.

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In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Emma Tsurkov denied making that request. She said that she “did ask to keep it private in the sense of not not talking to reporters,” but that she “never asked to not speak to any of the governments.” 

“There was nothing that precluded Princeton from engaging with governments to help bring my sister back,” she told the ‘Prince.’

Tess Weinreich is an associate News editor at the ‘Prince.’

Associate News Editor Annie Rupertus contributed reporting to this article.

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]

Correction: This piece has been updated to clarify the timing of the University's comment on engagement with government officials.