Talking leadership 29: Christopher Eisgruber on free speech and widening access

The Princeton University president discusses the oversimplification of the free speech debate and his personal journey of discovery kicked off by his son’s school project 

June 7, 2022
Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton
Source: Princeton University

Last year, Christopher Eisgruber taught a seminar on free speech in order to gain “intel” on his students’ attitudes. The president of Princeton University found that they yearned for vigorous debate. They do not undervalue freedom of speech, as many decry, but are “trying to work out civil terms of discourse in order to have robust arguments”.

Free speech alone does not lead to productive enhancement of knowledge, Eisgruber says: “If we had a group of people shouting insults at one another, their speech would be entirely free. And their conversation would be almost pointless.” Instead, it must be combined with productive terms of discourse, and finding those terms is what this generation are seeking to do, he says. It is a quest made exponentially more difficult for them by the internet and social media.

“We are living in a vastly different communications environment than we were before 2007, [the year of] the innovation of the iPhone,” he says.

Oversimplification of free speech

His students are willing to debate in class but are stifled online by the fear that their remarks could end up in the Daily Mail or the New York Post, he says.

For Eisgruber, the notion of free speech is frequently oversimplified, and this can be illustrated by a recent issue that whipped up the Princeton campus.

In July 2020, tenured classics professor Joshua Katz wrote an essay for online publication Quillette in which he described a former student group, the Black Justice League, as a “small local terrorist organisation”.

Eisbruger said at the time that he strongly objected to Katz’s words but that he “can be answered but not censored or sanctioned”.

“When Katz disparaged the group last week as a ‘terrorist organisation’, I was among those who found his statement irresponsible and offensive,” the president wrote at the time. “Our policies, however, protect Katz’s freedom to say what he did, just as they protected the Black Justice League’s.”

The saga became more complex when a website called Known and Heard, which documents the history of race and racism at Princeton and bears the Princeton logo, then republished Katz’s comments as an example of a racial issue on campus. Katz’s supporters then claimed that using his words in this context was unfair on the professor.

For Eisgruber, the case illustrates that “often these invocations of free speech are a little oversimplified; the real debate that’s going on is about how you have civil, constructive and vigorous and respectful discussions, and free speech by itself doesn’t get you there”.

Since Eisgruber spoke to Times Higher Education, Katz was fired from Princeton over a sexual misconduct probe. Katz, and his defenders, claimed it was for his views on campus politics.

Universities have plenty of rules that restrict speech, according to Eisgruber. Students and faculty are not allowed to shout what they want in classrooms, faculty are judged by tenure standards, “which are judgments about the speech that they have”, and students are graded based on the writing they submit. “There are all sorts of ways that we regulate speech in order to produce a more constructive environment.”

Change in identity

Eisgruber is himself a Princeton alumnus. Having studied both physics and political theory, he went on to have a career in constitutional law and taught at New York University’s law school before returning to Princeton as director of the programme of law and public affairs. He served as provost of Princeton from 2004 to 2013, when he became president.

When he sits down with THE it is a couple of days after a leaked report from the Supreme Court indicates the striking down of Roe v Wade, the 1973 court ruling that guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights. What does a constitutional law expert make of the move?

He believes the US Constitution protects a broad set of rights, including a woman’s right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy.

“I think the framers of the US Constitution wrote the Bill of Rights and other provisions in abstract moral terms, because they recognised that those broad concepts of morality protected rights beyond the ones that were already protected in their law,” he says. “In other words, we fail to be faithful to the Constitution, which speaks in broad moral terms, if we confine it to the practices that existed at the time that the Constitution was written.”

“I’m greatly distraught by what I would call the increasing partisanship of the Supreme Court,” he adds.

However, perhaps the most striking part of Eisgruber’s background is his personal journey of discovery. 

When his son was in fourth grade, a history project led to the revelation that Eisgruber’s mother was in fact Jewish. She had fled Nazi Germany and arrived in the US at eight-years-old, but had not spoken of her Jewish heritage throughout Eisgruber’s childhood. Shocked by the findings, and unable to question his mother who had already passed away, he went on a metaphorical and physical journey, via Germany and Israel, to shed light on his family history. It resulted in several “wonderful” new family members but also more questions. Why did his mother hide her Jewish identity?

