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Keith Whittington talks academic freedom as he decamps to Yale

A photo of Keith Whittington wearing a grey suit and blue dress shirt. He is smiling. In the background, there are full bookshelves.
Professor Keith Whittington
Courtesy of Keith Whittington

After 25 years at Princeton, Keith Whittington, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, announced that he is leaving Princeton to teach at Yale Law School at the end of this academic year.

Whittington describes himself as a “right of center” academic, a core value he upholds as important for bringing diversity to academic spaces. In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Whittington says that a lack of conservative voices in academic spaces creates “stereotypes of what those views look like” which leads to increased political polarization. His move to Yale Law comes as the school has faced criticism from conservatives for fostering “cancel culture,” prompting Circuit Judges James Ho and Elizabeth Branch to boycott hiring clerks who graduate from Yale Law. 

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The full interview transcript is available for this podcast here.

Here are a few highlights from his interview with The Daily Princetonian.

Free speech on campus

Whittington weighed in on the culture of free speech at Princeton, including the concept of institutional neutrality and pressures from peers.

Princeton is ranked 187th in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s (FIRE) 2024 college free speech rankings. The University’s ranking includes a low policy ranking, despite the University’s adoption of the Chicago Principles produced by the University of Chicago, which was ranked first overall by FIRE in 2024. Whittington echoed the discrepancy.

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“On the whole, [Princeton’s] policies are actually pretty good,” he noted. 

"I think that pressure often comes from peers," he said. "It's a hard challenge to improve that from a faculty perspective, because it's not driven by faculty. It's not driven by the policies on the books."

Princeton has not adapted the Kalven Report, which some academic free speech advocates consider the gold-standard of free speech given it mandates universities be neutral on contested political subjects. The report asserts that “the university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critics.”

University President Christopher Eisgruber supports a platform of “institutional restraint.“ In contrast to institutional neutrality, restraint does not require an absolute silence on “social, moral, or political topics“ on the part of the University. Rather, the University opts to occasionally comment on issues to reflect its institutional values. Eisgruber has said that he believes institutional restraint does not impede free speech.

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Whittington questions this perspective.

“Once the institutions begin to stake out their own political positions, it will affect how individuals on campus feel welcome and fully part of the community,” he said. 

Whittington has spoken out in the past against what he has perceived as violations of institutional neutrality from the University.

In 2021, the University anecdotally referred to an op-ed where now-former Professor Joshua Katz called Princeton’s Black Justice League a “small terrorist organization,” on a website titled “To be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University.”

In a 2022 letter to Eisgruber, Whittington requested that the University “refrain from using its administrative resources to target Professor Katz.” Eisgruber responded, resisting Whittington’s call to edit Katz out of the website.

In the interview, Whittington noted how the University's policy of institutional restraint can create pressure to speak out about current events, noting the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine. The University issued a statement in support of Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian invasion. 

“I think our present moment with the debate around Israel and Gaza has highlighted some of the complications associated with this. The university has had a long period of issuing statements about all kinds of events,“ he said. “Universities feel cross-pressured for what they're going to issue. And, as a consequence, they haven't made anyone very happy with what they've done.“

Grade inflation

“I was a supporter of the grade deflation policy that we adopted for a while,“ Whittington said, speaking about the cap on the number of A-range grades that the University imposed from 2004 to 2015.

There has been a rise in GPAs since the policy ended, with the average GPA being 3.56 as of the last annual report.

“I think the consequences have been predictable that we've had grade inflation recurring to a greater degree, and there seems to be very little interest in actually trying to hold it back at this point,“ Whittington said.

Whittington noted some of the consequences of grade inflation. “The signals are not very clear to the students about the quality of their work. It's not very clear to outsiders about the quality of the work,“ he said.

The Supreme Court

In 2021, President Joe Biden appointed Whittington to a bipartisan Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court to investigate different forms of court reform, including imposing term limits and expanding the size of the Court. The conclusion of that report was inconclusive, making no direct recommendations. 

The Supreme Court’s prominence in the daily life of college students has increased in recent years. Long-standing legal understandings have been overturned with the elimination of affirmative action in university admissions and the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade sparking campus debate. Whittington was pessimistic about an easy solution to longstanding problems.

 “I think the Court will, by nature, continue to be involved in very hot-button political issues,” he told the ‘Prince.’ 

These issues, he says, will contribute to “continued hostility to the Court.” According to an August Gallup Poll, public support for the Supreme Court is currently around 40 percent, which ties a 23-year low-point with ratings in 2021 and 2022. 

“It’s not obvious how you rebuild legitimacy in that environment,” Whittington said. 

An increase in administrators

As the University has grown, so has the number of administrators. Since 2012, the University has added nearly 1200 non-instructional staff. This has led to campus debate over the ballooning number of administrators, an evolution that Whittington has observed over his 25 years at Princeton. 

“There’s no question that there is a proliferation of administrators during the time I’ve been here,” he noted.

Though he attributes much of this bloat to the regulatory environment and increased student needs, he expressed concern that added administrative procedures have created barriers to communication and expression of free speech. 

“I have particular concerns about some features of the administration that do directly impinge on classroom teaching,” he said. “Some of the administrative rules and activities surrounding harassment policies, as they’re applied to classroom speech, are too intrusive.”

Amid the backdrop of professors facing criticism for use of the n-word in classrooms or being thrust onto the national stage for assigning controversial literature, Whittington highlights a need to balance academic freedom and safeguards against discrimination in the classroom. 

“I don’t think we have that balance right, yet,” he said.

Listen to the full Q&A to learn more about Whittington’s thoughts on Yale Law, the importance of conservative thought in academia, and more.

Vitus Larrieu is an associate Podcast editor for the ‘Prince.’

Twyla Colburn is a contributing Podcast writer for the ‘Prince.’

Nivan Dhamija contributed reporting.

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.