The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit a piece to the Opinion section, click here.
Editor’s Note: In the process of publishing this piece, The Daily Princetonian took several steps to corroborate the facts the author alleges, including reviewing emails referenced in the piece. The ‘Prince’ was unable to independently verify the conversation between Milberg and Eisgruber or the specifics of the document Milberg alleges Eisgruber asked him to sign. The University declined to comment on the specifics of the conversation.
University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss stated the following in relation to Milberg’s account, “Princeton is grateful for Leonard Milberg’s generous support of the University over many years. The University takes steps to ensure that no donor interferes inappropriately in the conduct of University courses, exhibition, or research. As the University’s gift policies state: ‘Gifts to the University must respect the University’s fundamental commitment to academic freedom and the rigorous and independent pursuit of truth.’”
Based on my experiences with President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, I was hardly surprised to read in a current edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW) that Eisgruber prioritized his sacred belief in “freedom of speech” when explaining why he permitted a certain book to be assigned by a Princeton professor. According to media outlets and public figures, the book plays into antisemitic tropes, like those found in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (printed in the 1920s by Henry Ford’s newspaper “Dearborn Independent”) and echoed by Father Charles Coughlin in his weekly radio broadcasts. Previously, the president also praised himself for permitting a Palestinian writer and poet, Mohammed El-Kurd — who has implied in his poetry that Israeli soldiers eat the organs of Palestinians, and numerous other cruel untruths about Jews — to give a lecture on campus.
Eisgruber has used the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech to allow antisemitic events and speakers. Yet my experience with him shows that this stated commitment to free speech is hollow. He has denied events and donations that would be incredibly beneficial to Jewish as well as other Princeton students — and in doing so, has limited my own freedom of expression. These actions only hurt the Princeton community.
I am an omnivorous collector who has given over 13,000 gifts to Firestone Library and the Princeton Art Museum, published 15 books in conjunction with the library, held nine exhibits at Princeton, and brought numerous distinguished people to the University to speak or perform. These are the ways I have been able to express my beliefs and promote learning.
Two years ago, University Librarian Anne Jarvis, with Eisgruber and the University’s approval, took issue with parts of my scheduled show of American Jewish Artists in the Gilded Age, because two of the artists had been Confederate soldiers, and there was a lack of proper contextualization. Because of these disagreements, I ultimately had to refuse to sponsor the show, much to my dismay.
This was not the only time the University had improperly dealt with my gifts. When I endowed the Chair of American Jewish Studies, Esther Schor was chosen to be its inaugural holder. The Deed of Gift stated that the Chairholder would be “a tenured member of the faculty whose research and teaching focus is American Jewish Studies.” While I was initially excited by the appointment, Schor focuses primarily on British Romanticism, so the superb American Jewish Collection, which I also donated, was not being utilized the way it should be.
Eisgruber visited my office and scolded me for my frank discussions with Jarvis and Schor about their decisions, which I acknowledge sometimes went too far. He brought a document to sign that I had previously never seen, and, though I only gave it a quick glance, I believed it to be an agreement not to speak to anyone associated with the University. I refused to sign it, and the following day, I emailed him stating I would never surrender my Constitutional rights to anyone.
Soon after, there was significant criticism, even from abroad, of the decision not to show the exhibit. Martha Sandweiss, the director of the Princeton & Slavery project, critiqued the decision in a comment to PAW.
Separately, Eisgruber wrote to me stating that in light of my objections, Schor would no longer hold the chair I endowed, and that the new chair would have a teaching focus in Judaic Studies. I also received supportive messages from trustees in my effort to have a Jewish Studies professor who would actually teach American Jewish Studies — perhaps they helped pressure Eisgruber to make a change.
Eisgruber has not apologized to me. Instead, he continues to make things difficult for me. With Eisgruber’s approval, Jarvis, the University Librarian, rejected a request for the library to hold an exhibit of my exemplary Irish Collection, which President Tilghman referred to 10 years ago as “a gem of a collection.” The request for the exhibit was made by Professor Fintan O’Toole, whose chair I endowed, and Professor Paul Muldoon. It was rejected despite my having given Firestone at that time several gems (including Arthur Miller’s personal script for “Death of a Salesman,” a lost play of Sean O’Casey, and Lady Gregory’s diary). The reasoning cited was that the library’s exhibition schedule was “full for the next four years” and that “commitments [had] been made to faculty and others in relation to these exhibits.”
There are other, similar incidents. The president speedily denied my request to host a symposium at Princeton celebrating the publication of “Yearning To Breathe Free,” my recent book about American Jews in the Gilded Age. The president refused my offer to fund a chair in Yiddish Studies, even though most other Ivy League schools now have Yiddish Studies. He stated that the University was “not currently accepting gifts restricted to the teaching of specific courses.” He also refused to allow me to fund an event to honor the storied Professor Emeritus Victor Brombert on the occasion of his 100th birthday and the publication by the Chicago University Press of his new book, “The Pensive Citadel.” Brombert was born into a prominent, wealthy, cultured European Jewish family, and barely escaped the Nazis. He landed on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
I corresponded with Hans Kriefall, the graduate head of the Triangle Club regarding a potential donation: I would make a $750,000 gift to the club, and, in return, the building where Triangle practices would be named in memory of my late son David Milberg ’85, who was active in Triangle both as an undergraduate and alumnus. This potential donation was submitted to the appropriate University giving channels. After waiting without a definitive answer from the University for weeks, however, I eventually resigned myself and withdrew my donation, choosing instead to donate a smaller sum to the club’s fund.
In April 2022, I wrote to Kevin Heaney, vice president for Advancement at Princeton, to inform him that my wife and I desired to donate my exceedingly beautiful American art collection to Princeton. I’m sure it would have been one of the largest and most valuable gifts the Art Museum has received. In the letter to Heaney, I mentioned I had a scheduled meeting with four curators of the Art Museum at my home and office to view my collection. The next day, to my amazement, I received a letter from Chris Newth, associate director of the Art Museum, regretting the need to postpone the planned visits because of the heavy workload and said that he would propose alternative dates. Eighteen months later, the visit has not yet been arranged. Late next spring, my art collection will be on display at a major museum in New York City.
The repeated refusal to host events and exhibitions of interest to the Princeton community is clearly, in my view, retribution for criticizing the University’s actions. Eisgruber’s belief in the sanctity of “freedom of speech” is a selective one. Apparently, he does not like criticism from people who stand up to him when they feel that he is wrong. His reaction to my criticism was foolish and nasty. He has made a number of wrong decisions that hurt me, Jews, and Princeton’s culture and education. I worry about Jewish life on campus in the modern era — I recently read that the number of Jewish students has declined significantly. Eisgruber prevented me — the largest donor in my Class of 1953 and the recipient of the important Hyde and Princeton Alumni Awards — from holding new exhibits and making gifts to the University that would have added culture and knowledge to the whole Princeton community.
At age 92, I remain eager for an opportunity to assist Old Nassau, the “best old place of all.”
Leonard Milberg ’53 is the chairman of Milberg Factors Inc. He is a longtime patron of art and literature. Among other University affiliations, he has co-sponsored the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery in the lobby of Firestone Library and endowed the Leonard Milberg ’53 Professorship of Jewish American Studies.