“I think she believed that being Jewish was a very dangerous way to be in the world. And that coming to the United States, she had a chance to escape that and escape for her children.” Eisgruber now identifies as Jewish.

Widening access

Eisgruber is keen to discuss Princeton’s progress towards widening access for low-income students.

“I think we begin from the assumption there’s talent in every sector of society and students who are coming from lower quintiles of the income distribution have been underrepresented at Princeton, and other leading research universities,” he says. “You get a set of perspectives that are important, in addition to just the pure talent that would otherwise be underrepresented.”

When pressed on why Princeton is only just realising the potential of students from less privileged backgrounds, he claims the university has been working on widening participation for the past 50 years. He does admit, though, that 15 years ago only around 7 per cent of its student body were eligible for Pell Grants, the subsidy provided to American students who cannot afford to attend college. The rate is now around 20 per cent.

Across the US, around 40 per cent of the population are eligible for Pell Grants. Does he think Princeton should aim for the same proportion?

“I think it’s a mistake to think about that in terms of statistically mirroring the country or the demography, because that does take you in the direction of quotas,” he says.

Some Ivy League institutions have been accused of not providing enough support for students who come from different backgrounds once they get to university. He says Princeton has several programmes to support students, including those run by their Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity.

Princeton also has what he calls a bridge programme, the Freshman Scholars Institute, which invites students from poorer backgrounds to go to Princeton in the summer, take credit-bearing courses and learn about the university. This “provides them with some of the kind of understanding of what it is to be a college student...If you’re coming out of an elite prep school, for example, you’ve received that, but if you’re coming out of a school that has never sent somebody to the Ivy League before, you probably haven’t gotten that kind of background, especially if you’re first in your family to go to college,” he says.

Eisgruber admits that at Princeton poorer students are less likely to graduate within four years compared with their more affluent peers, but he says the six-year graduation rate is similar for the two groups; poorer students are likely to take a year off, but they will eventually graduate.

Some universities, in recognising the barriers poorer pupils face, change admissions criteria and lower exam requirements if a student went to a particularly bad school. Princeton will not do this, he says, but he adds that it will assess students in “a holistic way”.

The university has trained its admissions staff to recognise that a student who is getting excellent test scores and holding down a job to support their family is just as good as a student who is getting excellent test scores and doing an internship at a prestigious company.

“When you’re talking about something like test scores, first of all, for no segment of the population does Princeton simply choose the students with the highest test scores,” he adds.

One group that Eisgruber appears especially proud to be developing at Princeton is “transfer students”, who come from community colleges or the army: “Most of them are super-talented people who, at one point or another, were told that they didn’t have what it takes to go to an Ivy League college. They clearly [do] have what it takes.”

It has been challenging assimilating these students, he says, as they are at different stages in their life and have different needs. “Somebody who’s coming in with a spouse and maybe a kid and is 25-years-old and has two years of combat experience is not necessarily interested in having exactly the same experience as our other students,” he explains.

Princeton started by enrolling 10 transfer students per year, to reach about 40 in the whole student body, and it will now raise that to 100 across the entire student population.

Eisgruber recognises that the task of widening access is never complete, but he also suggests that it is important to acknowledge how far the institution has come.

“We do have to be aware and always vigilant about all aspects of our diversity,” he says. “These efforts had really started in 1970 – we went from a student body that was at that point white, male, relatively more affluent, and overwhelmingly Protestant, to greater levels of diversity across every single one of those dimensions. And that’s never something we can take for granted.”

Quick facts

Born: Indiana, 1961

Academic qualifications: BA in physics from Princeton University; Master of Letters in politics from the University of Oxford

Academic hero: Jeffrey Tulis, professor of government, law and communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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Reader's comments (1)

Thank you, again, Chris Einsgruber for a level-headed humanitarian broad-picture approach to the subject of free speech. Your recent article does you and the University great credit, Princeton University has witnessed so much change for inclusion in the past two decades. The example of the transfer students and your sensitivity and graciousness about their experience as different from those entering only from four years of previous higher education (public or private),underlines the point I am making. Congrats, again for leading Princeton in the right directions of considered humanism in the 21st century. Constance K. Escher, Author, She Calls Herself Betsey Stockton: The Illustrated Odyssey of a Princeton Slave.