“On September 2, 2020, you admitted Princeton’s educational program is and for decades has been racist,” the Education Department stated in a letter to the university. It cited school President Christopher L. Eisgruber’s statements that racism and the damage it does to people of color persist at Princeton, and that racist assumptions remain embedded in the structures of the university.
Like many universities and other institutions across the country in a summer of racial reckoning, Princeton has been delving into its history and asking what changes it could make. The department’s letter comes at a politically fraught time, weeks before the election, when President Trump has moved to overhaul federal agencies’ racial sensitivity trainings and called for a “pro-American” curriculum in schools that “celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.”
On Thursday, Trump said that U.S. schools are indoctrinating children with a left-wing agenda and that the result could be seen in demonstrations against racial injustice that he characterized as “left-wing rioting and mayhem.”
The letter sent to Princeton on Wednesday from Robert King, assistant secretary in the Office of Postsecondary Education, questioned the university’s repeated representations since Eisgruber became president in 2013 that it remained in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from discrimination based on race, color or national origin for any program receiving federal financial aid. During that time, Princeton received more than $75 million in taxpayer funds, according to the letter.
“Based on its admitted racism,” King’s letter went on, the department was concerned that the school’s nondiscrimination and equal-opportunity assurances “from at least 2013 to the present may have been false” and that Princeton knew they were false.
Earlier this month, Eisgruber wrote to campus about efforts to address systemic racism at Princeton and beyond. In June, he had asked senior university leaders to examine all aspects of the school and develop plans to combat systemic racism. After an August meeting, he announced those efforts would continue this year and beyond, identifying priorities such as assembling a faculty that more closely mirrors the diversity of its students, addressing names and iconography on campus, and reviewing the university’s benefits “with an eye to enhancing equity.”
A spokeswoman for the Education Department declined to comment or provide a copy of the letter sent to Princeton, first reported by the Washington Examiner, but did not dispute that the letter had been sent.
Princeton shared the letter. Ben Chang, a spokesman for Princeton, declined to comment beyond a written statement Thursday. “Princeton has long been committed to creating and maintaining a community where all can thrive,” he said, “and stands by its representations to the Department and the public that it complies with all laws and regulations governing equal opportunity, non-discrimination and harassment.”
The work is core to the school’s mission, he wrote, and it is vigilant in pursuit of equity in every aspect of its programs and operations.
Chang said the university stands by its statements about the prevalence of systemic racism and commitment to reckon with its continued effects. “Attracting talent from every sector of society is crucial to our academic mission, and we will continue to lead on these issues,” he wrote.
“It is unfortunate that the Department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law,” he said. “The University disagrees and looks forward to furthering our educational mission by explaining why our statements and actions are consistent not only with the law, but also with the highest ideals and aspirations of this country.”
Princeton was founded nearly 275 years ago, and any institution of that age has chapters from its past it would like to change, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations with the American Council on Education. The Education Department letter was an attempt, he said, to chill the efforts of universities that want to ask themselves tough questions about race and injustice with a sweeping inquiry into Princeton’s records.
Princeton has the financial resources to respond to the investigation, Hartle said, but smaller institutions will likely take note and take steps to avoid a similar inquiry.
“It’s to their great credit that leading universities are asking themselves what they should have done differently in the past and what they can do differently in the future to be more welcoming and inclusive,” Hartle said. “The federal government ought to encourage this, not engage in taxpayer-funded politically motivated fishing expeditions that are designed to undermine them.”
Laura Meckler contributed to this report.