Princeton hoist with its own petard: Admits systemic racism, investigated for it by the Department of Education, and then denies it

September 18, 2020 • 9:00 am

I have to say that I find this pretty amusing. After Princeton’s President (like officials of many other colleges) wrote a letter flagellating himself and his University for systemic racism, the U.S. Department of Education has begun investigating Princeton for violating Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The charge is taking federal money for years while purporting to abide by federal nondiscrimination and equal-opportunity standards. If Princeton is indeed rife with “systemic racism” that it hasn’t addressed, then surely they have violated that agreement.  An article in the Washington Examiner (below) says that this investigation is not politically motivated—that the Department of Education has a legal obligation to investigate possible violations of federal civil rights protections, even if that violation is revealed by the University itself.

This is amusing because I don’t believe that Princeton is systemically racist, though there may be private instances of racism. And yet the University had to admit deep-seated racism to keep in tune with the Zeitgeist. By so doing, it got itself investigated. It’ll be interesting to see how Princeton plays this one, maintaining that it has a climate of systemic racism but yet doesn’t violate federal statues. They’ve responded already (see below), but they’re taking the mustelid path of Weasel Words.

First, here’s the September 2 letter to the University community from President Christopher Eisgruber admitting systemic racism at Princeton (click on the screenshot):

It’s the usual boilerplate self-flagellation. I’ll give just a few excerpts:

With that goal in mind, I charged my Cabinet in June to develop plans to combat systemic racism at Princeton and beyond.  In my letter, I invited suggestions from all of you, and many individuals and groups responded.  I am grateful for your input, and I write now with an update about our progress.

. . . We must ask how Princeton can address systemic racism in the world, and we must also ask how to address it within our own community.

. . . Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies.

It goes on, with Eisgruber’s back well bloodied at the end. Note the admission of systemic racism: a legacy of racist policies that persists at Princeton. And there’s also an admission that racism has held back (“damaged”) students and faculty of color at Princeton. You may say this isn’t a violation of civil rights laws, but Princeton admitted that there was damage due to racism, and now must bear the consequences.

And so President Eisbruger must face the music, as reported in the (right-wing) Washington Examiner.  You may want to dismiss the whole report because of the politics of the paper, but that would be a mistake. This is an important case, and the Examiner’s contentions are supported by other documents, like the letter itself. And you will never (or so I predict) see this reported in the New York Times or the Washington Post.

Click on the screenshot to read the Examiner article:

Most of the Examiner report simply recounts what’s in the letter from the Department of Education (below), signed by Robert King, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Postsecondary Education. And the report below jibes with the letter:

Now, the Education Department has sent a formal records request as it pursues its investigation. Its main point of contention is whether Princeton has lied to the public with its marketing and to the department in its promise not to uphold racist standards, in accordance with receiving federal funds.

“Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education (“Department”) is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false,” the letter reads. “The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew, or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made. Finally, the Department is further concerned Princeton’s many nondiscrimination and equal opportunity claims to students, parents, and consumers in the market for education certificates may have been false, misleading, and actionable substantial misrepresentations in violation of 20 U.S.C. § 1094(c)(3)(B) and 34 CFR 668.71(c). Therefore, the Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education, in consultation with the Department’s Office of the General Counsel, is opening this investigation.”

What the department seeks to obtain from its investigation is what evidence Princeton used in its determination that the university is racist, including all records regarding Eisgruber’s letter and a “spreadsheet identifying each person who has, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, been excluded from participation in, been denied the benefits of, or been subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance as a result of the Princeton racism or ‘damage’ referenced in the President’s Letter.” Eisgruber and a “designated corporate representative” must sit for interviews under oath, and Princeton must also respond to written questions regarding the matter.

You can see and download the DoE letter here, and I’ve embedded it at the bottom so you can read it for yourself.  They’re requiring Princeton to submit all kinds of documents showing the nature and degree of systemic racism, as well as answering written questions and making Eisgruber and another University representative available for interviews. You can read the requirements themselves, but I was again amused to read them. Here are five out of 9 records demanded by the government:

Please produce the following records within twenty-one (21) calendar days:

A. Please produce each record that you identified, referred to, described, relied upon, reviewed, or used in any way in preparing your written response. Please also identify and describe in detail each such record.

