Next to the philosophy building, the 1879 Arch stands as the gateway between the core academic center of campus and Prospect Avenue.
On a Friday night in early November, students gathered there to listen to campus a cappella groups. Partway through the performance, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 arrived at the back of the crowd. For about half an hour, he gazed on silently, keeping his place at the back. Then, he slipped away, and the arch sing continued as the most popular groups took the stage.
It’s not unusual for a student to report an Eisgruber sighting. His appearances also seem to be increasing in frequency. Just prior to that arch sing, Eisgruber had informally dined with students at Shabbat and joined them in discussion after at the Center for Jewish Life. A week earlier, he was seen holding court at Community Care Day, a new University initiative for student wellbeing that drew in thousands for free food on Cannon Green. Last week, he attended the Sunday matinee of the latest Triangle show. He has also given opening remarks at Whig-Clio, attended sporting events, and held another set of office hours.
Eisgruber might not be hard to find. Yet his profile on campus has been colored by the feeling that Eisgruber is “notably isolated,” as one longtime faculty member described him.
Last month, The Daily Princetonian sat down with Eisgruber to discuss his student engagement. In the interview, he pushed back on the idea that he is inaccessible. He cited his many interactions with students, his ability to change his mind in a room with activists, and even opened up about his time at the University, a topic he has thus far been reluctant to broach.
Yet two questions hang over Eisgruber’s efforts to improve his public image on campus. Can he overcome what can sometimes be a stilted manner of interacting with community members? Moreover, does he even want to?
In the interview, Eisgruber laid out a vision of himself as more of a facilitator for the University community than its center. He made pains to stress that there are far more interesting people for students to meet on campus and that interacting with University administration was far from a priority for him when he was a student.
Eisgruber is running into the central question for all University presidents. The modern University has the financial resources of a small country and significant global influence. Any other organization of this size would be run by a CEO or politician who seeks to be a public figure. Yet University presidents are often former professors — a very different career — and also face pressure to lower their public profile out of concern that they become a liability to the University’s ideological neutrality.
Eisgruber has, at times, embraced his role as a campus ambassador and politician — defending affirmative action or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients in Washington, for example. But, in the interview and more broadly, Eisgruber laid out his role to the internal community: as an administrator, not a politician.
In a profile published in the spring on the occasion of Eisgruber’s tenth anniversary in office, faculty and students remarked on his bureaucratic and impersonal approach to leadership.
“There are simply more folks between [Eisgruber] and you,” one faculty member said.
He is a president who has prioritized quantifiable metrics, having relied heavily on data in making some of the biggest decisions of his decade-long term.
It has been with this same technocratic manner that Eisgruber has approached his interactions with students. When inquired about Eisgruber’s public profile, the University responded with numbers.
“Between Aug. 29 and Oct. 5, President Eisgruber attended 11 student-focused events to which he was formally invited. That does not include athletic events or other events he attended informally,” University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote in a statement.
“Over one five-day span in late September and early October, he attended no fewer than six student-focused events: three Pre-read conversations in the residential colleges, the home football game versus Columbia, the first-year families reception, and a Whig-Clio debate,” Hotchkiss continued.
When I spoke to him in mid-October, Eisgruber, clad in his signature orange tie and navy suit, stressed that there are ample opportunities for students to speak with him.
He noted in our conversation that his events with students are “rarely oversubscribed.”
“I’m not sure that they’re ever oversubscribed,” he added.
“Could another student drop by one of these coffee hours. Can they drop by one of these other meetings? Can they walk up to me when I’m at an athletic event or, or somewhere else? Those opportunities are there,” he said.
“Did you attend any of my Pre-read conversations?” Eisgruber asked me at one point.
No, I was forced to admit. I did not.
And though many students do meet Eisgruber at discussions focused on academic topics, including lectures at student clubs or, as he added in our discussion, at the Shapiro Prize dinner for high-achieving underclass students, Eisgruber pushed back on the notion that he only interacts with students in academic contexts.
He spoke about the types of conversations that happen in those settings; specifically, the Pre-read discussion. “I always say to the students. Look, you know, I’m here to talk about the book, but this isn’t a precept and it isn’t a seminar. It’s partly a chance to get to know you, and so we do introductions about backgrounds.”
Eisgruber, of course, was a professor, and people who have taken his classes have reviewed them warmly. “People go into [an academic career] for different reasons, but I wanted to because I wanted to teach and I’ve loved teaching throughout my career. So the time that I spend with students is a source of both joy and learning for me, and something that gets me excited about what it is that I do,” he said.
Some students have reported an appetite for more personal narratives from Eisgruber, given he was a student at Princeton.
“He’s an alumnus, just like many other past Princeton presidents, and I’m sure he has tons of experiences at Princeton that could endear him to students,” one student said in a spring interview with the ‘Prince,’ adding that “it’s sad to me that I don’t hear about those.”
Aside from an oft-repeated story about his time struggling in a physics course, however, Eisgruber has largely avoided sharing his own experiences.
In the interview, Eisgruber discussed his time with eating clubs and the intricacies of navigating campus social life as someone who did not drink. “I was a member of what was then the sign-in Princeton Elm Club as a junior, and then I was independent as a senior,” he told me.
