Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Princeton Grapples With Race, Woodrow Wilson’s Controversial Past, And A Professor’s Dissent

FORBES   |  July 28, 2020 by Michael Poliakoff

Judging by common metrics of success, Princeton University does well. It is highly selective, accepting only 5% of its applicants, and its 2019 endowment stood at $26.1 billion. Alumni include First Lady Michelle Obama, four U.S. Supreme Court justices, and two United States presidents, James Madison and Woodrow Wilson. 

There is more to an institution than status and wealth, however, and the freedom of inquiry and expression that is the lifeblood of liberal education is in danger at this extraordinary campus. Successful in so many ways, Princeton faces a crisis of values.  

Princeton’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas was once exemplary. In April 2015, with a clear majority vote of its faculty, it became the first university in the nation to follow the University of Chicago’s lead in adopting the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression, the landmark commitment to the “discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

In the tense time following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a student group called the Princeton Open Campus Coalition modeled reasoned debate among its multi-gender, multi-ethnic members. Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, made Keith Whittington’s book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, a “campus read,” not just for incoming freshmen, but for all Princeton students. African American philosopher Cornel West and Robby George, director of Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, have demonstrated in their frequent public discussions how scholars can represent widely different worldviews yet together build consensus around shared truths. In other words, Princeton seemed unusually able not only to protect speech but even to cultivate civility in disagreement.

This year has been different. By contrast, in 2015–16, Princeton’s Trustee Committee on Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy took nearly six months to determine how to approach the problem of its distinguished but controversial alumnus whose name is attached to a Princeton college and school. Its measured decision was to vote for “transparency in recognizing Wilson’s failings and shortcomings as well as the visions and achievements that led to the naming of the school and the college.” A report from the trustees described how students and others were troubled by Wilson’s past support of segregation. As president of Princeton, he had acted to bar Black students from admission, and as U.S. president, he supported the segregation of the civil service.

On June 22, 2020, in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, students and alumni demanded the “public renunciation of Woodrow Wilson.” This time, it took President Eisgruber but five days to reverse the 2016 decision. Little or no time was allocated for discussion or disagreement.

Many demands from students and faculty followed. Alumni of Princeton’s Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014–18, declared to President Eisgruber, “we denounce your actions as woefully inadequate.” On July 4, a letter with roughly 350 signatures of professors, staff, and graduate students listed 48 demands to further its campaign against racism. They included a call for the establishment of a faculty committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty,” with guidelines to be authored by a faculty committee. Other demands were extra leave time for faculty of color and the removal of the statue of John Witherspoon, slave-owner, but also past president of the college that later became Princeton and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Enter Joshua Katz, a 22-year veteran of the department of classics and holder of an endowed chair in the humanities. Self-described as a “library rat” and liberal democrat, he published his dissent in Quillette four days after the faculty letter appeared. He warned that many of the proposals in the July 4 faculty letter “would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence.” He worried that the proposed faculty committee to address racism could become a “star chamber.” Based on its treatment of other students, he characterized the now-defunct Black Justice League as a “small local terrorist organization.”

The reaction to Professor Katz’s declaration was fierce. The chairman of the department of classics, Michael Flower, labeled what Professor Katz had written about the League “abhorrent.” Princeton’s president joined the discussion, decrying Katz’s use of the term “terrorist” as “false,” “irresponsible,” and “offensive.”

The department of classics seemed intent on “killing the messenger”—which always ended badly in the ancient world—rather than engaging their longtime colleague in discussion. Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who had once been Katz’s student and acknowledges his help in his 2015 memoir, Undocumentedspoke of his “fury at the op-ed” and did not hesitate to state that Katz’s “flagrant racism makes our case for us.” Another classics professor, Brooke Holmes, accused Katz of “racialized vilification” and rejected the argument of one of Katz’s former students that he should have “the benefit of the doubt.”

Some 90 students signed a letter denouncing Professor Katz and noted the “unique complicity of classics in white supremacy and Eurocentrism.” (Ironically, in reality, Katz’s scholarship on Native American languages, as well as Sanskrit, Tocharian, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, should make him rather unsusceptible to the charge of “Eurocentrism.”) Professor Flower observed, “I myself have never heard him make a racist remark . . . When I read the article, I just, what just happened?” But instead of dialogue with a colleague, what ensued was near ritualistic denunciation, a canceling that had to happen.

Remarkably, there has been little public discussion of the tactics of the now-defunct Black Justice League, an omission that makes the critique of Professor Katz very difficult to judge. Some students, speaking on pledge of anonymity, reported that Black classmates who opposed the League were called “Aunt Jemima” and “white supremacist.” Screen shots from an Instagram live session show an alumnus of the League grilling a recent Princeton graduate of Asian descent, charging him with an alleged racist statement from years earlier. Other participants suggest that the young graduate will soon lose his job, with one questioning why he should ever have been allowed into Princeton. President Eisgruber himself observed that the rhetoric of the Black Justice League (which had once occupied his office for 32 hours) might be seen as “provocative or offensive.”

Lost, too, in this contretemps is any focus on Princeton’s legacy of anti-Asian bias: In 2015, the Office of Civil Rights cleared the university of the charge after a long investigation, but ugly behavior toward Asian applicants in the not-too-distant past is documented.

Princeton, to its credit, walked back the threat of “investigation” of Professor Katz, and President Eisgruber affirmed that Katz exercised protected freedom of speech and will not be censored or sanctioned. The spotlight will be on Princeton to protect his status at the university scrupulously.

The free exchange of ideas is not a state of being that flourishes without careful attention. It is easily lost when passions, including passions for noble causes, run high. But the default response to criticism of any given social justice initiative cannot be a charge of racism with coercive power to end the discussion and punish dissenters. It will not advance social justice, and it will assuredly destroy the dialogue and debate that can move our society forward.

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