B. All records concerning, relating to, or referencing the President’s Letter. The time frame for this request is April 1, 2020 to the present.

C. All records concerning, relating to, or referencing the Diversity Measures. The time frame for this request is April 1, 2020 to the present.

D. All records concerning, relating to, or referencing Princeton’s “systemic” and/or “embedded” racism, as those terms are used in the President’s Letter. The time frame for this request is January 1, 2013 to the present.

E. A spreadsheet identifying each person who has, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, been excluded from participation in, been denied the benefits of, or been subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance as a result of the Princeton racism or “damage” referenced in the President’s Letter. This spreadsheet should (1) identify each such person; (2) provide his or her last known address and contact information; and (3) specify his or her damage, if known. The time frame for this request is January 1, 2015 to the present. . .

Do note that if Princeton really did practice systemic racism as it maintained in Eisgruber’s letter of September 2, there should indeed be written records supporting that claim. Otherwise it’s just trumpeting unsubstantiated claims. This is one of my beefs about this kind of self-flagellation: it’s long on breast-and-back-beating and very short on evidence. All the government is saying is “where’s the beef?”

Now many readers may see the hand of Trump behind this, and perhaps it is, but surely we’d still want to know the real details of how this systemic racism operates. Or do you think that accusations without evidence are sufficient? I don’t, so I think it’s good that someone has the power to demand evidence.

The administrators at Princeton are going to be sweating to accumulate these data! And Princeton already tendered a first reply yesterday (click on screenshot); I’ve put it below in its entirety (their emphasis):

On September 16, 2020, the University received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education requesting information about Princeton’s nondiscrimination practices. 

The letter was the Department’s reaction to President Eisgruber’s update to the University community outlining the steps we are taking to address systemic racism at Princeton and beyond. Princeton has long been committed to creating and maintaining a community where all can thrive, 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. This work is core to the University’s teaching and research mission, and we are vigilant in our pursuit of equity in every aspect of our programs and operations. The University also stands by our statements about the prevalence of systemic racism and our commitment to reckon with its continued effects, including the racial injustice and race-based inequities that persist throughout American society. Attracting talent from every sector of society is crucial to our academic mission, and we will continue to lead on these issues.

The University will respond to the Department of Education’s letter in due course. 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. 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.

These are weasel words.  If Princeton is as systematically racist as it admits, and as its students aver, then how could it comply with nondiscrimination laws.? In fact, they contradict themselves by saying that while they stand by their self-certification as a nondiscriminatory institution, they also admit “systemic racism”. I cannot find these statements compatible; only a lawyer could harmonize them, and I’m sure Princeton’s lawyers are on the case!

At the end, they criticize the DoE’s letter for indicting Princeton for racism when it’s “grappling honestly with. . . the current effects of systemic racism.” But the letter was about past and existing denial of opportunity, not about whether Princeton was “grappling with it” since September 2. If the University systematically denied students, staff, and faculty equal opportunity because of race, then yes, that is a violation of its pledge to the feds.  It will be interesting to see how Princeton manages to comport their own admission with their claim that they’re adhering to the law. Such is the result (unforseen!) of indicting yourself of racism.

Here’s the letter sent by the Department of Education to President Eisgruber. You can read the whole thing by scrolling down.

Click to access Princeton-Letter-9-16-20-Signed.pdf

50 thoughts on “Princeton hoist with its own petard: Admits systemic racism, investigated for it by the Department of Education, and then denies it

  1. “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.”

    Oh, this is rich! “Our school is rife with systemic racism!” “OK, we’re going to investigate that claim.” “No, wait! We meant that the country is rife with racism, but our school totally isn’t. Please do not investigate us. We didn’t really mean it.”

  2. Lol, serves them right.

    “I cannot find these statements compatible; only a lawyer could harmonize them, and I’m sure Princeton’s lawyers are on the case!” – I wish them luck, they’ll need it.

  3. I think Princeton will fight like hell against providing the Department of Education the names of people that were discriminated against. Perhaps they will argue that revealing names violates privacy laws. In any case, this request represents a put up or shut up moment for Princeton. If the university actually did practice systemic racism then there should be plenty of names. But, I think, it will have to scramble just to come up with a few.

  4. Of course there is systemic racism in Princeton’s admissions (and perhaps to a lesser extent in grading and promotions). But this is considered a virtue and even the Trump administration would not consider fighting it.