“I think part of what I understand is that Prospect [Avenue] and some of the social networks there are attractive to some students. They’re not attractive to all students. And a lot of what happened on Prospect [Avenue] was not attractive to me as a student. A lot of the gatherings that take place kind of presuppose that alcohol consumption,” Eisgruber said.
Eisgruber added that his distance from the Prospect [Avenue] scene has sometimes served him well in relating to the community. He recounted a conversation he had in 2016 with Muslim undergraduates, who discussed “how difficult it could be to be part of the social scene at Princeton” as students who didn’t drink because of religious convictions.
Eisgruber does not discuss his time at the University in this manner often. But rather than being an oversight, Eisgruber’s largely gated public image is a result of his seeming conviction that sharing those personal experiences isn’t important for his capacity as University president.
“I’m not inclined to think that I’m the most interesting thing in the room when we’re having a conversation,” he said.
As a student, he remembered, he was not interested in meeting administrators.
“Meeting with Princeton administrators was probably not in the top 100 things that interested me,” he said. He noted that he met with then-University President Bill Bowen GS ’58 once.
“There are thousands of interesting people to meet here and not enough time to meet them all, and there may be some who want to meet me and ask me a question about myself. I’m also not sure that the most interesting questions about me would be about my Princeton experience, but that’s up to individual students,” he said.
Eisgruber’s willingness to share — and cultivate a public profile in general — has fluctuated over the years. He discovered his Jewish heritage when he was provost and discussed it in depth, including as a guest on the student show, the All-Nighter, where he did a mock bar mitzvah.
He also emphasized in the interview that there are aspects of his time here that he remains connected to, saying he is still close to his senior year roommates, who he met at Elm Club. “We continue to be in touch and got together in Boston last year,” he said.
An issue that has hung over Eisgruber’s tenure is his engagement with student activists. Some have claimed that he has not heeded their concerns, but at the same time, his term has been marked by significant progress on many key issues, notably including the question of divestment. So, can students change Eisgruber’s mind?
Eisgruber gave a number of examples of students doing so, but seemed most comfortable with private consultations with students on the issues.
He was initially reluctant to answer the question about activists who changed his mind.
“Regardless of the conversation that I have with a student, [it]’s confidential. So students can raise concerns with me, and I don’t feel at that point that I’m authorized to talk about that,” Eisgruber said.
When pressed, he pointed to the Armenian Society as a group that had recently brought to his attention the violence in the region, convincing him to move a pre-existing commitment to attend a vigil organized by students. He also discussed Briana Christophers ’17, who advocated for Latine students and co-founded Project Welcome Mat, an online resource for first generation Princeton students.
“One of the points that she made at the time was about the iconography and the visuals that we had around the campus and about enabling students to see themselves represented in the campus around them, and it’s now become something that we’re doing a lot [of,] with additions to the University portrait collection, for example,” Eisgruber said.
Eisgruber specifically focused on Christophers’ ability to run a persuasive meeting to convince administrators. “I thought part of what was really effective about the meeting was that it was both well organized, simple, and warm in the way that it was conducted,” he said.
Later in the interview, Eisgruber returned to the question unprompted, “The Black Justice League [BJL], you know, also produced very significant changes on this campus, and our interactions were very confrontational at times.”
Eisgruber was harkening back to one of the defining moments of his presidency, but he also highlighted the private conversations that he had with the members.
“I had dinner with a set of the students in the group. One member of the group went on to become a young alumni trustee. We also had some much tenser interactions, including across this table, when my office was occupied, and there is no doubt they changed my mind on a whole number of things,” he remembered.
Eisgruber mentioned that he felt criticism from activists was somewhat unfair. “I think there’s sometimes, in our view, the idea that if somebody doesn’t get the outcome that they want out of conversation that they say, ‘Well, I didn’t feel like that was the right interaction that I wanted to have.’ But we’re gonna have disagreements.”
Though the group constituted some of Eisgruber’s fiercest critics, many of the BJL’s recommendations have incrementally been adopted by the University. But Eisgruber’s reluctance to engage with activist groups publicly may contribute to the sense that he thinks of student groups more as sources of information rather than stakeholders to be contended with and convinced.
At the end of our conversation, Eisgruber remarked on the challenge of attaining community input at an institution where the stakeholders cycle out every four years.
“The fact that you’re here today, and some building’s going to get finished after you graduate, doesn’t mean that your views about that should be the deciding views about what happens. We’ve got a responsibility to decide for the long term and for much of what we do for the very long term,” he said.
The future of Princeton seems to weigh heavily on Eisgruber’s mind. At the outset of his tenure, a reporter for the ‘Prince’ characterized Eisgruber as a man unconcerned with cultivating his public image: “What’s important, [Eisgruber] says, is not his past but the University’s future.”
Eisgruber clearly also thinks that student input has a part to play in building the future that he wants. He emphasized that there are institutions in place for students to discuss what Princeton should be, including meetings of the Council of the Princeton University Community.
Is there value to student interaction beyond the input they give on questions of University policy? Is one of the responsibilities of a University president to inspire and convince rather than only consult?
If Eisgruber thought about these questions, he didn’t bring it up. He was focused on the next 20 years of Princeton’s growth and the best way for student input to facilitate it.
“We’re gonna listen to lots of input coming from lots of different directions gathered in lots of ways, and not just through conversations with me,” he said, “That’d be a very inefficient way to be able to get that information.”
Sandeep Mangat is a head News editor at the ‘Prince.’
Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.