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Princeton sues Department of Education, alleging noncompliance with records request

Front profile from the left of Nassau Hall’s front facade. Tan, stone building covered by green ivy, with a clock and bell tower above and an American flag. The building is surrounded by trees, predominately on the left of the image.
Nassau Hall, the home of Princeton’s administration.
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

On May 17, the University filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education (DoE), alleging that the federal agency had failed to disclose relevant information after the University made a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for records related to the DoE investigation into Princeton in 2020. Originally enacted in 1967, FOIA compels federal agencies to disclose information upon request — with narrow exemptions.

The lawsuit not only implicated the DoE with a failure to “promptly make the requested records available to Princeton and the public,” but also contains a second count that alleges the DoE failed to “determine whether to comply with the request … within the statutorily prescribed time limit.” 

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The Daily Princetonian reached out to both parties for comment. University Spokesperson Jennifer Morrill referred the ‘Prince’ to the filed complaint. At the time of publication, the DoE did not respond to the request. 

According to the complaint filing, the University sought documents related to an investigation brought against Princeton by the DoE in 2020. On Sept. 2, in the wake of a country-wide reckoning with systemic anti-Black racism, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 published a letter to the campus community on racism at Princeton, writing that “[r]acism and the damage it does to people of color persist at Princeton” as well as that racist assumptions “remain embedded in structures of the University itself.” 

Soon afterward, the DoE, then spearheaded by Betsy DeVos, initiated a Title VI investigation into Princeton’s non-discrimination practices. In a letter sent on Sept. 16, then-Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Robert King wrote that “[b]ased on its admitted racism,” the DoE believed that Princeton may have failed to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Based on the results, King continued, “the Secretary of Education may consider measures against Princeton … including an action to recover [federal] funds.”

On Feb. 4, 2021, Eisgruber announced that the DoE had dropped its investigation in January after months of prominent national debate over the investigation — including a condemnation of the investigation issued by over 90 university presidents in an open letter.

The complaint further claims that around Dec. 8, 2022, the University submitted a FOIA request seeking a variety of documents between Jan. 1, 2017, and Jan. 19, 2021. 

Among other materials, the University requested records and correspondences that referenced Eisgruber and race (or the related terms “racism”, “discrimination”, “equal opportunity”, or “diversity”), records relating to the decisions to open and close the investigation, and records on the DoE’s own policies created during the time period “concerning or related to race, discrimination, nondiscrimination, equal opportunity, speech, or the First Amendment.”

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However, the lawsuit alleges that initial requests were unsuccessful, and follow-ups in separate occasions also did not yield documents, which was detailed in a series of exhibits attached to a motion for summary judgment filed by the University. Eventually, on Aug. 11, 2023, the University, “provide[d] the Department with a watermark draft of an earlier version of [the] Complaint.” This action allegedly prompted a series of exchanges which ended with DoE representatives verbally promising “to provide a response within one to two months.” However, the lawsuit claims that the records were still not provided, and after further attempts, the University eventually pursued legal action. Over three years have elapsed since the Department’s investigation was dropped.

The Trustees of Princeton University v. United States Department of Education is currently assigned to Hon. Dabney L. Friedrich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The University is represented by Daniel W. Wolff of Crowell & Moring LLP.

Christopher Bao is an assistant News editor and the accessibility director for the ‘Prince.’ He is from Princeton, N.J. and typically covers town politics and life.

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

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