    1. p.s. I read a lot of comments on the Post article, and nearly all of them are either blaming Trump for this move (I don’t think he knows enough to have initiated it), or saying that this just interferes with the school’s attempt to deal with its real racism.

      But if there was real structural racism, why wasn’t Princeton dealing with it before? They didn’t know? There were no complaints?

      As I said, I doubt that Princeton IS systemically racist, though there may well have been instances of racism. What I do doubt are penitente-like confessions like the one Eisgruber made–confessions invariably lacking documentation. And this time Princeton will be forced to document its systemic racism.

      1. It certainly has DeVos’ “I hate the left and liberal education” fingerprints all over it. I have a hard time imagining any moderate appointee doing this. However, blind squirrels and nuts, stopped watches, and all that jazz.

          1. Scooter Libby’s a former administration person who’s probably pretty happy with his treatment (i.e. pardon). If we want to liberally interpret “Trump administration” to include military personnel (they’re federal employees, after all), there’s a few more who would qualify as both “former” and “happy they were pardoned.”

            Aside: given Jerry just posted a “words I hate” article, I gotta give a nod to “gruntled” as a sadly underused word. 🙂

          2. “Question: Does the Trump administration have any gruntled former members?”

            Yes, to indulge in a bit of paraphrase, under Trump and his assigns they no doubt gruntled and sweated under a dreary life.

            1. Glutton for punishment. His buddy (and former Trump CoS) Rinse Pubis, too. And cheese-plate connoisseur Sara Huckabee Sanders.

              Sad sacks, the lot of ’em.

  5. I actually laughed out loud when I saw this. It’s important for people to realize that there can be real-world repercussions for unthinkingly admitting you are racist. You are not doing a good thing, like picking up trash by the highway to show you care about the environment, but admitting to something that could haunt you for the rest of your life. Imagine signing a letter saying you’re racist (or that you presided over a racist institution), and going for your next job interview.

  6. I have no use for DeVos and will be glad when she’s gone, but yes, this is amusing.

    Thinking optimistically, it might even be helpful. The sorts of records DoEd is asking for would be very useful in actually tackling racism (vs. paying lip service to it). A record of incidents? Absolutely, any University who really wants to improve how they operate should be tracking incidents, evaluating them, and coming up with lessons learned from them. If they aren’t, and DoEd prompts them to do so, that’s a good thing.

    this investigation is not politically motivated

    Riiiight. Let me tell you about this bridge I have…

    It will be interesting to see how Princeton manages to comport their own admission with their claim that they’re adhering to the law.

    Well, this would be embarrassing to them (particularly since DeVos would shout it from the rooftops), but they could probably legally extricate themselves from this mess using the Papa John’s defense: ‘your honor/DoEd, our claims were mere puffery.’ Particularly given the number of such self-flagellation claims being made by all sorts of organizations, it’s arguable this has just become a standard form of advertising/boasting.

      1. I saw it in the Times too….

        But it was a pretty small headline way below the main home page headlines.

        It’s barely the standing room only section of a big theatre….

        In other words, a lot of its online readers, where the majority of its readership is, would likely miss it unless it looked for it.

        My question: Will Princeton drag it out in the hopes that a Biden administration will just drop it?

  7. Why cannot Princeton simply state 1) we comply fully with Title IV 2) we believe the laws are currently insufficient to combat racism, and 3) we are committed to going beyond Title IV and similar laws to address the gaps.
    Title IV is about desegregation of public education. As long as it doesn’t have e.g blacks-only dorms, whites-only clubs; it should be able to correctly state it meets Title IV. Granted that may run afoul of certain self-selected ‘shared-experience’ dorms… (not yet litigated to my knowledge).

    Granted, there is a significant possibility that going beyond may result in over-correction that could end up violating Title IV or VII. Meaning Princeton will need to thread very, very carefully.

    1. Sorry, but Title IV is much more than about segregation. It’s largely about DISCRIMINATION, which, according to Princeton, happened big time there.

