Preserve Princeton's Commitment to Academic Freedom, Pluralism, and Civil Discourse
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Dear President Eisgruber,
As alumni of Princeton University, we want to express our concern at the administration’s approach to the Black Justice League’s demands. The Black Justice League’s demands represent a misguided approach to history, a rejection of academic and intellectual freedom, an attempt to establish a racially segregated school inherently harmful to the common good of the University as a community of teachers and learners, and a clear violation of Princeton’s values.
1. Woodrow Wilson, like many figures in history, had serious moral failings. Wilson’s re-segregation of the federal service and KKK sympathies are a shameful part of American history. But the study of history is as much a study of failures as it is a study of success. No great figure is without blemish, and we can and should pay homage to contributions of even greatly flawed individuals. Many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves; Franklin Delano Roosevelt blocked the safe passage of Jewish refugees during World War II and interned innocent Japanese Americans in violation of basic principles of justice, Abraham Lincoln represented a slaveholder in his private legal practice, and the Democratic Party was the party of segregation and the KKK for decades. Progressivism, which presumably the Black Justice League is in sympathy with, more than merely flirted with eugenics and other insidious practices. We do not choose to honor only perfect individuals.
Wilson served as President of Princeton and President of the United States. He brought the University into the modern age of learning and played a pivotal role in crafting the new international system; he eventually contributed to saving tens of thousands of Armenian lives during the Armenian genocide; he implemented some of the most progressive reforms prior to the New Deal, including antitrust reforms and a ban on child labor; and he helped to bring an end to World War I. In this case, those achievements should be seen as sufficient reason to maintain the long legacy of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, or simply Woody Woo.
2. The Black Justice League has demanded that undergraduates take classes on “the history of marginalized people” and staff receive “cultural competency” training. These proposals, however well-intended, will have the effect of promoting a particular political viewpoint as if it were an orthodoxy. While we wholeheartedly support discussion and debate about all controversial topics, we reject the erection of ideological orthodoxies. A public conversation about intellectual freedom and freedom of speech is always valuable, but the conversation is not truly free if it will be shouted down or subject to accusations of xenophobia. Nor is free speech as meaningful if everyone is required to be trained in one particular conception of “cultural competency.” For all the talk of public conversation, the Black Justice League appears to making every effort to prevent opposing viewpoints from being seriously engaged, or even heard. According to the statements of one its own organizers, the Black Justice League is sick and tired of “talk” and “conversation.”
There is also a vast amount of disagreement within “marginalized” communities and groups about how to improve their status and even whether to embrace the mantle of being “marginalized.” To endorse the marginalization narrative as official university dogma is to dismiss in the same stroke the perspective of the many who disagree or prefer a different tack. It is ironic that in the human rights field, victims of trafficking, rape, and other abuses are fighting to be labeled something other than victim, while the Black Justice League is so eager to embrace it. The point is not that either is right or wrong, but that there is healthy disagreement even within minority and other communities. We ask that you do not marginalize those groups and individuals by adhering to the perspective of only the most vocal and disrespectful among them.
3. Even more troubling is that the administration is considering establishing cultural spaces designated for particular minorities and the possibility of “black housing.” This proposal smacks of racial segregation, which is immoral and illegal. Ironically, the Black Justice League appears to oppose some form of segregation, but not others. Princeton should oppose all segregation. Segregation is inherently harmful to the common good. This was the understanding most forcefully enunciated by Chief Justice Earl Warren in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and its force should still resonate today. It is ironic that, after fighting so hard for integration, and so hard to defeat the myth of “separate but equal,” the heirs to the movement want to separate the races once again. No part of Princeton should be cut off—whether in fact or in practice—from students simply because of their race. As alumni, we oppose this policy in all forms, and we affirm that no “safe” space should be created by making it hostile to everyone else.
In addition, these “cultural spaces” and proposed housing policies will inevitably prioritize certain minorities and certain grievances. Many minorities have suffered injustices: the early Chinese immigrants (who were enslaved during the Gold Rush), the Japanese (who were herded into internment camps), the Jews (who were subjected to anti-Semitic policies), the Catholics (who faced discrimination from Protestants, including church burnings and political disenfranchisement), the Irish (who were subject to racism and employment restrictions)—the list goes on. By making these proposed changes, Princeton will be forced into the unfortunate and distasteful position of deciding whose aggrieved status is worthy of respect and whose is not.
4. We also object to the administration’s failure to condemn the tactics adopted by the Black Justice League. While we recognize the importance and value of civil disobedience, civil disobedience should be the last resort, not the first. It is never appropriate where legitimate and lawful means of redress are available, as they are at Princeton (but were not when Dr. King went to jail in Birmingham). The university has continually shown itself to be open to discourse and student complaints. But instead of engaging in a civil discussion, the Black Justice League opted to break the rules of Princeton, and Princeton, apparently, has opted to excuse that behavior. By doing so, Princeton encourages more students to choose disobedience instead of discourse, and to engage in intimidation rather than conversation. The Black Justice League’s actions represent a worrisome trend at Princeton and other universities of students being afraid of actual dialogue, and instead use bullying tactics to achieve their goals.
We believe that Princeton should be in the nation’s service and the service of all nations, and part of that is instilling the civic virtues in its students. The university should encourage students to listen respectfully to, and to challenge, opposing viewpoints. The university should teach students how to discuss opposing viewpoints and ideas openly and respectfully, rather than whitewashing anything that causes discomfort. The university should encourage students to engage precisely those ideas that may be uncomfortable and even offensive. We don’t need to protect freedom of speech when everyone agrees. It is precisely during disagreements, and passionate ones, that freedom of speech becomes important. It is the right to express an uncomfortable idea that needs protection. And a university should be a place to learn how to argue, to discuss, and perhaps most important, to listen. We ask you now to listen to the alumni who want Princeton to stay true to the principles of academic and intellectual freedom and to retain its proud albeit imperfect history.
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