FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2020
The Trump bunch tackles Princeton: In last Saturday's print editions, the Washington Post ran a fascinating report about the twin problems now facing Princeton.
Our jaundiced reading of the Post's report went exactly like this:
On the one hand, you had the transparent bad faith of the Trump administration, which had launched a heartfelt probe into Princeton's "systemic racism."
On the other hand, you had the public confessions of the university itself. Specifically, you had recent statements by Princeton's president, Christopher Eisgruber, who was apologizing for such ingrained behavior on the part of his university.
Where did the Trump Bunch get the idea that Princeton is steeped in systemic racism? They'd heard it from Princeton itself!
Is Princeton sunk in systemic racism? We were struck by the "cultural revolution" feel of Eisgruber's scripted remarks, and by the very limited scope of his proposed solutions. In our view, such performative conduct will rarely be instructive or helpful, but it seems especially out of place on a major college campus.
At any rate, once Eisgruber issued his scripted confession, the Trump Bunch launched their bad-faith federal probe. Or at least, that's how the whole thing sounded to us as we read the Post's report.
Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has offered a fascinating appraisal of this contretemps. We don't necessarily agree with every word Friedersdorf has written, but we'll let his well-researched essay substitute for anything we could have presented.
We especially recommend Randall Kennedy's assessment of the alleged systemic racism at Princeton along with the alleged "strategic hyperbole" with which it's being described. In part, that section reads like this:
FRIEDERSDORF (9/25/20): An allegation of systemic racism “is a serious charge,” Kennedy insisted. “If the allegation is substantiated, it ought to occasion protest and rectification commensurate with the wrong,” but if flimsy or baseless, that should be stated too. Kennedy warned that “minority students who take such indictments at face value—unaware of strategic hyperbole—become overwhelmed by unrealistic fears of encountering racist assessments that will unfairly limit their possibilities.”
Kennedy aimed that criticism at Princeton in particular. He graduated from the institution in 1973, and noted in his article that “the exploitation and exclusion of African Americans is, indeed, deeply embedded in Princeton’s history.” As for its present, however, he dissented from this summer’s faculty letter, with its claims such as “anti-Black racism has a visible bearing upon Princeton’s campus makeup and its hiring practices.” If Princeton’s racism “was as conspicuous as alleged, one would expect the ultimatum’s authors to be able to dash off some vivid, revealing examples,” Kennedy argued. He went on to call the claim of anti-Black racial exclusion implausible given various facts: prominent Black intellectuals who have made Princeton their academic home, scores of Black scholars who hold or recently held positions of academic leadership, and an African American dean of admissions. What’s more, he added, Princeton has a number of distinguished Black trustees. “These people, all Princeton alumni, are alert and capable and in demand,” he argued. “They are by no means needy. They could associate themselves with any number of prestigious enterprises. They would surely decline to contribute to or be involved with the sort of institution that the ultimatum depicts.”
To what extent could Princeton improve its performance in this area? We have no first-hand knowledge or idea.
That said, after more than 22 years at this post, we think we've developed a bit of an ear for mandated speech, if and when such performative foofaw may appear. It seems to us that mandated speech will rarely be helpful in any real way, and that people should be especially disappointed when high academics bow to tribal demands for overwrought, frog-marched confession.
We groaned when we read the Post's report. To our ear, a transparently scripted confession seemed to have triggered a transparently disingenuous probe.
Mad magazine used to publish Spy vs. Spy. This had the feel of Faux vs. Faux. Is Princeton sunk in the culture its leader described?
We recommend Friedersdorf's musings.