      I suggest you read the Department of Justice’s own explanation of it, which you can find here:

      For example:

      The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the landmark legislation prohibiting discrimination in several areas including housing, employment, and education. The sections of the Act relating to education are Title IV, which authorizes the Attorney General to address certain equal protections violations based on race, color, national origin, sex, and religion in public schools and institutions of higher education; Title VI, prohibiting discrimination by recipients of federal funds on the basis of race, color, and national origin; and Title IX, permitting the United States to intervene in pending suits alleging discrimination. Additionally, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 prohibits, among other conduct, deliberate segregation on the basis of race, color, and national origin.

      The Educational Opportunities Section is involved in numerous desegregation lawsuits against public elementary and secondary school districts (as well as one state higher education system) where we seek to ensure that state-sponsored segregation is eradicated. Additionally, each year we are involved in numerous investigations and cases addressing discrimination and harassment on the basis of race and national origin. For examples, view the cases list.

      1. I apologize. I was overly short in my explanation. I think Princeton was likely meeting Title IV requirements prior to their statement that you rightly criticize. Meaning that without that statement, had students sued in e.g. 2018, on the basis of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or legal precedents since then, the students may have lost. And their actual policies haven’t yet changed. Hence my #1.
        Then Princeton made the statement admitting systemic racism. But they didn’t specifically state how. Therefore, their lawyers could generate some Woke-defined additional criteria, not required by current laws. Then state their admission of systemic racism was merely that they had not yet implemented resolution actions of those things. Hence my #2.
        That they will define additional actions to resolve those criteria, e.g. mandatory counselling sessions on White Privilege or other wokeness. Hence #3.

        I was not stating a good option in my mind. I was stating what I expect Princeton’s response would be to avoid an adverse judgement. Which I think they could get away with if their lawyers are extremely careful.

        Further, I was warning that if Princeton goes just a touch too far, it will have violated the equal protection of non-POCs, and end up actually violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One example of that would be forcing all non-POC students to sign a statement stipulating their racism and intention to improve. That could cause discrimination against all signatories in later job interviews at a minimum. And Princeton’s lawyers better know that.

        I hope that better explains my thoughts.

  8. This is like a sinner standing at an altar confessing to unspecified crimes unworthy of forgiveness— and police subsequently contacting him. It’s ritual, show, embedded in a context. You’re not meant to take it literally, because it’s dealing with a conceptual truth.

    1. I tend to agree. However, given the current situation, I suspect it will be spun into all sorts of anti left wing, anti intellectual political noise by the right. You’d think the President of Princeton would have a better sense of self preservation, not to mention common sense, after his many years than to engage in public self flagellation. People out to make political hay will certainly choose to take it literally- even if he was intending it as a general, unspecifiable statement..There are no(?)institutions that are completely free of racial prejudice even if it is only by default. Willingly letting small incidents pass uncommented allows for more to occur. And that is what becomes systemic-rather than overt displays.
      I also find it a bit comical tho’ with a bit of a heavy heart.

    2. Legally speaking: Puffery!

      Though I think DeVos is putting the screws on them because she wants to force them to say that in public.

    3. There’s a difference between confessing that you coveted your neighbor’s ox, and confessing that you killed him for it. Doing the latter in public will absolutely get the police interested — because everyone agrees that’s a crime, it imposes actual harm on someone else. Not just a quirk of your chosen faith or hobby (or preferred form of therapy) which the rest of us can ignore.

      So the question is, which class is this “systemic racism” in? Did it impose actual harm on actual people? Or not? Princeton now has to answer, on the record.

      1. Here’s two quotes from the President’s letter:
        “Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society…”

        “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself…”

        So, maybe not killed, but evidently the Ox remains stolen.

        It’s also worth pointing out that the letter’s list of action items implicitly communicate that Princeton may be discriminating, institutionally, right now. For example, this action item:

        “Review Princeton’s benefits and policies, including the Tuition Assistance and Children’s Educational Assistance Plans, with an eye to enhancing equity for employees in lower-paid positions”

        Enhancing equity. Sounds like the gardener isn’t even allowed to sign up for the health plan offered to the CEO, even if he wanted to pay the higher premiums, does it? Maybe he is and the review finds nothing untoward, but if you’re a conservative DoEd person looking for a reason to investigate, that can justifiably be considered a reason.

  9. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was initiated by someone at Princeton itself, annoyed at their university’s breast-beating but entirely unspecific claims of guilt. The devil is in the details, and by forcing the university to actually list and document the specific incidents of racism it will, in all likelihood, become clear how footling most of them are.

  10. Next can come lawsuits from past students or faculty who claimed they were discriminated against. Lawsuits that are simply trolling for cash settlements, and Princeton might quickly choose to do this just to muffle the publicity.

  11. Princeton is indeed systemically racist in its admissions: “The bonus for African-American applicants is roughly equivalent to an extra 230 SAT points (on a 1600-point scale), to 185 points for Hispanics, 200 points for athletes, and 160 points for children of alumni. The Asian disadvantage is comparable to a loss of 50 SAT points.” but it’s the opposite of the phony anti-black racism to which they pretended to admit.

  12. Who would have thought that Betsy DeVos had a sense of humor? Let’s hope that a similar letter of investigation goes to every single institution and department which confected a similar sackcloth-and-ashes confession of “institutional racism”.
    Unfortunately, these self-condemnations have already done their damage and served their real purpose. After all, with the suspect’s confession in hand, all the offices of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion will have reason to provide more and more of their essential services, and extend themselves into more and more of academic life. The empire-building coming in this area may dwarf (if it hasn’t already) that achieved by the acolytes of progressive Michurin-Lysenko Biology in its Soviet heyday of 1948-1952.

    1. I’d give it:

      90% chance this is a shot across the bow (i.e. no other letters forthcoming; this one is the message/deterrent to all Universities to think a bit more seriously about such statements)

      10% chance of similar letters being sent to some other traditionally liberal institutions

      0% chance her administration treating all institutions of higher learning equally.

    2. And just like that, universities discovered that they weren’t systemically racist after all.

      Perhaps this is the non-lethal, bureaucratic equivalent to the totalitarian ‘Shoot one, educate a hundred.’

  13. The DOE is saying to Princeton, “Put up or shut up.” If you can document actual instances of racism/discrimination, then do so; if not, then cut out the performative virtue signaling about how evil and racist you are.

    I think this is the right way to go about it, given that critical race theorists thrive on vague and unfalsifiable allegations of systemic racism, with a delightful side of, “Asking any questions about my experience is violence/white fragility/demanding free emotional labor from me.”

    1. ‘“Asking any questions about my experience is violence/white fragility/demanding free emotional labor from me.”’

      I guess silence is not violence in this particular case.

  14. This is all predictable.

    It does remind me of when I was talking to a Woke who insisted ALL white people are racist. The convo turned to Jeremy Corbyn, and he got really mad that Corbyn was being accused of racism and antisemitism.

    I pointed out that Corbyn is racist by their own logic, but he got really mad, and unconvincingly tried to jargon his way out his own own logic maze.

    Turns out his definition of “racist” was entirely bogus, and just a label to throw around to signal to his peer group, or to throw at people he didn’t like.

    1. That’s hilarious.

      “I pointed out that Corbyn is racist by their own logic, but he got really mad…”

      No doubt that’s because logic is a tool of the cis-heteronormative white male patriarchal hegemony. /s

  15. All the famous people that did their racial self-flagellation on social media in the last 2 years should produce the evidence, as well. To say “I’m racist” is not nearly enough.

  16. See…. now THIS is why I don’t practice law anymore. Some poor attorney bastard is going to have to put that square peg in the round hole. Like…. FORCE it in…somehow!

    The discovery demand (gvt’s letter) is verging on “discovery abuse” whereby the demanding party asks for such broad and voluminous evidence it is vexatious in itself – sort of the point. Princeton can dispute a demand like that but it ain’t easy. And considering the Uni probably outsources this kind of task to a law firm it is going to cost them a LOT of mullah.

    They’re really whipping Princeton for its woke-gasm here.

    I don’t want to talk too soon – maybe Princeton University’s last decade HAS been one big white supremacy long con for a white ethnostate…. but I doubt it.

    How can parody exist anymore when THIS is reality?

    D.A., J.D., NYC

  17. It seems President Eisgruber is more competent now as a self-flagellating penitent, than as a lawyer–he’s actually gotten his academic reputation as a legal scholar trained at Princeton and Oxford. This is highly ironic, in fact almost raucously laughable.

    At least it wasn’t a scientist or mathematician or non-postmodern historian who innocently did the self-flagellation required by the requirement to be woke-sympathetic.

    We’ll see whether Mr. Legal Scholar can slither out of the jam into which he’s landed his institution.

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